“From here a run of two hours brought us to the head of the bay…then setting sail we were driven wildly up the fiord, as if the storm wind were saying “Go then, if you will, into my ice chamber; but you shall stay until I am ready to let you out.” All this time sleety rain was falling on the bay, and the snow on the mountains; but soon after we landed the sky began to open… The bergs were now crowded in a dense pack against the ice-wall, as if the storm had determined to make the glacier take back her crystal offspring and keep them at home.”
John Muir and his crew narrowly escaped death on a moment to moment basis, but at the end of the day, he would conclude that “it was inconceivable that nature could have anything finer to show us.. the treasures we had gained would enrich our lives forever”!
– John Muir Wilderness Essays
Johnson Valley: The Beauty of The Ugly
Joshua Tree National Park! This was to be the final stop on our whirlwind climbing tour of the southwest United States…only it was not be. The temps were low, but the stoke was high, we had just left Red Rocks Canyon in Nevada, and were in the middle of a five hour journey when word came in. J-Tree was closed!
We were tracking the situation for a couple weeks, it was the middle of the government shutdown, but National Parks were still open. Word was coming that J-Tree was fine, then that J-Tree was not fine, it was fine but the camping was closed, the camping was open, but the park was off-limits, mixed messages all over the place. The toilets were now overflowing, small pockets of looting were getting larger, and vandals began chopping down Joshua Trees (MOTHER F’ERS).
If you’ve never driven through the Mojave Desert, picture this. Basically just picture The Mojave Desert! Whatever it is that you’re thinking, it’s essentially that.
“The weird solitude, the great silence, the grim desolation, are the very things with which every desert wanderer eventually falls in love. You think that strange perhaps? Well, the beauty of the ugly was sometimes a paradox, but to-day people admit its truth; and the grandeur of the desolate is just paradoxical, yet the desert gives it proof.”
– John C. Van Dyke, The Desert, 1901
We were driving a mini-van through the desert, with no destination, hours from the nearest anything, and as John C. Van Dyke so eloquently wrote, ‘there is absolutely no cell service’. The Crew: Carrot, Gaia, Kaitlin, and T would not be demoralized, J-Tree was not going to happen, but we had a plan-b. Kaitlin realizing it was a 50/50 chance that we would get into the park pinned a few alternative spots as a worst-case scenario. We settled on a secluded destination a few miles off the road that was supposed to have some climbable rock in the infamous Johnson Valley.
Mountain Project describes the area as follows “This is not a destination area” and “The most accessible areas are pretty trashed with garbage and graffiti, but some quality rock exists”
In 1899 The Weekly Sun wrote about the area “That section seems to furnish a large majority of dead men for the county official”. And the moment you enter Johnson Valley, you get the eerie feeling that…the feeling that it’s best to keep your eerie feelings to yourself.
One thing that Johnson Valley has going for it despite giving off a The Hills Have Eyes vibe, there is primitive camping everywhere! It was getting late, we had been driving a long time, we were 45 miles from our dream destination, a little despondent, driving a mini-van off road through an area historically known as “a good place to die”. We were looking for a rock with no name, on an unmarked dune trail, with no cell service, and no map.
But we FOUND it. “It” would be known as Trash Island1. A conglomerate of rocks covered in graffiti, and surrounded by trash. The shotgun shells were a little discouraging, but the graffiti swastikas were also discouraging. There was garbage everywhere. We found tires, burnt mattresses, used toilet paper just blowing in the wind, parts of cars, condoms, and plastic bottles, I was pretty sure we were getting murdered, but, after all you can’t spell adventure without RISK!
My greatest solace came from the fact that it was probably too cold for any would be stalkers to want to play The Most Dangerous Game! Being a little on the cautious side, we all decided to sleep in the van that evening. This way we could make a quick get-away just in case Jupiter’s Clan decided to brave the dropping desert temps, and try to wear our skin.
Despite our quarters being cramped, and our bladders being full (I earned the nickname “Bottle” that evening, for reasons we do not need to talk about) we managed to survive the night. As the sun came up we celebrated life, and were able to laugh off our delusions of terror. Fully woke on Trash Island, basically the middle of the middle of nowhere, somehow we were able to locate a set of bolts, it felt like finding a needle in a needle stack.
Harnessed up, we managed to turn this sketchy set of bolts into four routes, and Trash Island became Send City (It’s still Trash Island)!
We were beginning to feel comfortable in our new surroundings, when someone fired a flare high above our camp, that was our sign to leave, the sand people have located us, and we weren’t about to stick around and find out if they were allies or enemies. They were definitely enemies and probably cannibals!
We packed up camp and blasted out of there at a rate of 10 miles per hour, that’s about as fast as the mini-van could handle voyaging through the dunes.
A ten hour round trip, to the most sketchy spot I have ever seen, 45 miles shy of our ultimate destination, we climbed a total of four routes surrounded by a mix of trash and sand…somehow this chance happening, in this chance spot would become one of the true highlights of our entire trip.
The beauty of the ugly, a paradox indeed!
- John Muir would spend the final years of his life just a few miles from Trash Island.