Reminiscing at Joshua Tree
After spending the weekend with Carole and Brandi, I said goodbye to my dear friends and hit the road at 7:45 a.m. on Monday morning, heading for Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument in southern Arizona. I knew it was going to be a long drive across the desert, but my first stop that morning was in the opposite direction, a few miles north of Carole’s house.
Above: After saying goodbye to Carole, Brandi and their porch, I drove to Joshua Tree National Park and relived my camping trip here in 1982, then drove south past the smelly Salton Sea and saw the lowest city in the United States. From there, I turned east and, after a long drive, pulled into Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument well after sunset.
Years ago when I worked for Parsons Brinckerhoff, an engineering firm in Portland, I spent about a year drafting seismic retrofits for several bridges in southern California, working with three engineers in our office. None of us ever got to SEE the bridges, mind you, but instead we did all the design work in Portland, a thousand miles away. One of the bridges, called the Mojave River Bridge, was near Carole’s house in Apple Valley, so that morning after saying goodbye to her, I decided to visit my bridge to see how it was holding up.
Actually I’d visited this bridge twice before. The first time was shortly after I finished the design work about 20 years ago during one of my visits with Carole, though she was living up in the San Bernardino Mountains at that time, about an hour away. And the second time I visited was just a couple days before.
OK, I admit that I’d forgotten that my bridge was in this area -- until Saturday when I was trying to find the entrance to Mojave Narrows Park. During my mad scramble around Apple Valley and Victorville, I drove across a busy bridge and got halfway across, doing 40 mph, when I realized what I was driving across. “Hey, this is my bridge!” I said out loud. I didn’t have time to go back and check it out, being in a hurry to get to Carole’s house that afternoon with pizza awaiting, so on Monday morning after leaving Carole’s place I retraced my steps and paid the Mojave Bridge a proper visit. Yep, it still works.
I spent a few minutes at the bridge admiring my magnificent work (o.k., I’m joking), then I headed back to Apple Valley to get groceries and supplies, and then hit the road – for good, this time – taking Highway 247 east to Yucca Valley and onto Joshua Tree National Park, my second visit there in four days. This time, though, I made sure I got a map from the ranger at the kiosk.
As I described in my May 19 update, I’d visited Joshua Tree briefly a few days earlier, on Friday on my way to Troy’s house, and got turned around somehow and ended up on the wrong road. But it was no big deal because it’s all beautiful at JT and there really are no “wrong roads.” This time I wanted to spend more time at Belle Campground, though, to reminisce about that 1982 camping trip I took there with my colleagues from UC Riverside’s Geography department. We were at Belle for only for a few days but it was one of the most memorable, and enjoyable, camping trips I’ve ever taken.
Above: Back at Belle Campground in Joshua Tree National Park after 34 years. During my last visit, in 1982, I camped with a group of friends from the UC Riverside Geography Department, one of the most enjoyable camping trips I've ever been on. (1:09)
After reaching Belle Campground around 11 a.m., I found the campsite where we all camped back in 1982 and fortunately no one was there, so I sat at the picnic table and relived my memories from that enjoyable trip, then a took a panorama photo. It was a beautiful morning and the desert was gorgeous, with just a slight breeze. Remembering the fun times I’d had as I climbed on these same rocks many years ago, the UCR camping trip seemed like it had been just yesterday. Had it really been 34 years?
And once again, the song “The Pretender,” ran through my mind. I’ve mentioned this before, but when I was a student at UCR, one of my favorite songs was “The Pretender” by Jackson Browne, in which he sang about the brief nature of life and said, “In the end, it’s the wink of an eye.” In my callow youth, I didn’t really understand what he meant but now, many years later, I do. Life goes by incredibly fast, faster than even the wink of an eye.
There were a dozen UCR folks on that trip, but that was one of the last times I’d see most of them because I graduated a few weeks later and moved to Wisconsin to go to grad school. I'd done some Internet sleuthing in the years before trying to track some of them down but with no luck. So as I ate my lunch sitting on that same picnic table, in the quiet desert, I thought about each of them and wondered how they were doing and if I’d ever see any of them again. Hopefully yes, but more likely, unfortunately, not.
Apple Valley to Joshua Tree
Smelling the Fish at Salton Sea
After spending a half-hour at Belle, I headed down the highway towards the Salton Sea. As the Extreme Geographer, the Salton Sea was high on my list of places to visit because, at an elevation of 234 feet below sea level, it’s the lowest lake in North America. Yes, it’s a lake and not actually a sea as the name implies – though it’s a lot saltier than any sea you’ll ever swim in. The Salton Sea is a large, salty lake that was formed by a freak accident back in 1905. Engineers were digging a canal to divert water from the Colorado River to the growing cities in southern California when the canal suddenly broke, sending plumes of water into a huge, bowl-shaped depression several miles across. Water poured in for two years until the canal was repaired, forming what became known as the Salton Sea, and it’s been there ever since.
This area, the Imperial Valley, is a few hundred feet below sea level, so it's very much like Death Valley. But unlike Death Valley, the Imperial Valley is irrigated and there are endless fruit orchards and fields here that provide a cornucopia of winter agricultural products for folks around the world. Ever wonder how you can get lettuce, grapes or plums in January? Chances are they came from the Imperial Valley. Being so low in elevation, this area is hotter than heck in the summer but in the winter, it’s pleasant, with high temperatures typically in the 60’s and 70’s. By the way, the area just north of here is home to the annual Coachella Music Festival, which had been held just a few weeks earlier. Back in February when I was planning this trip from Qatar, I hoped to attend Coachella but, when I checked the ticket situation I learned that it was sold out.
I drove past numerous orchards and fields and stopped in the small town of Mecca – an appropriate name, I thought, this being the desert. My Muslim friends in the Middle East would get a kick if they knew that I’d made a pilgrimage (or actually just a brief visit) to Mecca. I bought gas in a convenience store that was filled with migrant farm workers, where I was probably the only person who spoke English rather than Spanish. It was 95 degrees outside so I got a big diet Pepsi with LOTS of ice, then I drove down the east shoreline of the Salton Sea on Highway 111 and pulled into a State Park to check out this lowest lake in America.
It was hot outside and the large, lakeside campground was empty, which is understandable because – how should I say this? – the Salton Sea is not really a prime scenic destination. It is a curious geographic aberration, this huge body of saline water sitting below sea level, but that’s about all it has to offer. And it’s getting saltier each year as the water evaporates and I understand it’s also becoming more polluted each year, with runoff from the ubiquitous and well-fertilized agricultural areas nearby feeding into the lake.
When I got out of the truck, about 100 yards from the shoreline, the first thing that hit me was the smell of dead fish and as I walked towards the shore, I started to see fish skeletons littering the beach. I’m not sure if they died because of the increasing salinity, increasing pollution or both, but between the heat and the smell, I didn’t want to spend much time here.
The Salton Sea is interesting from a geographic perspective, given that it’s the lowest lake in North America. But I’d never want to live there or even just vacation there, and judging from the lack of visitors, millions of Californians apparently agree with me. Nevertheless, it has an interesting history and I understand there are efforts underway to save it from further ecological decline. My hat’s off to them and I wish them the best. But I’d seen enough and, after taking a panorama photo, I drove off.
On to the Salton Sea
The Lowest City, the Driest City, and a Big Iced Tea
I continued south past the Salton Sea until I reached the small farming town of Calipatria, which, at -184 feet, is the lowest incorporated city in America. A fair number of Americans know that the highest city in the U.S. is Leadville, Colorado, which I was planning to visit next month when I got to Colorado. However, very few folks – myself included before this trip – know that Calipatria, California, is the lowest city in North America. No, Furnace Creek in Death Valley, where I’d visited just a few days before, is not the lowest city in America. Furnace Creek is an unincorporated settlement (albeit a year-round settlement) and isn’t a city, so the award goes to Calipatria.
I’d never heard of Calipatria but its unique geographic stature appealed to me, so months earlier while I was still in Qatar I put it on my map of places to visit. There’s not much else to say about Calipatria other than it seemed like a nice little town. Leadville, if memory serves, makes a big deal about being the highest city in America and droves of tourists flock there each year to see it, but the same didn’t seem to be true of tiny Calipatria. I was disappointed not to see even one sign touting the fact that it was the lowest city in America, and I seemed to be the only tourist there taking pictures. But then I’m the Extreme Geographer, so I had an excuse.
Leaving the Imperial Valley, I got onto Interstate 8 about 3 p.m. and headed east, crossing the California border at Yuma, Arizona, which is on the Colorado River – or what’s left of the river after it’s been drained and siphoned off by a thousand different uses upstream. Nope, we don’t give hardly anything to the Mexicans regarding the Colorado. All they get is a salty trickle. Donald Trump would be proud.
Yuma has the distinction of being the driest city in America, with an annual precipitation of about 3 inches – which is less than what us Portlanders get during a weekend winter storm. Now just to be clear, Death Valley is the driest area in the U.S. and some years it gets next to nothing in precipitation. But Yuma is America’s driest city. Just like Calipatria and Leadville are linked, so are Yuma and Forks, Washington. Back in April I’d visited Forks, which is the wettest city in America, averaging about 120 inches of rain a year. Yuma is also one of the oldest cities in Arizona and has an interesting history, and the former territorial prison is one of its main tourist draws. I love old prisons but it was getting late in the afternoon and I still had a long drive ahead of me, so I settled instead for a large iced tea at a 7-11.
Back on Interstate 8, I drove through another Border Patrol inspection station (“Nope, sorry sir – still no illegal immigrants in the back of my truck”), then around sunset I stopped in the town of Gila Bend, where I got gas and another big iced drink at the Love’s truck stop – my fourth or fifth on this very hot day, I’d lost count. From there I turned south onto the two-lane Highway 85 just as the sun dropped below the horizon, and an hour later, in the gathering gloom, I slowed down and drove through the old mining town of Ajo (pronounced “AH-ho”). I’ve driven through Ajo during the day before and must say that it’s much more eerie at night – downright creepy, in fact, with hardly anyone outside.
Eerie Encounters at Organ Pipe
A short while later, and in the total darkness, I passed the entrance sign for Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument, my destination that evening. I’ve loved this park ever since I first stumbled across it in 1988. It’s a huge desert park that sits on the Mexican border and is stunningly beautiful, yet few Americans outside of Arizona have ever heard of it. But I love it. It gets a moderate amount of traffic on the two-lane highway that bisects the park, but most folks just stay on the highway on their way to (or from) Mexico and don’t stop in the park, which is a shame, because this area has some of most spectacular desert scenery in America. Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument is named after a particular type of cactus that resembles a set of – not surprisingly – organ pipes. These cacti are common in northern Mexico but in the United States, they’re found only here in this park.
I continued driving in the darkness, and a few miles inside the park boundary, I encountered yet another Border Patrol inspection station: a huge, white, well-lit canvas tent that covered the highway which was occupied by a half-dozen officers who looked pretty bored. But they were checking traffic going northbound, away from Mexico, and not in my direction, so I whizzed right by.
It had been about 10 years since I’d been to Organ Pipe, but I knew there were two campgrounds here. There was a huge campground near the Visitor Center, which a ranger once told me had never filled to capacity, not even once. There’s also a small, primitive campground at a place called Alamo Canyon several miles north of the Visitor Center, and at the end of a four-mile dirt road off the main highway. I prefer smaller, primitive campgrounds so I’ve always stayed at Alamo Canyon but I didn’t have a park map with me and it had been a long time since I’d been there, so I was trying to remember where the turnoff for the dirt road was. I figured there would be a sign on the highway pointing the way, but there wasn’t. As I drove down the highway in the darkness at 40 mph with the windows rolled down and the desert breeze blowing in my hair (like in the song Hotel California), I noticed the reflection of a sign way off to my left, about 20 yards from the highway, so I did a U-turn and came back. Yep, this was the road to Alamo Canyon. For some reason, there’s no sign on the highway indicating it, so you have to know where to turn off – which fortunately I did.
I pulled up to the sign in the darkness, shining my headlights on it so I could read it, and became a little intrigued after reading the ominous warnings about illegal immigrants and smugglers from Mexico (the border is only 10 miles away) who pass through this area, and what to do if you encounter them. But all the warnings didn’t faze me a bit. I figured that illegals didn’t want to encounter gringos just like gringos didn’t want to encounter illegals – the same way I feel about meeting bears in the wilderness. So after reading the sign, I continued down the deserted dirt road, driving slowly on the rough road with the light of my headlights bouncing across the cactus and ocotillo.
A few miles down the dirt road, I thought I saw a blue light flash somewhere up ahead, but only briefly, adding to the increasingly eerie atmosphere. But then there was nothing, so I said, “I must’ve imagined it.”. A few moments later, though, it flashed again. “Maybe it’s someone’s taillights up ahead?” I wondered as a I drove slowly down the road. The eerie blue flashes got brighter as I continued down the road and by now I was really puzzled. “What the heck is that light?” I said to myself (I talk to myself a lot when I’m alone).
A few minutes later I found out. It was a beacon on the top of a metal pole that emitted a blue light. Using my headlights, I read the sign nearby that said if you felt yourself in danger (like threatened by illegal immigrants or smugglers), to use the phone there and call the authorities and they’d arrive shortly. Wow, this was bizarre, and something I’d never seen in any National Park. It definitely added to the “creepy” factor and by now I was starting to wonder what I was getting myself into. This was so different than when I’d first camped at Alamo Canyon in 1988. Back then there was no Border Patrol folks or eerie blue strobe lights, and I camped there in (apparently) ignorant bliss of all the illegal activity going on around me. It’s a lot different now -- but I think I preferred the feeling of ignorant bliss.
I was undeterred, though, and reached the small campground a few minutes later, around 9 p.m., and in the light of the full moon I found a great camping spot. There was only one other person camping at the campground and he went to bed shortly after I pulled in, so I had the whole desert to myself. I enjoyed my dinner by candlelight while gazing out at the beautiful, still landscape bathed in moonlight, savoring the silence, the smell of the desert, and the stunning beauty here – as well as my can of Stagg chili. It had been a long day – the Mojave River Bridge, Belle campground, the Salton Sea and all the rest – and I was ready for bed.
The Imperial Valley to Arizona