I haven't spent any real time in Joshua Tree in almost two years, since I spent a month there. I've been eager to go back.
In Summer of 2009, I spent a week exploring Joshua Tree National Park, and the rest of the month hiking the rest of its trails accessible without passing through the fee area kiosk. I saw a lot, but - given limited time in town and hot summer weather - I had a lot more to see.
Park rangers give tours of historic Keys Ranch in Joshua Tree only until May, so this was probably my last chance to see it. I was driving in from LA that morning, and, making good time, arrived early enough to grab some lunch, hit the restroom, and get a map at the Visitor's Center.
But what seems like it would take five minutes to drive to in and around Joshua Tree takes more like a half hour, so by the time I was forking over my $15 fee at the park entrance, I realized I was already running late, and had to hustle.
I careened down the park's winding roads. I turned off onto a dirt road, following the signs for Ranch Tours, and rumbled along at an inadvisable speed not only for the road conditions, but for the tin can that I call my car.
Surprisingly not getting lost, I arrived at the ranch gate at precisely 1 p.m. only to find that all of the other cars had already driven through the gate to the driveway on the other side, the ranger had re-locked the gate, and their procession to the ranch house had just begun.
I didn't honk my horn. I didn't jump out and up and down or scream and yell.
I simply parked, crammed my feet into a pair of sneakers, strapped a pack to my back, and started to hike my way there.
I could see the property in the distance, though the car procession was so far ahead of me, I no longer heard the crunch of the dirt beneath their tires, their engines revving, the dust clouds billowing.
Noticing the downward slope of my path, I started to run.
I probably ran about halfway, until the path became an uphill climb. The gravel sounded like broken glass in the cleats of my sneakers. My breath became heavy, and the cold wind whistled through my earrings.
Fortunately, by the time I arrived, meekly, sheepishly, I'd only missed about 10 minutes of introductory ranger chat in the parking area.
"Oh boy, did you walk from the gate?" the ranger asked me, as everyone else on the tour turned around in surprise.
"I sure did! Sorry I'm late," I huffed.
As the ranger finished her intro and walked us to the ranch's fence, she asked for two favors from the group: that we ask lots of questions, and that someone give "this nice young lady a ride back to her car." I waved and smiled like a bedraggled beauty queen.
An older man pulled me aside, saying, "We can give you a ride back if ya need one."
"Oh thank you..." I graciously accepted.
He started to walk away, and then he turned around with a wagging finger, and said, "You know, you made good time. What'd ya do, have a jetpack?"
My hike was only about a mile, the stress of tardiness being worse than the actual physical strain. But I was glad not to miss out on all the relics strewn about the property.
There's a rich history of homesteading and industrial pursuits within the boundaries of what's now national parkland, including gold mining, milling, and ranching. But back in the late 19th century, up until about the 1930s, Joshua Tree wasn't the dry (high) desert it is today. It was wet, fertile. Ranchers could raise cattle, grow alfalfa, and live off the land. But as the dustbowl hit the Midwest, California, too, dried up. And as the dryness increased, the government encroached on private property, limiting how far the cattle could go, and turning the land into a public Monument.
Because it's spring, it's quite green now (especially compared to how I saw the park two summers ago), but you can imagine in the heyday of ranching, when the grasses rose knee- and hip-high. But as the grass supply was depleted, and the cattle bent farther and farther over to nibble up smaller and smaller pieces of vegetation, sand intermingled with their food, clogging their stomachs, and eventually starving the beasts.
Bill Keys managed to thrive on his 80 acre ranch, long after most homesteaders arrived, attempted, failed and fled. Always resourceful, he dug wells for water. He sold equipment to his new neighbors, and then seized it when they abandoned their homesteads. He rented out parts of his property, and built his own schoolhouse. And he managed to survive there until his death in 1969.
The site is now preserved and protected, maintained by the National Parks Service, and accessible only when accompanied by a ranger (lest you pay the $75 fine, the signs for which I ignored when I galloped unaccompanied down the driveway past the locked gate).
You can't go inside of the house, but you can peek inside its windows and see the lace curtains that still hang, the kitchen table that still serves jugs of milk and water. Rangers do occasional sunset tours of the ranch, for which you get to carry a 1930s style flashlight lantern, and see the buildings illuminated from the inside.
Just another reason to go back in the fall.
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