Friday, June 29, 2012

A Dangerous Crossing (Joshua Tree National Park)

“Sort-of-Sabbatical” Day Two, Monday June 4

Today I’m adding 100 ounces of water to the 100 I already have on board.  I’ll be riding 300 miles across the Sonoran and Mojave deserts, and, in my opinion, that’s not something that should be taken lightly.  This distance is a moderate touring day for me, and it’s not the heat that worries me (115 degrees just a few days before I left), or the desolation (plan gas stops carefully and don’t count on your cell phone, other people, or the likelihood of finding civilization at all for miles and miles), or even the lack of available water in the extreme heat, but the combination of all three.  Just a few unpredictable seemingly trivial events can conspire to put you into serious trouble quicker than you’d ever guess.  Like not bringing your minimum “It’s a Desert, Bring Water, Stupid” water bottle when you’re just picking your bike up from the shop. And then, instead of riding the three miles home, allowing the bike to divert for a short trip over Gates Pass. The rear brakes lock up of their own free will, you have no water, no cell phone coverage, it’s 100+ degrees, your bike is stuck in the middle of the road on blind curve, there’s no one around, and just 15 miles from home you find yourself hitting the assist button on your newly acquired SPOT GPS Messenger emergency tracking device, hoping one of your friends will get the message and call AAA on your behalf.*  Or, not one, not two, but everyone’s motorcycle breaks down, and no one can go for water, and suddenly you’re all drinking out of a precious muddy puddle in southern UT in August, hiking miles back and forth between this bike and that, frantically trying to get even one of them operational.**

So, yes, I’m a bit on edge for this portion of the journey.  Nevertheless, my bike runs happily, I've stopped checking my luggage in my mirrors every three miles, I do an outstanding job of hydrating (read: I’m glad I’m stopping every 75 miles for gas, because I have to pee constantly), and temperatures only approach 100 degrees.  The Mojave has granted me a pass this time, and I arrive at my destination unimpeded: Joshua Tree National Park.

I haven’t quite reached my campsite, but I’m curious and ready for a leg stretcher, so I hike a few miles on the Skull Rock trail.

Joshua Tree NP Skull Rock (1)
Aptly named, no?

Joshua Tree NP Skull Rock

Lunch:  The kitchen sink calzones I made, froze, and kept frozen last night at my friends’ house, the recipe development of which was based on the few remaining scraps in my freezer: pizza dough, ground beef, and wilted greens, plus onions, garlic, sliced olives, grated cheese, and just enough bits of dried fruit to keep it interesting.  I wasn’t entirely convinced when I put them together, but after eating them, I’m a fan.

I arrive at Hidden Valley Campground to a miracle:  a campsite with shade!

Joshua Tree National Monument Hidden Valley Campground

I can’t stop taking pictures of these crazy trees.  They come right out of a Dr. Seuss book.

Joshua Tree National Monument Joshua Trees (1)

Joshua Tree National Monument Joshua Trees

I've still got some energy, so I explore a trail near my campsite.

Joshua Tree NP Hidden Valley Trail Panoramic Merge
Hidden Valley is, well, hidden.  Large rocky mounds form a full ring around the valley .  Turns out it was a great place to hide stolen livestock.

Now I’m waiting for sundown.  I want to photograph a Joshua tree at night, “light-painting” it the way I did the Ducati last year at Canyon de Chelly..  I suppose I shouldn’t be surprised.  With the 300 miles, the worrying desert conditions, two hikes… well, my eyelids are drooping already.  I set up the camera in an effort to keep myself awake, and then lie down "just for a minute." But I succumb, even as there’s still plenty of light left in the day.

I awaken in the middle of the night. The wind is blowing full tilt one minute, eerily silent the next. The full moon is a searchlight in my tent.  I squint, peer out groggily.  Lunar eclipse?  Dream?  Arise and photogra--- ***  I can hardly move, and fall back to sleep before I’ve finished rolling over.

*Happened to me about a week before leaving on this trip.
**Happened to someone I know last summer.
***I may have been dreaming, but there was indeed a partial lunar eclipse visible from the western US that night.

Thursday, June 7, 2012

"Sort-of-Sabbatical" Launch!

"Sort-of-Sabbatical" Day One, Sunday, June 3

Dust. Mop.  Clean out fridge.  Type out sheets of information.  Not exactly how I usually begin a motorcycle camping trip.  But since I'll have sub-letters arriving in my absence, it must be done. I'm guessing I get out of here around 3:00, if I'm lucky.  Which is exactly why I've only planned to ride 100 miles today - a wholly unglamorous first leg from Tucson to a Phoenix suburb. At least it will be good for a test run the new packing set up (I've never carried so much!) and the heat.

Ready, set... Bucket List!
Included on board: What I hope will be a month's worth of my granola recipe, and two enormous calzones, constructed from odds and ends left in my freezer and then frozen.

Miraculously, at 3:05, I hit the starter button and the Ducati awakens.  I've never been so excited just to ride to Phoenix.  I am, actually, for a moment, almost overcome with emotion.  The day I've been wanting for years has arrived and it's almost too much to comprehend.  I'm on my way.

Dinner with good friends who will see me off across the desert in the morning.

Pasta Bowl - Liberty Market

Saturday, June 2, 2012

Another Occasional Other Matter from the Sky – Eclipse 2012

I am in yoga class and what began as a barely perceptible pull on my consciousness this morning is fast becoming as urgent as the need for air.  I am inexplicably swept away by the naive idea that somehow, witnessing the sun slowly being extinguished by the moon’s shadow will somehow shed light on those things that might be best extinguished from my own life.  But this magic spell, in which I have total confidence, won’t work unless I can view the eclipse in solitude.  The fact that this is a near logistical impossibility sends me into a panic as I lie, outwardly quiet, with mind whirling ever further from Nirvana, in shavasana, at the end of class.   All the obvious viewing places are just that. Obvious.  Gates Pass, Tumamoc Hill, Saguaro National Park West and the eclipse party at the Food Truck Roundup will be filled with the celebratory oohing and ahhing of the masses.  Reality forces me to relinquish the romantic ideas of riding my motorcycle out to the edge of the earth or hiking to the top a mountain, since I have no idea exactly what sort of darkness the setting of an eclipsed sun will bring.

The idea of it all ferments in my brain for much of the afternoon, as I consider and discard option after option.  What I need is a topographic map and a chart indicating the position of the setting sun, along with a bit of luck.  Captain Google provides the first two items, and I make Brown Mountain my target.  I hope it’s enough off the beaten path, and hot enough out that most sane souls will not want make the physical effort of even this small climb, yet I know the trail to be short enough that impending dusk of any sort probably won’t  endanger my descent.

By the time I have a plan, there is barely enough time to enact it.  With great purpose I fly, acquiring the necessary solar viewing glasses, and tossing items in my Camelbak:  sunscreen (oh, the irony!), water, hat, granola bar (my snack of last resort), head lamp (just in case) and, as an afterthought, my camera and tripod, although I have no idea how to use the former in this unique situation, and the latter self-destructed into a number of tiny pieces in my top box on a ride a couple of months ago.   I’m off, dodging trains and putting the Corolla through its paces up and over Gates pass, wincing as I am reminded it’s no Ducati.

Remarkably, I beat the traffic over the pass, and find myself at my vantage point utterly alone.  I can’t believe no one else thought of this.  I’m pleased to be ahead of schedule, because it allows me time to sort through the puzzle of the tripod pieces, figure out that I can hold the solar viewing glasses in front of my camera lens, and take a stab at a few camera settings before the cosmic event sets forth.

I wait.  The sun hovers in the sky, searingly unrepentant.  The hot breeze does not refresh.  I fidget.  Two bees orbit each other like noisy sub-atomic particles.  I look at my watch.  In the distance I hear a motorcycle accelerating through the turns of McCain Loop Road, and in a mix of fellowship and covetous desire, I sigh.

My mind knows it’s simply a specific arrangement of planetary bodies, and, according to sock drawer statistics, probably no more unlikely than any other.   Nevertheless, I can not seem to let go of my pagan expectations.

Eclipse from Brown Mountain 1

I want to reflect on life, but I’m struggling with my camera instead.  It’s difficult to make the necessary fine adjustments with the tripod with one hand, while holding the solar glasses in front of the lens with the other.  The manual focus won’t hold my selection, so my photos keep coming out blurry, and I’m fighting with the malfunctioning jog dial, which I can not bring myself to pay to have repaired again, since the hate side of my camera love-hate relationship is quickly, well, eclipsing the love side.   The thin film of plastic that is the solar viewing glasses creates an unwelcome sense of remove, as if I was watching the entire event on television.  Curiosity is a powerful phenomenon, and as if to prove the point, I steal an unprotected glimpse.   My light sensitive eyes can only bear the blaze for a fraction of a second, not even long enough to register what is happening.  Instead, the crescent sun is recorded only as a ghost image burned upon my retina.   Surprisingly, without the filter, and without foolish furtive glances directly at the fireball itself, the only clue of the unusual event at all is the subtle coolness of a cloud passing over the sun.  Except, of course, there are no clouds. 

Eclipse from Brown Mountain 3

As my camera battery runs down, I feel wholly unenlightened. I trudge down the hill and miss my chance at perhaps the best shot of all – the eclipsed sun against the backdrop of the mountainous horizon.  I try to find a lesson, an allegory, in the moment.  There are so many to choose from. Light follows darkness.  Perhaps change needn’t be so scary.  But my heart will have none of it.  There are no answers, there is no clarity, and I feel robbed of my epiphany. I try to block out the reality I’ve known all along: life is not altered by the path of the moon, the power for change lies solely within myself.

And if I step on it, I can get to the Food Truck Roundup before it disbands.