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Joshua Tree National Park: Bringing on the New Year (2016)

The last fleeting moment of 2015 came and went over the course of an instant.  Now, moment by moment, time inches forward into 2016 and onward to 2017.  Booooo.  Time, please stop.  Please?  But alas! I am excited for everything that is in store for this New Year.

It was only fitting that I found myself spending time with Jocelyn's family once again for Christmas and the New Year.  After much anticipation (following a very lethargic and slow work week to my dismay), I geared up and drove down to Orange County the day before Christmas Eve in a vain attempt to beat traffic.  Lo and behold, I am starting to realize more and more that there is no such thing as "beating traffic" in SoCal... especially through Santa Barbara, Ventura, and north LA.  After a grueling 6 hour drive (which should normally take between 3.5 to 4 hours) of stop-and-go traffic, witnessing over two dozen emergency vehicles drive by, and casually sipping on ice-cold water pinky-up style from my trusty stainless steel Contigo water bottle... I finally arrived at my destination.  

This was my second time joining Jocelyn and her family for Christmas and the New Years (and Joshua Tree).  Just like the last, this staycation was full of good company, food, fun and puzzles!  However, I am promising myself to go home next winter for the holiday season.  As much as I enjoy spending time with Jocelyn and her family, I realized it was also time to start spending more time with my family as well.  Also, Hawai'i won't be nearly as cold as California in the winter.

In due time, Jocelyn's family and I went on a short 8-ish mile hike through Aliso and Wood Canyon Park in Laguna Niguel.  It was a beautiful, though very windy, day to take a hike while surrounded by wild oak and sycamore trees.  The terrain itself ranged from flat to fairly steep inclines although we decided to avoid the harder routes and stuck with the medium to easy trails.  I considered this hike a moderate warm up for Joshua Tree which would take place later the following week.  During the four or so hours we were out and about, we ran into a multitude of young and old mountain bikers cruising along the trail, kicking up dust into the wind.  Additionally, as it was the weekend after Christmas, there were also many small families with younger children walking along the trails while enjoying the fresh air.

Afterwards, another week of part-work/part-play passed by much quicker than the last as the day to head to Joshua Tree loomed closer.  This time around, my college-buddy-slash-impulse-shopping-roomie Willis decided to join in on the fun.  I was glad he came along; otherwise, I would have froze to death alone in the tent at night.  Willis decided to spend the night before New Years Eve (the day we were to head out) at Jocelyn's place, so he and I offered to make food for her and the family.  We ended up making a bombtastic mouthwatering beef pot pie that pleased everyone's appetite, except the dogs who could not partake..  I miss cooking with that guy.  Hooray for recipes and not actually following them. Haha. No, but really...

New Years Eve

The day finally arrived to temporarily leave Orange County and head to Joshua Tree National Park.  We all woke up early in the morning, packed and loaded our belongings and camping supplies, and drove out at 9AM.  Some of Jocelyn's family friends also caravaned with us in their tricked out RV/camper mobile, complete with restroom (though often unused), kitchenette, roll-out canopy, and pop-up sleeping cab.  Did I mention a hot-water boiler and space heater?  Anyway, we drove through the suburbs... then desert... then desert... then desert... then you guessed it, more desert... and finally arrived at the north end of the park.  We stopped at Twenty-Nine Palms on the way to pick up some Subway sandwiches for lunch.  Our group was the only customers at the shop... Hooray travelers bringing all the business!  Just kidding, I'm sure they had other business through the day.  Subway is the place to be, after all.

After snagging some grub, we piled back into our cars and made our way to the Visitor's Center at the northern end of Joshua Tree.  The Visitor's Center had a room full of glass walled exhibits displaying some of the park's featured fauna and flora.  It was here that I learned kangaroo rats have specialized kidneys which allow them to secrete a paste-like urine.  In fact, kangaroo rats excrete some of the most concentrate urine out of all the mammals in the world!  Fun facts, huh?  Aside from that little critter, there were also trapdoor spiders, horned/spiny lizards, and a rattle snake on display.  Probably a few more others, too.

After perusing for a few minutes, we left the visitor's center and entered through the park's north entrance to try and find campgrounds at Jumbo Rock, but to no avail.  However, we did successfully found two adjacent campgrounds after a 30-mile drive to Cottonwood Springs near the southern edge of the park.  We set up shop over the course of an hour by pitching tents, snacking, unloading, and eating lunch.  Park map here.

All the young'ns went out for a short hike into the wilderness near the campground as the adults took naps or cleaned up.  Willis, Jocelyn, Jocelyn's sister, and two girls from the second family meandered around the multitude of rocky outcrops as I chose to explore a little farther away.  To me, the time I spent at Joshua Tree was a time of reflection over the past year.  Even though I was surrounded by people, there was definitely a large part of me that wanted to be alone with the wild.  Initially, many thoughts came to mind... ranging from family deaths to newfound friendships... from successful first-time adventures to failed decisions.  My mind continued to wander as I was called back to camp before the sun set.

As the sun set we prepared to heat up dinner.  Part of the menu was a variation of pre-cooked shoyu chicken and canned green beans.  I love shoyu chicken.  I love green beans.  As the congealed chicken fat melted onto the warming aluminum cake pan resting atop a propane burner, the group started to settle down for the night.  Darkness settled quickly as the sun set below the mountain-line and we all grabbed plates of food to eat as a few nifty LED lamps illuminated the night.

Afterwards, our little group of 10 piled into a single 6-person tent and played a card game called Tunk!  Time had never passed by so slowly as while playing cards.  At one point, it felt like 11PM while it was only 7PM.  My mind and feet grew antsy as we sat in the tent playing Tunk!  Eventually, it came to a point where Willis and I were vying for last place... Needless to say, he beat me for last place.... I don't know who was the real winner at that...

After a short while, a few of us decided to do some light painting.  The stars were out in force and the sky was littered with very few sources of light pollution to be seen.  Below are a few photos from the excursion.  Afterwards, we all decided to call it a night.  It was late.  Probably no later than 10PM.  None of us were awake at the stroke of midnight when the date and time turned January 1, 2016, 12AM..

New Years Day

Ah! A new day!  A New Year!  Well.  It still felt like any other day. Hello 2016, goodbye 2015.  You know what the best part of the morning was?  Waking up at 7AM without an alarm.  We all woke up bright and early to start our day. 

Breakfast consisted of Lil' Smokies and bread.  Everyone packed snacks for the long day ahead... trail mix, beef jerky, assorted nuts and bars.... Oh, and water.  Our group was aiming to meet a few more families at Skull Rock later in the morning.  Amazingly, we departed from our campsite on time at 9:45AM and arrived at Skull Rock around 10:30AM.  We waited for ten or so minutes before deciding to start hiking within eyesight of the cars.  Most of the group immediately started climbing the various rock formations nearby.  The weather was still a little nippy as the rocks were just starting to absorb heat radiating from the sun.  In due time, I shed three moderately thick layers and stuffed them into my new F-Stop Gear Ajna backpack.  This trip was a trial run for the bag and I was happy it had ample internal space for not only my camera equipment, but food and clothes for the day as well.  Eventually, the other families showed up and we ate a hearty lunch atop the rocks.  I consumed two of the remaining spam musubis I had on hand.  The rice was cold and hard, but who really cares when you have spam in your mouth :)?

In truth, I found myself in a fairly antisocial mood after lunch.  The group was advancing slowly and all my feet and eyes wanted to do was explore.  As such, I walked ahead of the group (though within visual range) and meandered around among the rocks, sand, and plants whose names I could not identify.  As the afternoon went on we wound up at the same camp site Jocelyn's family and I camped at the previous year.  At that point, we decided to return to the cars and rendezvous at the Cottonwood Springs campsite for dinner.

Before we returned to the campsite the group stopped by the Cholla Cactus Garden.  Hundreds of cholla cacti of varying shapes and sizes littered the ground around the well-marked path.  A few strangers dared to venture into the thick of cholla cacti.  Some unlucky wanderer found themselves with cholla spines stuck to their skin.  How unfortunate...  They walked into that one.

And then darkness fell.... and dinner came.  and the night was cold.  The beef stew was delicious.

The Second Day of 2016

After a rather cold and grumpy night it was again... another day.   Hooray.   Seeing a pattern here?  Time not stopping? Woohoo!  This time, a full nights rest brought my spirits back up.  Breakfast was simply some hard boiled eggs and leftover snacks.  We packed up the tents and loaded our cars, again, and decided to go on a mid-morning 8-9 mile hike out to Mastadon Peak.  It was a relatively easy trail with a few rock hopping points along the way.   We did lose our way once or twice, and ran into a rather large boy scout troop who thought we were part of a girl scout troop... I was slightly perturbed by that comment.  Just slightly.  Our group finally made it to Mastadon Peak in the middle of who-knows-where next to an abandoned mine potentially full of "unstable explosives".  That is quite literally what the sign said.  Did that deter us from climbing?  No. Absolutely not.  Mastodon Peak offered a 360 degree view of the surrounding area; it was both windy and breath-taking.