The temperature drops ten, maybe fifteen degrees as the road gains elevation into Joshua Tree National Park. I feel a chill as I ride my motorcycle in my summer jacket even though I had the foresight to wear long johns. At the visitor center, I layer up with a long sleeve sweat shirt and a neck warmer that I pull up over my ears and the back of my head like a ski mask. On sun soaked San Diego days, it is easy to forget that it is already November and we are deep into fall.
The road climbs through the desert. Creosote, ocotillo, mojave yucca, smoke trees carpet the basin to the northeast fading into the horizon and distant hills and roll up to the rusty, barren mountains just off to the South of the road. Chris and I take a brief break in the Cholla Cactus garden walking the quarter mile trail. The deceptive, fuzzy look of this cactus gives them the ironic name of “Teddy Bear” cholla. No one dares hug this hostile plant. No sane person would have a garden of these things. The slightest of touches is enough for the spines to catch, snap off, and dig into their unfortunate victim. I’ve had prior experience pulling out the spines from my hand with a pliers leaving behind little pin prick blood splotches that look like a case of the hives.
Back at the parking lot, two older gentlemen admire our bikes. The white-bearded, pot bellied man comes from Alaska and is a fountainhead of information on motorcycling to and in the frontier state. The Pan American highway has 200 miles of unpaved road, down from 1500 miles when he first made the trip some forty years ago. Motorcycle outfits guide riders to the Arctic ocean, one of my bucket list items. He recommends flying up in the late summer and getting a 2 for 1 deal with a friend for a ride back since most people rent bikes for the ride up. I file away all these little factoids and recommendations for later research.
As the road reaches its highest elevations, the vistas unique to Joshua Tree spring into view. Joshua trees dot the landscape with their long slender trunks covered in their grey-bladed skirts. Rock piles of all sizes and shapes rest on the ground, the size of football stadium, a small house, a skeleton, a beehive appear as the road snakes from one feature to another. Eager hikers happily sit and stand on their tops. We stop for a second short hike to a pass guarded by a huge diamond shape rock. Another boulder perches like a teed-up football. With just the right angle, I can place the football right between the uprights of two Joshua trees. Back at the bikes, I talk to brightly attired woman riding her mountain bike on the road. She quit her job three months ago. She and her husband have RV’d across the country from North Carolina on their way to LA to visit her mom. She recommends an eighteen mile dirt road called the “Geology Tour Road”. She road it on a jeep and says negotiable in two-wheel drive except a spot or two that had some sand. Sand on a motorcycle is one of the most difficult features to learn to ride. The trick is to go faster but that is easier said than done when trying to maintain control of your bike. Chris finally returns, he found a “very cool” slot canyon. He loves this park and vows to return.
It is still mid-afternoon, time to make the long trek home, with half the mileage of the trip still ahead of us. We press on dropping back down in elevation to warmth and the ride home.