Seven AM in Joshua Tree, CA: at the Valero an old guy is buying lottery tickets, his combed-back hair arranged perfectly by the tines of a comb. On the face of his wristwatch is a gold eagle. There’s an eagle carved into the back of his belt. He waits patiently, white sneakers, wrangler jeans, polo shirt, while the Indian cashier counts out his tickets. Four number 20s, two 18s, a four, an 11.
Behind him is a young construction worker with a piercing in his ear the TSA would never let past. He buys breakfast: a lemon fruit pie and a small cup of coffee. He hums the tune playing on the store’s speakers: “I don’t want to do anything today / I just wanna stay in bed…”
I’m just here to gas up and put air in my tires. The machine requires four quarters. I have three. I motion to the cashier – a quarter for my dimes and nickel. “I have to wait for the drawer to open,” he says. Lottery tickets don’t open the drawer.
Soon I’ll be in the park, which I haven’t seen since 2007. I used to spend a month or more at a time here, sleeping in the truck. I had no Facebook then. No iPhone. No Macbook. No camera. No organic food. No RV. Just a stronger desire to climb than work. I took my time with breakfast and measured myself in the currency of experience rather than money.
The drive in is more beautiful than any of my previous visits. Nearly 80 degrees, a screaming blue sky. A desert breeze stirs the Palo Verde and Smoketree and I park the RV, wander down barely familiar trails. It’s too soon after hip surgery, and I won’t be climbing anything. But I’m drawn to the places I’ve been and the climbs I’ve done. I wonder what I’ll see of my old self in those dry washes and arching cracks.
Roan Way, Bird on a Wire, Loose Lady, the Aguille de Josh, which I scramble up despite myself. I stop at Illusion Dweller, which I climbed in 2006, to watch a girl in her 20s pull calmly through the crux. Her boyfriend hollers something up to her. “I know how to climb,” she fires back. “That’s generic advice.” Soon she’s off belay and I’m off into the desert again, past Boulders the size of houses, flowing like water until I’m lost in the pleasure of emptiness. I am respectful of the delicate agreement between sticky rubber and coarse granite as I pick my way up gentle domes. I’m mindful of my hip. But it’s all working, as it used to.
I would say I’m grateful, but the Gratitude Mafia has stolen that word and #beatittodeath. Gratitude isn’t quite right anyway. I feel something akin to homesickness, but without the longing. I see the beauty of who I was, of the people I knew years ago. I see the beauty of our midnight drives and desert walks, of bad harmonica soliloquies, shared tailgate meals and New Year’s eves spent nestled in down jackets around a mesquite fire, days of endless movement. Things we never thought twice about. They were just life, after all.
Today is just life. A different life in some ways, with a different body, different beauty and different worries. It seems important to reclaim a bit of who I was so long ago, and make it part of who I am now.
In a dry wash between Hidden and Lost Horse Valleys I stand atop a tiny dam. Someone had carved the words “AU 1932” into its wet cement way back in the day. A rancher, maybe, dreaming of a thriving desert ranch as he stacked rocks to catch a little water to stay alive for another season. No different, really, than I was a decade ago, moneyless and jobless but rich in dreams, dancing around the fire in Hidden Valley, climbing to the sky on my last dollars