Visiting Joshua Tree National Park on Black Friday

I think the memo went out years ago: travelling around the U.S. during American Thanksgiving week is not for the faint of heart. However, if you’re on the road you are going to land somewhere, and Joshua Tree was it.

We figured the park would be busy, but we tried to convince ourselves that everyone would be either at home fighting with their relatives, or stuck in the malls, trying to remember where they parked their cars. So, with hope in our hearts, we left Las Vegas and headed  west.

The sky was gorgeous – big storm clouds moving toward Las Vegas, as we moved away.

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Our route to Joshua Tree took us right through the Mojave Desert; at times we were the only car on the road.  At one point we found ourselves on a stretch of America’s famous Route 66, and stopped for gas at Roy’s, our last chance before Joshua Tree.  At $5.00 a gallon, the price was almost two dollars higher than we would pay anywhere else, but we decided that there were two things we did not want to run out of in the desert: gas or water.

Roy’s – the place that time forgot – gas pumps, a small motel and a “cafe.” That vacancy sign looks permanent.

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When Stephen asked the laconic owner if he was Roy, He replied, “Nope, Roy’s been gone  a long time.” We’re thinking  Roy took the restroom cleaner with him.

We carried on and about an hour outside the park, we drove past a compound surrounded by chain-link fence, with a number of scruffy low buildings, old trucks and a prominent TRUMP/PENCE sign on the hill in front. No surprise there, but what gave us a knot in our stomachs was a huge Stars and Stripes flying on the flagpole, with a slightly smaller Confederate flag just below.

It would appear that most Joshua Tree residents do not share those politics. The town supports a good mix of shops selling crystals, pottery and boots made from recycled plastic. This sign appeared in one of the windows.

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This mural is an accurate depiction of the town and park – pretty trippy.

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We had lunch at the Crossroads Cafe, staffed by a reassuring battalion of young people with the requisite hipster beards, flowered dresses with military boots and imaginative tattoos.  We ate the very best burgers we’ve had in a long time, served medium-rare.

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When we pulled into the Visitor Centre, first we got the bad news: Every single campsite in Joshua Tree had been booked for months. We were hoping to snag a first-come-first-served site, but even those had been “reserved” with an advance payment. Anyone close enough to the park to drop by with the fee in advance gets a spot. This is the situation in most state and national parks during peak times, weekends and holidays. We were directed to Joshua Tree Lake Campground, just outside the park, and it worked out perfectly.

Our campsite:
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The campground is situated at the end of a road, with mountains on one side. They have music festivals in the spring and fall and the rest of the year, they operate a quiet, clean site with a book exchange, a small store and a lake stocked with fish (to throw back).

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Over the next two days we put many miles on our hiking boots; Joshua Tree National Park is crisscrossed with a number of trails that range from a half-mile to a multi-day hike. We kept our hikes to under five miles, especially since many of them involved altitude. Our first hike, Ryan’s Mountain, had us climbing 1000 feet and it offered up an ideal combination of the flora the park is known for and the giant boulders, that formed from magma eons ago and were tossed around like so many building blocks.

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This is a Joshua Tree, which is not really a tree, but a tree-sized yucca.

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Although there are untold numbers of Joshua trees in the park (as well as other desert  areas), there is also an abundance of cacti, creosote bush, fan palm trees, cottonwood, scrub oak, juniper and Parry’s nolina – all plants that have adapted to the desert conditions.

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Joshua Tree is a prime climbing destination – we saw a number of people bouldering (climbing without ropes) as well as a few rappelling down cliffs. Stephen did attempt one climb, but only got about a quarter of the way up – enough to give you a perspective.

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Mainly we stuck to the trails:

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A few shots of the park:

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IMG_0056Barker Dam. At one point the annual rainfall was twice what it is today, and there was cattle ranching in the area. Ranchers built a dam to provide enough water for their cattle, and the small lake still remains.

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All the photos I’ve shown so far would indicate we had the park to ourselves. In fact, it was so busy it became a little comical. A solid line of cars snaked into the park; making their slow procession to the entrance gate. From that point on, every single parking lot was jammed, with cars circling and idling; just waiting to pounce on the very next available spot.

This is the lineup, waiting for a parking spot at Keys View.  It was madness; although once you were on the trail, the crowds thinned out somewhat.

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This was a popular hike – just a quarter of a mile walk on a paved road, overlooking the San Andreas Fault and a number of mountain ranges. Apparently on a clear day you can see to Mexico.

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Dogs are not allowed on any of the trails, for a variety of reasons – wildlife, ecologically sensitive plants, undesirable conditions for pets (heat, dehydration, altitude, unsure footing on narrow trails, etc.). We saw just one foolish owner who disregarded the rules; we encountered him and his Golden retriever (off-leash) about halfway up a very steep 2-hour trail. This is a difficult park to bring animals if they cannot be on trails and they cannot be left alone in hot vehicles. The rules did not apply to this little walk (out in the open and paved), and we saw a number of happy owners and dogs.

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We had a wonderful time in Joshua Tree – we could have stayed another day or two. Perhaps we’ll be back in the spring on our way home to see the desert flowers.

We’re seeing a lot of interesting, unique old campers, truck campers and trailers. I’ll post photos from time to time – this one had driven here from New Hampshire.

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Tomorrow we head to Anza-Borrego, a state park just north of Mexico. See you again in a few days.

Following the hippie trail to Hampi

For many visitors to India, the road from Goa to Hampi is a well-trodden path, a rite of passage for the seekers and pilgrims who flock to this “unearthly landscape that has captivated travellers for centuries.” (Lonely Planet).

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Hampi is a UNESCO World Heritage Site which encompasses the ruins of one of India’s largest 14th century empires with kilometres of giant boulders, softened by emerald green rice paddies and banana plantations. In addition to being a holy site, Hampi is also the bouldering capital of India. Throw in yoga classes, ayurvedic treatments, and cheap guesthouses and the throngs of young tourists with their hennaed hands, baggy harem pants and bindi dots will follow.  We saw the odd grey head wandering about, but we were older than most of our fellow travellers by at least 30 years. So far, no henna, but I have succumbed to purchasing a pair of harem pants. Photo to  follow at some point.

The path to Hampi is not a straight one. All trains and buses arrive in Hospet – a dusty town about 15 km. from Hampi. This was our first glimpse of real India – and yes, those stories about cows (or in this case, water buffalos) holding up traffic are true.

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Our tuk-tuk dropped us at the “ferry” – a small boat that transports passengers back and forth to the main guesthouse area in Hampi.

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We had to remove our shoes to walk through five inches of water to board the boat and then again on the other side. The boat is filled to well beyond capacity; we loved that there was a single life jacket hung over the railing. Up the hill we trudged, past women washing laundry – a captivating first impression.

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We then walked about a kilometre down the road until we arrived at our guesthouse – a less captivating experience. Our guesthouse had very mixed reviews on TripAdvisor, as did all the guesthouses  – people like us are not their target market. There are areas in India where finding reasonable mid-range accommodation is challenging, and Hampi is one of them. Our room was dirty, we had no hot water, wifi disappeared after our first day, never to return – and no-one cared. We heard highly entertaining excuses for everything, with no solutions. Since the rest of our fellow travellers seemed unfazed, we tried to go with the flow, but my vivid imagination would not let go of the images of those who had slept before us on the stained sheets stretched over our hard, lumpy mattresses.  Still, our guesthouse was in a gorgeous setting overlooking rice fields and this was the sunset on the first night.

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After much deliberating, we decided to rent a scooter the next day to see some of the sites that were close by. I was the one doing the deliberating because of a) the condition of the roads and b) my memory of the fatal accident last year in Laos. Stephen was raring to go, so we hopped on a  scooter and took off with the rest of the helmet-less hordes.

Apparently I am a bad passenger, as I squirm around too much, so I was under strict orders to hang on and not move. Unlike the blasé Indian ladies riding sidesaddle and talking on their phones, I never entirely lost my nerves.

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Still, it is the best way to get around and see the countryside. Stephen’s biggest challenge was dodging crater-like potholes and avoiding marauding trucks, so it wasn’t relaxing for him either. Along the way, we stopped a number of times for photos.  I couldn’t resist this sweet little baby water buffalo.

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Stephen couldn’t resist taking a brief video of me waving at a truckload of kids.


Our first stop was Hanuman Temple. We were met at the bottom by this crew of kids, who swarmed us for photos. This is very common in India – everyone wants a selfie with you and we have obliged dozens of times already.

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Climbing the 575 steps up to Hanuman Temple is a pilgrimage for some; most devotees climbed the entire way in their bare feet.

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We kept our shoes on until we reached the summit, and then removed them to walk around the outer perimeters. There are a number of monkeys up there and as long as you don’t feed them, they keep their distance. I’m not entirely comfortable around monkeys, so I was content to take photos from several feet away.

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This view is the reward – a simply stunning panorama.

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We were intrigued by this purified water stand, especially since our water bottle was almost empty. The Indians lined up to drink clean water, and they all drank from a single stainless steel cup! We shied away from this petri dish of communicable diseases.

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The climb down was much easier, and we were treated to the sight of this woman arranging scarves and colourful clothes on nearby rocks. There were surprisingly few vendors and the ones we saw were quiet and respectful.

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As we drove along, we noticed a young man on his motorbike who had stopped to take a photo and we pulled in behind him. There was a woman in the field tending to three cows, and as I noted to this young man, the image was like “something out of National Geographic”.  Coincidently, he used to be a photographer for Nat Geo and has now been living in Bangalore for the past three years, working as a freelancer. He travels India looking for shots like this. I would love to see how his photos turned out.

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We drove by women working in the rice fields, planting rice to be harvested in a few months.

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We were so struck by how hard so many Indians work, and for so little. Collecting and moving materials about – firewood, rice plants and hay.

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Many children don’t go to school. We passed by this sad-eyed young boy, hauling his load of snacks and drinks on a heavy cart.

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We arrived back to our guesthouse to see the resident Doberman in an absolute froth over the monkeys who were perched up on the rooftop, taunting him.

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The next day we met up with Raghu, who took us out for a full day tour of the ruins on his tuk-tuk. Raghu was charming, knowledgeable and spoke perfect English, so we had a memorable time.

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He is from Hampi and began by giving us an interesting overview of the town, before launching into the history of both the geology and the 14th century ruins. The ruins cover 26 square km. and it would take three more blog postings to cover it, so I’ll spare us all and just treat you to some photos.

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More monkeys. Cute baby being cradled by a very protective mama.

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We were the only ones visiting this temple and came across this woman who was camped out in the cool shade with her basket and some food and drink. She didn’t pay us any attention, but we were curious as to why she was there.

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The military were out in full force, right up to ranked officers. They were happy to have their photos taken.

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Three women heading into the fields in front of The Elephant Stable.

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There were a number of women working the fields, turning the soil and pulling out dead grass with pickaxes. The stables in front of them used to house elephants.

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The Stone Chariot used to actually move – hard to imagine that now, and even harder to grab a pic without crowds of people in front. The elephants had been piled with kids all morning; this was a rare child-free moment.

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I got almost as excited seeing this parrot as I did seeing the ruins.

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A school trip was in full swing just in front of me and as I was watching the parrot, I was being watched by young Indian boys, who demanded a photo.

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The next thing I knew, their classmates had joined them.

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Hampi is a magical, mystical place. I felt the beginning of a sense of India’s deep spirituality and symbolism there.

Now we’re in Mysore and will be back again in a few days.