What a Month: From the Appalachian Trail to the Joshua Tree Desert
On May 24, I was marching northbound on the Appalachian Trail, not suspecting I was about to be offered a great job at Joshua Tree National Park. As soon as I got the news, I knew I would be unable to complete my planned thru-hike. Much as I wanted to stay on the trail, this opportunity was too good to pass up. So, instead of walking all the way from Georgia to Maine in a single season, I figured I would continue hiking until the summer solstice. The remaining month of walking would get me to Harpers Ferry, West Virginia, just shy of the midpoint of the 2,185 mile Appalachian Trail. Harpers Ferry felt like a good, ceremonious ending place, and I liked the idea of doing half the AT, even if I couldn’t do the whole thing.
A week of continued hiking, though, changed my mind. Instead of being fully present on the trail, in the total immersion in nature that I had enjoyed so far, I found my thoughts drifting ahead and growing chaotic. I needed to find a place to live. I needed to figure out the logistics of moving my stuff from storage in a couple of different locations around the country. I realized that, for the first time in my NPS career, I’d be in a non-uniformed position, so I would need some new clothes. I’ll have to think about what to wear in the morning instead of just pulling on a clean gray shirt and green pants. I needed to change my car insurance and registration and get a new drivers license and update my address with High Country News and the Atlantic and were there any other magazine subscriptions I had on hold? How much was all this going to cost?
My busy brain abandoned the beautiful simplicity of trail life before my body did. After a week of that strange dichotomy, I decided the time had come for me to move on to the next thing. I abandoned my hike without fanfare, returning to New Jersey (where I’d left my car) by hitchhiking and taking a series of buses.
After spending some time with family, I loaded up the car and headed across the country, taking my time on the drive and visiting friends and some new-to-me national parks. I stopped at Cuyahoga Valley National Park in Ohio, Mammoth Cave National Park in Kentucky, Hot Springs National Park in Arkansas, Chickasaw National Recreation Area in Oklahoma, and Petrified Forest National Park and Walnut Canyon National Monument in Arizona.
And now I’ve been in California for just over a week. I spent seven nights with friends while I scouted the area and looked for a place to live. I took care of some hiring paperwork and started explorations of my new park and the surrounding towns. I started feeling restless, though, after a solid week of nights spent indoors. Last night, I fled the air-conditioned comfort of guest bedrooms provided by kind friends, and camped at Indian Cove.
It was this one night spent sleeping in my tiny, one-person backpacking tent that helped me most in reacquainting myself with the desert. I fell asleep with my tent door unzipped so I could gaze upward at the brilliance of the stars. I woke to the scent of creosote bush in the dry, dry air and the hum of insects beginning their daily rounds.
With 101 sites, Indian Cove is a big campground, but most of it is closed off at this time of year. Few people visit Joshua Tree in the summer months, when highs can top 100 degrees and overnight lows rarely dip below 70. I think there may have been two other campsites occupied last night, but I had no near neighbors. The solitude was just what I needed.
I feel more at home—more integrated into this new place, this stark new landscape—after a single night camping than a week spent indoors and driving around the area. A sense of belonging is, for me, intertwined with immersion in the natural landscape. I am making a pledge to help myself stay grounded by camping at least two nights a month.