As a kid from Milwaukee, which is about 2,000 miles from Joshua Tree, I first heard of the park when U2's 1987 Joshua Tree record came out. I actually didn't even realize it was anything but an album title for a few years after that (naive, yes, but whatever).
After moving to California, I heard from many people about how remarkably beautiful it is there, and how great of a getaway from LA it is. I have a thing about deserts, though. It came from flying over Las Vegas. When you stare down at the desert on the way into that city, there is a tiny ribbon of a road that strings through the expanse of sandy nothingness that is the desert between here and Vegas. Only from a plane is it evident that the road is the only thread of civilization in the middle of no where. If a car were to break down out there, there is nothing and no one to go to or help besides other cars on that same road. To me that feels intensely claustrophobic and kind of makes me never want to drive out into the desert again.
However, I saw posts and pictures from a few friends about their New Year's camp in Joshua Tree, and it looked amazing. Being from the midwest, where most people would never think of camping in the winter, the thought of starting the first moments of a new year under the stars in the desert sounded too amazing to pass up. I had too many New Year's experiences drunk and around drunks and was longing for a quiet, beautiful entry into another year. I looked up the weather, and the average high in January is 67, average low is 35. For some reason, my brain only took in the first number in that equation and completely glossed over the fact that we could be sleeping outside in literally freezing temperatures. I booked the site about 2 months in advance. The fact that a campsite was open at that short of notice, should have been a bit of a tip off that this wasn't a casual camper excursion.
On December 30th, we drove to Joshua Tree after work, getting there after dark. The site was a little hard to find with no light, but we managed to find our little nook in the park. Even with a winter coat, scarf, gloves and hat, it was ridiculously cold to be hanging out (and sleeping) outside. We bent a good half dozen spikes trying to drive them into rocky or frozen ground, and after 40 minutes of struggling, breathing hot air into our hands to coerce them into functioning and breaking tent poles that had gotten too rigid and inflexible in the cold... we had our home for the night set up (thankfully with extra blankets inside). We got a fire going and had the amazing sensation of the front of our bodies cooking by the fire while the backs were slowly losing feeling from the cold. We got out some snacks and had the most amazing s'mores of my life. I don't even usually like s'mores, but the gooey hot chocolate and (vegan) marshmallows couldn't be any sweeter than they were in the desert in the freezing cold in the dark of the night.
The site and landscape were barren except for the signature spiky plant life, all of which was covered in a thin layer of white frost. We were drinking Bullet Bourbon straight from the bottle (so much for sobriety)- the old hobo stereotype about it keeping a man warm is 100% true. It worked like a charm. While we were sitting by the fire and nearly regretting our decision to be there, the lighting on the scene around us started to change. It started so subtly that I didn't realize it was happening. All of a sudden I just started to be able to see things that I hadn't noticed before. I almost thought it was the bourbon kicking in, but plants were emerging from the shadows and the frost tips on desert grass started to glow. Everything around us started to get a tinge of white light on it. As the effect increased and things grew brighter, my bourbon brain realized a light was rising and shining on everything, there was a source to this magic effect that had been slowly illuminating the world around us. I turned and stood and saw where it was coming from. There was the largest moon that I have ever seen in my life coming up over the desert hills. It seemed to take up no less than half of the visible space of the horizon. I have never seen anything so grand and magical in my life (maybe until I saw 2 whales breach at once, but that's another post). Mike stood next to me and we watched the largest glowing orb of a moon, the biggest of which I am convinced I will ever see in my life, rise up and reveal itself from behind the hills. It shone so brightly, it looked like daylight sun was hitting everything around us, only instead of the warm light that occurs in midday, it was an etherial cool white glow that didn't entirely mask all of the darkness but made it where everything was still visible. Standing there a little tipsy in the middle of the desert on the 2nd to last night of the year with a runny frozen nose and extremities longing for blood to come out and visit them, I knew that I was in one of the most memorable moments of my life. I felt connected to things that dwarf my existence. I don't know if you can ever recreate this experience, but I highly recommend trying.
Once the moonrise was over and we were back to trying to toast ourselves by the fire, we stayed up awhile drinking and talking before turning in. The air was crisp and clean and I slept like a bourbon soaked rock. We woke up to a thick layer of frost over the tent and covering the ground around us. I peeled off mittens long enough to splash my face with ice water and we went off for a hike. It was still probably only 50 degrees or so, but walking made us warmer. It was a beautiful hike, and at the end of it, I had the sinking realization/reminder that one can absolutely get sunburned on a freezing cold day. The photos of me from post-hike look like a lobster with a blonde wig.
I brought marinated seitan and veg and we had the most delicious fajitas imaginable over a campfire (most of the best meals of my life have been cooked over a campfire). At the end of the afternoon, we talked about the possibility of staying for New Year's Eve night. We weighed our desire to be in the desert at midnight with the thought of bathing for the day being splashing up with some ice water from the nearby sink and then later trying to stay warm all night. I wasn't up for more bourbon and I felt that after that first night with the enchanted moonrise, we got the full experience that I was hoping for (and much more). We decided to pack up and head back to L.A. for New Years Eve. We went back to my place and made hot food in a warm apartment over a gas flame stove. I don't remember what we even made, but I do remember that we put on formal party clothes and made fancy mixology cocktails and had a fantastic New Year.
I haven't been back to Joshua Tree since, but now I know that magic lives there. Like most of my CA bucket list, I had an amazing time and would absolutely go back. I do have a bit of reservations though that it can't possibly be as amazing when returning as it is to see it for the first time. Maybe one of these days I'll report back about that.