After decades of development, it's tough for any national park in the U.S. to really be wild. All the rock formations and mountains and lowlands have cute names and parking lots nearby. Most of the roads have been paved. And campground facilities including firepits, bathrooms and sometimes even showers have been installed with nearby picnic areas accessible regardless of how many wheels drive your car.
I've spent a lot of time in Joshua Tree National Park over the last month, but some of my most gratifying experiences were those that were the most remote. While at first I was frustrated by the lack of trailhead signs, trail markers and trail maps in JTNP, I've managed to navigate my way around largely without them, and now don't feel as dependent on them as I once was. As I proceed, I look for bigger challenges. More esoteric sightseeing. From the National Park Service I have moved on to the Bureau of Land Management and, today, to the Wildlands Conservancy. The properties they oversee aren't complete wilderness - like some of the off-limits areas of Joshua Tree -but it took some digging to find out about the sites, much less any guidance as to what I'd find once I got there.
When I arrived at Mission Creek Preserve, late from putting air in my tires which took longer than it should have, I started packing my water, phone and camera and switching from flip flops to sneakers as a ranger arrived. He got out of his truck, unlocked the gate, and before getting back into the driver's seat, took a look at me from behind his sunglasses. "Everything OK?" he asked.
"Yep, just got here! Going to take a walk..." I told him.
He looked suspicious. "OK...."
He'd driven through and re-locked the gate by the time I set out, heading for the backcountry board which usually tells you where you're going. "Want a ride?" the ranger offered.
I knew the Stone House was 1.6 miles away and thought I could save some time by hitching a ride up there and then walking back, so I accepted and hopped into the front seat once he'd cleared it of commercial paper towels and toilet tissue. The bathrooms maintained by the Wildlands are a lot nicer than those by the NPS. They have flushing toilets.
On our rough drive uphill, I asked the ranger, who introduced himself as Robert, "Don't many people come out here?" I'd asked the same question at Oasis Date Gardens when its workers were shocked that I wanted a tour.
"Oh yeah, some. I usually see one car..." Robert then explained that their other property - Whitewater - was more popular and had more to do, knowledge he'd acquired not only by working there, but by actually living there as well.
Along the way to the Stone House at the top of the hill, Robert pointed out a row of smaller stone houses and a painted-blue concrete pool, where, he explained, "Legend has it that Elvis and Frank Sinatra and all those Hollywood folks used to come out here and party." I remembered that another "Hollywood celebrity" had booked the entire Panamint Springs Resort in Death Valley the week after I departed.
Robert paused at a tortoise burrow along the side of the road. "See the hole?" I pretended I did but all I saw was what looked like a dried-up bush, a common roadside sight in the desert.
When Robert dropped me off at the top of the hill, he looked like he didn't want to leave me there. I was ready for some solitude and started walking around and taking pictures, leaving him with his truck at the summit while I started my easy walk down. When he passed me going back down the winding dirt road - hardly a trail but extremely walkable - he paused, gave me a thumbs up that looked like a question, and I waved and gave him a thumbs up back. I half expected to see him waiting for me back at the gate where we first met, but when I returned to my car, I was alone, pleased with the wilderness, and ready for more hiking.
A more experienced, energetic hiker could have walked to Whitewater from Mission Creek, but I chose to drive back down 62 to 10W, past the Whitewater Rock & Supply Company, and up a surprisingly paved road five miles to the preserve. This is an interesting area because the Conservancy is trying to bring it back to wilderness, having already demolished several "neglected" homes. You can see some stone foundations behind private fencing along the right side of the road as you approach the "official" entrance, which consists of a couple nice buildings (including a former trout farm?) and a ranger station. It doesn't look much like wildlands in Whitewater, with power lines and poles stretching out as far as the eye can see. But it sure is nice.
Like Mission Creek, Whitewater largely consists of dried up waterways, but whereas Mission Creek is running barely a trickle, Whitewater has a dry river that's still running as a pretty active, decent stream. "Crossing the river" - something you have to do to follow the stone-lined trail - consists of rock-hopping and walking across a tiny wood-slat footbridge.
I intended to set out on an easy three-mile loop trail, but true to form, I couldn't figure out exactly where it started or how far it went. I followed the famous Pacific Crest Trail for a while, as well as the California Riding and Hiking Trail, but the 10 o'clock hour brought a hot, bright sun blazing above, and with a depleted water supply and fatigued legs from a sandy scramble up a ridge, I turned back. For once, I didn't flay myself for it. I've proven myself enough to myself on this trip to give myself a break.
When I returned to the trailhead - and a rock inscribed with the distance to Canada and Mexico from there - I was greeted by two families splashing around in a kind of concrete pond, fed waterfall-style by runoff from a tributary of the river-turned-stream.
"It's very clean, all very natural," assured one mother, running one hand along the water's surface while the other hand adjusted her blue umbrella for shade.
Four or five kids had jumped into the water with their bathing suits, t-shirts or denim shorts, whatever they were already wearing. Another mother kept calling her boys back to slather more white lotion on their backs, not keeping them long enough to actually rub it in.
The water was knee-deep for them, though they sat, splashed, swam and submerged themselves in it. I poked a finger in, then a hand, marvelling at how cold it was. The boy with the black basketball shorts said to me, "It's not cold once you get in!" - the same line I'd often used on Edith, Michelle, and a number of strangers in the oceans and pools that I've visited.
I kicked off my sneakers and peeled off my sandy socks which had been worn on too many hikes already, pushed my cropped yoga pants up to my thighs, and sat on a rock, dangling my burned ankles in. It was numbingly cold, a real novelty for the desert, especially when chlorinated poolwater is as warm as bathwater. I stood up and scraped a toe against the slippery concrete bottom. Calf-deep and not nearly submerged enough, I crouched to let the water's surface reach my knees.
The sunblock mom, Jo Jo, kept beckoning me to come join her at the other end, but I was afraid she might try to slather me up too so I politely declined. With a shiver, I tiptoed out and dried my feet on the grass - grass! - collecting my half-empty water bottle and sneakers. I tried returning to my car barefoot but gave in on the dry, woodchip mulch and reapplied my dirty socks before hopping back to the driver's side where my flip flops waited for me.
What makes a place wild? If it is to be untouched by man, then can man bring an inhabited place back into the wild? With a place like Whitewater, whose human influence is so wonderful to enjoy, why would you want to?