Monday, November 21, 2016

March 2016: Joshua Tree

Hello, after a while!  Here continues my pattern of belated posting, in this case with a post that was actually completed months ago and then nearly forgotten.  I don't particularly like the saying "better late than never," but it does seem to hold for my blogging....

Quite a few months back, Andrew and I took a long weekend trip to the desert.  Even though I'd lived in LA for nearly five years, I hadn't yet made it out to Palm Springs or Joshua Tree.  The latter is a popular weekend destination for grad students in my program, some of whom head there on a yearly camping trip, but the timing has never worked out for me.  Andrew had also visited, but was game to go again.  I think my parents and I may actually have driven past the park during a road trip when I was younger, but my memories of that visit are hazy and colored with the "Are we there yet?" question mixed with the feeling of an Academic Decathlon study binder across my lap.  (That was my typical road trip reading when I was in high school.)

My point being, it was high time for me to check out Joshua Tree for myself.  With an experiment-free weekend popping up on our calendars, we booked an Airbnb in nearby Yucca Valley and drove east from LA first thing Saturday morning.

We drove first to Palm Springs, without specific plans other than walking around and getting a feel for this popular vacation destination.  Lunch at a popular local sandwich shop was our first stop, followed by a hat purchase for Andrew (that desert sun is no joke!).  There was an art festival near the southern end of the Main Street, and we browsed some whimsical, Steampunk-ish robot sculptures made from reclaimed junk parts.  Recently I've gotten more interested in art, especially ceramics and paintings, and am proud of our modest collection of pieces that all carry strong personal memories.  After the art festival, we did our due diligence at the ice cream shops along the main drag - a date shake for Andrew from Great Shakes and a pineapple coconut ice cream with Dole Whip for me from Lappert's.  After this, I concluded that pineapple coconut ice cream is simply better when eaten in a tropical place like Hawaii.  Maybe there is a climate-gustatory synergy to ice cream.

Eventually we realized that since we weren't going to lounge by a pool or shop for mid-century furniture, we had more or less exhausted our options in the downtown area.  To be fair, Palm Springs does have a well-known art museum, but we didn't feel like moving our car.  Instead, to kill time, we chose a somewhat random restaurant (called Trio) and had a drink at the bar. Around 4pm a man walked in, sat down next to us, and loudly ordered an entire bottle of Sauvignon Blanc for himself. That, we decided, could be our cue to continue on to Yucca Valley.

Our Airbnb was a tidy and surprisingly spacious bungalow in the backyard of an artist's main home. I really liked the mint green-tiled kitchen and the colorful living room furnishings.  Notably, the neighborhood - mostly single-story homes on large lots - was blissfully quiet, a welcome change from our apartment building's constant background thrumming of air-conditioners and cars with loud overtones of noisy neighbors.

That first night, we had dinner at Sam's Pizza in Joshua Tree.  This is a unique restaurant in that it serves both very good pizza and very good Indian food, making it the only restaurant that I know of to successfully bridge these two culinary genres (there is even a subcategory on the menu for "Indian pizzas") and certainly the only one for hundreds of miles around it.  We went for the Indian food and were enjoyed our okra and spinach/tofu dishes.  Service was quite slow, but I don't think anyone goes out to dinner in Joshua Tree in a hurry.

For our full day in Joshua Tree, we picked up utterly unremarkable sandwiches at a local supermarket (Stater Bros, which had some of the most unflattering fluorescent lighting I have ever seen) and got a reasonably early start into the park.  The land here is immediately jarring and does, in fact, feel like an entirely different planet.  As such, driving within the park is quite fun, as each curve brings into view a new rock formation or expanse of spiky trees.

We chose the Lost Horse Mine trail, which starts at a tiny parking area a little ways off the main road, and takes you to an abandoned silver mine.  The Joshua trees aren't at their densest here, but the scenery is even more interesting for its range of colors and plant life.

The well-maintained trail felt spacious and only lightly trafficked during late morning, with an occasional lizard moseying into the scrub.

Hiking is one of our favorite leisure activities, and when we have the benefit of a quiet trail, I like it even more.  Without other people in sight (most of the time), music, podcasts, or a strict timeline (e.g. we need to make it back to our car in time to get to brunch before it gets too busy!), the experience starts to feel remarkably intimate, and we often find ourselves in surprising conversational territory.  On this day we ended up talking about our projects quite a bit, but without the minutiae or troubleshooting on which we normally focus and fuss over.  Instead, it was with an eye to the larger ideas which get us excited, and which remind us why we keep at this science thing.

After returning to our car, we continued on to Keys View, a lookout at the highest point in the park.  Here we ate our sandwiches and then gazed out at the valley below: Palm Springs and the wind farms near it, the San Andreas Fault, Mt. San Jacinto, Mt. San Gorgonio, the Coachella Valley, and even a tiny glimpse of Mexico.

We slowly drove back out of the park, stopping at one or two rock formations and short nature walks along the way.

Having filled our quota of sun, we drove back to our bungalow and cleaned off the dust clinging to our calves and ankles.   We drank tea while watching some Aziz Ansari stand-up on Netflix.  Then I spent the rest of the afternoon sprawled on the couch, catching up on back issues of The New Yorker - an activity which, to me, feels like the height of leisure, since I normally read each issue in short snippets at the kitchen table, hurried by the usual undercurrent of Grad Student Guilt at not working.

As the sun was setting, we got back in our car and headed a bit north to Pioneertown, a fascinating enclave of an abandoned Old West film set, a couple ranches, some stalwart local residents, and the famed restaurant/music venue Pappy & Harriet's.

The sunset was gorgeous, and made even more perfect by the sight of a couple horses grazing languidly in the twilight.

Andrew had been to Pappy & Harriet's a while back to see The War On Drugs and had camped overnight in the stables.  Concerts here are made even more memorable by the small scale of the venue and the resulting casual proximity to concert attendees.  Andrew recalls his pleasant shock at walking into the concert area and finding himself just feet from one of his favorite bands as they warmed up.

We were there for dinner and the Sunday night house band, which was less impressive than The War On Drugs but still plenty of fun.  A cheerful crowd of people got up to dance, and chairs and bowls of chips were shared freely.  The food (BBQ chicken, ribs, and sides) was tasty, the atmosphere was relaxed, and a good time was had by all.

The next morning, we drove back to LA.  We have realized that with the types of experiments we work on, it's hard to plan vacations longer than three or four days without needing to shut down everything.  (We don't do "staycations" very successfully, since sitting at home means we are physically drawn to our laptops.)  So from time to time, it's wonderful to get up from our desks, temporarily leave the concrete jungle in the rear view mirror, and plunge into the stunningly different.