Anybody who tries to tell me deserts don’t get cold is going to get a kick in the head. Now mind you, I know they can get cold, but generally, they warm up quickly. Well, not deserts in the winter time. It might take hours to reach a bearable temperature. Sunrise found Natalie and I freezing to death in Joshua Tree National Park. While we were not prepared to eat each other like the Donners or those poor saps in the Andes, it was damn cold. Try carrying a metal photography tripod without gloves during subfreezing windchills. We arrived early so we can have the place to ourselves and try to get some nice lighting for some pictures. Within minutes, we regretted not having enough winter gear to get us over the hump.
Despite the lack of seasonably appropriate planning, the place is stunning. Joshua Trees, named by early Mormons who thought the sky-reaching branches reminded them of Joshua, cover the landscape. (You probably figured the Joshua Tree had something to do with place. After all, it is the name of the park. Aww, nevermind. Sorry to insult you.) While some areas have Joshuas that are a bit scattered, there are areas were the trees cover the landscape like a forest. One can’t help but to think of dinosaurs as you drive the roads.
The birding was actually quite pleasant, especially as the temps warmed up a bit. Species that one would expect in the desert were certainly present. Phainopepla, not much different that black-painted Cardinals, were quite numerous. Pointblank views of a Ladder-backed Woodpecker were rewarding. The Loggerhead Shrikes always sat so cooperatively on the Joshua Tree tops, not much different a golfer would set up a ball on a tee.
Of course, a place like Joshua Tree is not all about the birds. It’s about the people, too. Take Johnny Lang, for example. No, not this one. Joshua Tree’s Johnny Lang is a character of different sorts. Some might consider him a hack. A fraud. A liar. Sure. They’re all right. After he had entered into a gold mining partnership at the Lost Horse Mine, his partners soon discovered that he was skimming the profits. Even after he was bought out, he still stuck around and still found ways to get himself into trouble. After all, trespassing in those days was a big deal, right?
January of 1925 saw the end of old Johnny. After tacking a note to the front door of his ramshackle cabin saying he was heading out for grub, the winter chill got the best of him. One of his former mining partners found him deader than a doornail on the very spot he curled up for the night. He was buried where he was found.
Local legends say that Lang had hidden much of the gold that he had stolen over the years. Attempts to find his stash have turned up nothing. If it actually exists, maybe someone will find it. Maybe someone will find his skull. That’s missing, too. It was apparently stolen during the second grave robbing episode.
After descending from the Park, we found ourselves gawking at the traffic jam of folks trying to get in. We really gained an appreciation for the solitude that we had during our chilly,…er, freezing sunrise.
After a quick lunch at Jack-in-the-Box (sure to be known later on in life as “cholesterol-in-the-blood) and a quick stop to secure colder weather gear, we headed off the Big Morongo Canyon Preserve to round out the days birding and hiking. Big Morongo is a big treasure. While not huge in size, the habitat variety is immense. Marsh, desert, woodland, rocky hillsides. Outside of frozen tundra (we left that at Joshua Tree), this place seemed to have it all. Where else can one see Virginia Rail, a Fox Sparrow and California Thrasher on a piece of property the size of a postage stamp? Yes folks, California Thrasher – life bird #664. We scored Western Scrub Jay and California Towhee for Natalie. All in all, it is an amazing piece of land.
Our stop for the night was Brawley. The beer scene there is not amazing. In fact, it blows. California is considered one of the leaders in the microbrewery/craft beer scene. During the 1970’s and 80’s, they set the trend. As Natalie and I were planning this trip, we were pretty sure good beer would readily available as this state really got the ball rolling. While we enjoyed a nice pizza, the best we could do was a Dos Equis. Sad. Very sad.