OCTOBER 28, 2007 — When my friend Justin and I read about hiking to Aqua Peak in the Coxcomb Mountains, a remote location in the eastern wilderness of Joshua Tree National Park, we knew we wanted to go. Surrounded by barren desert, rugged mountains, and rocky canyons, it’s the hardest hike in my Joshua Tree hiking book. It’s isolated. When you’re out there, it’s just you, vicious catsclaw plants, a few desert bighorn sheep, and the stars in the night sky.
But I have no idea where it is. We never found it.
I have fond memories of my first overnight backcountry camping trip, which was also in Joshua Tree. The biggest challenge hiking the park is its complete lack of water sources. Terrified we would run out of water, my then-girlfriend and I set out on a three-day hike carrying almost six gallons of water between us. We were sure we had enough water, but it turned out we weren’t so sure we had enough (or any) matches. With no other hikers for miles, we marveled at how forgetting such a seemingly incidental object takes on such huge importance. During the first night, we ate a splendid cold feast of beef jerky, granola bars, and Craisins for dinner. Without matches, we couldn’t cook our freeze-dried food, but my girlfriend’s bright personality had a way of making our mistakes seem unimportant. After a cold, windy night in the desert, we awoke without edible food remaining, hiked out of the backcountry early, and enjoyed milkshakes at the Country Kitchen diner on the Twentynine Palms Highway. Milkshakes had never tasted so good.
Since that trip, I have never gone on a hike without waterproof matches packed in my first aid kit. For this trip, I triple-checked that I packed matches, a compass, maps, food, water, and everything else the four of us would need, and we drove toward Joshua Tree. Of course, all of this preparation didn’t make any difference when my car’s right-rear tire blew out during the drive. As Justin and I stubbornly insisted that we could change the tire ourselves, our friends Laura and Krista stubbornly insisted upon flagging down someone to help. In the end, we were all correct: Justin and I easily finished the job, but only after a helpful tow truck driver explained why our jack kept slipping out from under the car (in short, don’t try changing a tire on a hill). Then, we quickly purchased new treads, but I was still disappointed to discover that my ready-for-all-emergencies first aid kid couldn’t handle every contingency. I may be able to fit matches and water-purification tablets into the kit, but I’ll never squeeze a knowledgeable tow truck driver in there.
Because the eastern end of the park has no backcountry board (where hikers would normally log their entrance and exit from the park), we stopped at the ranger station in Twentynine Palms to register. When we told the ranger where we planned to go, she looked at us incredulously and asked one question, “Why?” Before, we could answer, she answered her own question: “It’s rugged and barren. But I guess some people want that.” When we asked questions about parking and our route, she only responded, “Oh, we’ve never really been out there, but when you come back, let us know how it is.”
We jumped into the car and drove on the highway toward, well, nothing. Our map told us to drive 39 miles east, but when my car’s odometer hit 39 miles, we had arrived at, well, nothing. Mile 39 looked the same as mile 29 which looked the same as mile 19. I pulled the car to the side of the road onto some desert sand, and Laura and Krista looked at us like we had gone insane.
“This is it!” I exclaimed, trying to feign confidence, as I nervously gazed off into the sterile desert and craggy mountains. We got out of the car, spent some time taking compass bearings using the mountain peaks, and set off into the desert. Despite the incomprehensibly sparse directions provided in On Foot in Joshua Tree, we managed to find our way into the mountains and began climbing through a boulder-filled canyon. The book told us that the most dangerous threat in Joshua Tree was not scorpions, rattle snakes, or tarantulas, but vicious desert plants such as the catsclaw, yucca tree, and cholla. We laughed about this in the car, but we weren’t laughing quite as much after repeated attacks by ferocious catsclaws that seemed to come to life, grabbing our skin and clothes as we passed.
After we couldn’t take any more catsclaw assaults, we set up camp halfway through the canyon, and thanks to the matches, made some tasty chicken and mashed potatoes. We spent the night lying on the desert sand, gazing at the stars, and listening to the wind whistle through the canyon. As the gusts stroked the side of our tent, we tried to scare each other by telling stories of serial killers and Silence of the Lambs. I do a pretty good Hannibal Lecter impression. Yes, it’s even creepier in person than it reads in print.
On the second day, we continued toward Aqua Peak — or at least we tried to continue in that direction. Compass navigation in the Coxcombs is difficult because every ridge and peak looks identical, and it’s challenging trying to match real-life peaks to those on a topographical map. We hiked up the canyon, and for awhile, we followed a wash that made getting lost impossible. Eventually, we arrived on a rugged plain overlooking a huge basin that we believe was the Coxcomb Mountains Inner Basin (though the difficult navigation made us unsure). We gazed out across the stunning landscape, and Justin and I did some boulder scrambling up a steep canyon to get a better view.
We were unable to identify Aqua Peak, but by then, finding it didn’t seem as important.
This kind of trip has a way of erasing the minutiae of life. By the end, we weren’t as worried about finding Aqua Peak, or changing a blown-out tire, or going back to work when the weekend ended.
Under the clear desert sky with only rugged terrain for miles, there’s not much to worry about. You make sure you have enough water, enough food, and matches.
Then, you relax and gaze at the Milky Way. It’s that simple.