Shelby Little in Joshua Tree National Park

Accepting Winter in Joshua Tree National Park

Winter: the season plants and animals in the Northern Hemisphere rest—except humans. We will not be coerced by earth’s rhythms! We have step goals. And agendas.

We like our mirage at the top of the food chain. We like imagining our perch exists outside the reach of life's seasons, but as I was recently reminded, winter’s cloak is long and far reaching. 

If you’ve ever been body-slammed by winter’s icy grip and then lowered into an emotional ice bath, this one's for you.

Fortynine Palms Trail Joshua Tree National Park
​​Panoramic of Fortynine Palms Oasis Trail.

Winter: It's Even Overcast in Sunny California

My winter reckoning came a ‘calling mid-January in the Mojave Desert—Joshua Tree National Park—where the highs and lows of life pelted me all at once: A fun-loving, girls' trip in honor of Adryon’s birthday, smacked up against the unexpected passing of my beloved grandmother. 

Arch Trail in Joshua Tree National Park
White Tank Granite Boulders in Joshua Tree. See how it might be easy to lose your way?​​

Like a dark cloud, losing my grandmother cast a long shadow. Fittingly, it was the wettest month in Southern California’s recent history and the desert was saturated when the five of us, Adryon’s close friends and family, rolled out of the Palm Springs Airport in a right-hand drive, bumble-bee-yellow Jeep Wrangler.

Adryon and her wife, Brooke, are experienced overlanders—I have limited visibility into this phenomenon. I've gathered they rough it for weeks on end, in four wheel drive, transversing dirt roads in the wildlands.

Needless to say, Marielle, Randi and I took our places in the back seat with full confidence Brooke and Adryon would navigate us through the Mojave from the Jeep’s oddly-British front seats. 

Left to my own devices, I would have commuted by camel that weekend (that's sarcasm, there are no camels) if not for the generosity of my friends. Thanks y’all! 

Spiky Yuccas in Joshua Tree National Park

Typically, I’d be energized on the first morning of a trip, the prospect of adventure sending my heart aflutter. However, Saturday morning arrived with emails of my grandmother’s burial in Virginia, which was loosely-exclusively attended by her children, and a scattering of touching text messages containing photos of my grandmother at various life events. 

I’ll be saving my in-person grieving for my grandmother's celebration of life ceremony in the spring, where I may or may not be fulfilling my mother’s requests for me to sing a sampling of Elvis’s gospel standards and/or a little known song called “Hallelujah” by Leonard Cohen. Though I appreciate the vote of confidence, I haven't performed in five-plus years, my voice is not a bourbon baritone like Cohen’s, nor a show-stopper like Jeff Buckley’s, who introduced my generation to “Hallelujah,” and no one musically inclined would ask me to sing gospel much less Elvis Presley. 

Resting on any of those touchstones during the trip just made me want somewhere soft to cry, somewhere dark to drink, and somewhere quiet to wander.

Thunder Only Happens When It's Raining

Stevie Nicks

A Dose of Fortynine Palms Oasis Trail

Barrel Cacti in Joshua Tree National Park
Barrel cactus on Fortynine Palms Oasis Trail. Or sea urchin on ocean floor?​​

Our first hike, Fortynine Palms Oasis Trail, turned out to be just what I needed (minus the crying and drinking). It was three miles out and back, with a mild incline. I don’t know if it was the acuteness of my emotional state, or the soft rain rejuvenating the desert, but the setting was a feast for the senses. Something smelled like juniper, but better, like a “Cool Desert Mist” body spray you’d sample at the mall. And the cacti, specifically the barrel cacti, were tipped in fuchsia, which made me think of sea urchins. 

Fortynine Palms Oasis Trail
At last, the oasis in the desert. Also, there was no water.​​

Documenters of the Desert

Cholla Cacti in Joshua Tree National Park
Cholla Catus ​​Gardens in Joshua Tree National Park

When I stepped onto the white sands of Fortynine Palms Oasis Trail, I was shaky, but I gathered myself enough to notice Marielle leaning down to photograph the succulents. I followed suit was quickly buoyed by the companionship, the task at hand, and the surreal the setting.

Marielle and Randi became documenters of the desert with me—meanwhile Adryon and Brooke were probably warding off wild cats and keeping us on course. We crouched in white sands to get shots of the low-growing scrubs and cacti.  We traded tips on framing up our compositions, using grid lines, the rule of thirds, and practical lighting. We took our sweet ass time. We didn't shout things up-trail, no "Go ahead, we'll meet up!" or "We found a cactus!" We just did our things. There was a quietude and a harmony to it.

When I got still and focused on the natural beauty of the park, it was like a cosmic vacuum sucked up all my prickly feelings. Since this isn't fiction, I will report that when the camera was pocketed, the tide of grief came back—and that’s why I’m going to mention another outlet in the desert: the watering hole.

Yucca Valley California Airbnb
Almost Aerial in ​​Yucca Valley

Our Watering Holes

The best drinks we had were at Bootlegger Tiki in Palm Springs—and not just because I got my chance to drink in the dark—by the dim light of a red blowfish pendant, nonetheless—but because they had the most creative, crave-worthy cocktail concoctions. I had the Mango or Nada, which involves Tequila, mango puree, a grove of citrus juices, Tamarindo, and a dried mango spear, pierced by a scull-charmed toothpick. Runners up for watering holes (purely based on atmosphere) were Pioneertown’s Pappy and Harriet’s (tip: don’t skimp on the cheese fries) and the Red Dog Saloon which was built by Gene Aultry and Roy Rogers in 1946 (tip: they're nothing to write home about, but if you're hungry, do get the veggie tacos.)

Who researched these establishments so we'd have a helluva good time with the least friction? If your money is on Adryon and Brooke, you'd be correct.

A Backseater on the Backroads of Joshua Tree

Yucca Valley near Joshua Tree
Yucca Valley, California​​

Being a backseater on the backroads of Joshua Tree was unexpectedly consoling. I didn’t have to think logistics, Adryon had that covered with her satellite phone, tablet and map app. We'd bump down roads with no destination and have conversations about our favorite poets, drawing on tablets, and what's on our playlists. We passed bags of ruffly potato chips, a box of Randi's home-roasted mixed nuts and a sack of clementines. I didn’t set expectations or fidget with my phone. I just let my body rest and my mind drift over the desert expanse. I can’t think of the last time I let myself unwind in that way.

In all its desolation and overcast moodiness, I felt understood in the desert, among the scrub brush and close friends. Both gave me space to be quiet or creative or whatever washed over me. Both let me wear neck bandanas. Actually it became a thing, neck bandanas, among the group— probably because we were all warding off the cold—and because Randi is uniquely skilled at the high art of rolling a bandana.

Fortynine Palms Trail Joshua Tree National Park

There was a night in the desert where Adryon gave us all mud masks. The masks were a thick, earthy green, and while we wore them, there were bursts of ecstatic dance, fits of laughter, and blurry selfies. A Sia album, “1000 Forms of Fear,” was turning in the corner of the living room and for those ten, masked minutes, I forgot myself, and the heaviness of my grief. I was only embodying the present sensations: the artful adobe home, the connective tissue of friends, and the whir of wine.

I haven’t fully processed the trip, or the loss of my grandmother, but something my yin yoga teacher said the other day, as I was lying supine, with a block and a bolster under my sacrum, struck a chord. She mentioned how we often power through life with “go-go-go” energy. It gets us through our to-do lists and our grocery shopping, but doesn’t provide balance. We need the yin, slow-down energy to settle our systems. We need to let the winter in—it's coming one way or another—to recharge and get a fresh perspective.

I do think riding in the backseat, focusing on nature and throwing myself into photography helped me—that and the generosity of my girlfriends. These women are empathetic, organized, in-tune, and ready for adventure.

Sending up gratitude to my girlfriends.

Sending up love to my grandmother—and a well-rolled neck bandana.

Heart rock at Joshua Tree National Park
Bandana babes at Heart Rock in Joshua Tree N.P.​​

Survival Tips for the Emotional Ice Bath Known as Winter:

  • Be with friends. And google Winnie the Pooh friendship quotes.
  • Acknowledge your sluggishness and soggy feelings. Then channel that into your creative expression. For me, it was photography and writing about my grandmother’s passing. It always makes me feel better to make something.
  • Be like the Florida bear and semi-hibernate. Indulge in rest whenever possible and don’t take no grief about. Earth is doing the same thing. And if you want seasonal, creative inspiration that helps you go with the seasons, check out the Girls’ Day concept with Anna Meshejian.

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