I was frozen in my tent; the cold settling in the final stages of paralysis. We couldn’t reach the car, and not just because there were wolves right outside our tents, but because the cold froze the lock shut, and killed the engine. In that moment, with the snow gently accruing on my chest, I took time to reflect on things. Travel and exploration is not just cultural participation and sightseeing; it is a survival trip. Whether you are in Joshua Tree, Barcelona, or five towns over, you are in a world that is not your own. Sometimes the repercussions of ill-planning can be as simple as a stolen or misplaced bag—maybe a bad dinner experience—but sometimes it’s the force of nature herself.
My friends and I wanted to escape the bleak uptight maw of Los Angeles—maybe get some serious hiking and camping done in one of the state parks out east—enjoy the crisp air, and gaze out into that beautiful starry tapestry. We wanted to see the sun spectacularly rise over the desert, and maybe catch a few meteorites hurtling across the sky. Our trip would be fun, but simple. So we pulled into Twentyone Palms for breakfast around 6am before heading out to Joshua Tree National Park. Home cooked biscuits and gravy would hold us over until the late afternoon, but we were planning on coming back into town for dinner after setting up camp.
The first time entering Joshua Tree is a bit overwhelming. First the temperature changes; hot arid sun, but a cold breeze. Then you see all the fields of tall, spiky Joshua trees curling up out of the dust like steel wires. Some of them even resemble the vague figure of a dancer or a gymnast. Every rock pile offers a new climbing opportunity. Take it! There are giant limestone slabs churned out of the topsoil—steep menacing cliffs far too tempting to ignore. Soft white boulders flush over the landscape like waves, and that sharp, dry Sierra wind ever present. Then when you reach the highest vantage, looking out over places like Palm Springs, Therma, Cathedral City, and the Salton Sea, you will wish you could stay there forever.
But the weather on the mountain where we were camping on had abruptly changed. They predicted snow, gale-force winds, and freezing temperatures. There was no time to set up camp and head back into town, which meant our dinner would have to consist of leftover snacks; wheat bits, saltines, goldfish, and half a tube of Pringles. To get to the mountain, we had to pilot our Sedan across 3 miles of desert floor with no paved roads or gravel top, bouncing up and down like an iron tumbleweed. We carefully steered the Sedan over several boulders, and within an hour, we made it to the campsite. The person we rented from explained that we were sharing the space with a giant water tank that belonged to the city.
Then suddenly, a terrible scraping howl! “What is that horrible sound?” my friend asked, covering her ears. A giant wad of corrugated tin had been rolling down the mountains; debris from the water tank that was ripped off by that hostile wind. It slid directly into the outhouse—a neatly furnished stall that lacked water, paper, and soap. We were the only ones up there, and it felt apocalyptic.
Around 7pm, we were done pitching tents, but since we finished all our snacks, we desperately needed food. The wind was so strong, rocks had to be placed on the tent poles to keep them in. Temperatures dropped to around 30 degrees by 8pm, and we could see snow clouds encroaching on what was left of the night sky. I was inadequately prepared for the weather—snow boots, three layers of pants, a polar-fleece winter jacket, an insulated sleeping bag, and a Land’s End parka was not enough to stave off the cold. After a while, I couldn’t feel my feet; I could barely move my arms, my teeth kept chattering, and I felt my sciatic nerve vibrating on fatal.
The storm finally hit. 50 Mph gusts came barreling down the mountain—a sort of snowy pyroclastic flow. The wind got right under our tent hoods, and tore the pegs right out of the ground. We were now staring directly up at the sky with nothing between us and the storm clouds but a thin net. Then it began to snow. The car was our closest refuge. First we tried remote ignition, but the engine wouldn’t turn over, and then when we tried to manually open the car, the locks were frozen closed. “The temperature on the outhouse says it’s twenty degrees,” my friend noted through chattering teeth. At around 10pm, our phones died, and we had no choice but to return to our roofless tents.
I tried going to sleep, but I was shaking too violently. After a certain hour, my entire body felt numb, and I honestly believed I would have to be helicoptered to the E.R. Panic and anxiety came quick; I could feel the cold pinching my bronchi. These were surely the early signs of hypothermia, or maybe I would suffer a pulmonary hemorrhage from inhaling sub-zero air too quickly.
The wolves came in the early morning around 3 or 4am. None of us were asleep. We bit down hard on our teeth so as not to arouse their suspicion as they sniffed around for food—probably catching a whiff of our leftover snacks. Watching those lanky, crooked shadows project across our tents was mighty horrifying, but none of us breathed a single word. The alpha howled off in the distance, and the wolves finally left our camp. Snow was now accumulating in our tents. Probably around two inches worth of snow, but thankfully we were spared from the wind.
After the storm blew over, things calmed down a bit. It was five in the morning, and I could see the moon hanging over me. It had been 18 straight hours since I last ate, and my stomach finally churned me out of my sleeping bag. One of my friends was already up making coffee, and trying to warm up the dog. She poured me a cup of coffee and said, “I never heard teeth chattering as loud as yours, and I hope to never hear it again” I agreed. As the horizon began to brighten with the morning sun, we both leaned back in our blankets, and started to laugh at the whole situation.
Indeed… to see the milky way—that brilliant canvas of shimmering stars, inky dust clouds, and sparkling comets that looked like an enormous glistening paint stroke—almost made me cry. And then the sun carefully peaked out over the mountain range, pouring that beautiful orange glow into the valley. Was it worth the savage weather and hungry wolves, or all the unfortunate events that came from our shortsightedness? We both smiled at each other because we knew it was well worth every hassle. The sun that morning was the most beautiful I had ever seen.
As a traveler, you are inherently out of place—just staggering around trying to find your bearings, but this applies tenfold when you are stranded in the unforgiving realm of nature’s cold breadth. There are no luxuries out there—only what you prepare for in advance. I know this now, and while I only spent one night on that mountain, it was enough to make me consider our place among the natural order of things… and how feeble we really are. A friend of mine laughed at my story, and shared a phrase his grandfather used to tell him: “Mountain don’t care.” Indeed. Whether you’re freezing, crawling on a broken leg, scouring for food, or on the cusp of hypothermia… it means nothing because The Mountain will do what it’s always done since the beginning of time. It’s not there to accommodate, or pity your ill-preparedness. Harsh but important words for any traveler.
Craving more on Joshua Tree? Be sure to check out A Day Trip Guide to Joshua Tree National Park!