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Palm Springs & Joshua Tree NP February – March 2020

Palm Springs Finales
In Town
I pushed back, I resisted the urge to close my eyes. The glorious moment felt like what one only experiences in their dreams, when their eyes are closed, when there is the perfect blend of surreal inputs. But this was real, the intense visual experience was real time, and I needed all of my sensory channels fully engaged even though doing so was overloading.

The soaring palm tree fronds fluttered in the gentle wind before the brilliant, blue sky; the same welcome breeze cooled me. The intense afternoon light enhanced the spare details of the steep hills, making them seem unusually colorful. The several clusters of days that reached the seasonal but illusive, 80 degree (27 C) temperatures, had jolted the native flowers to bloom and expel their pungent, sweet aromas. Those scents triggered my receptors that are usually activated by jasmine, a scent that puts my mind into orbit. The fragrance of orange blossoms occasionally intermingled with those of the yellow blooms on the bushes. I imagined that the bees were going as crazy as I was from these almost forgotten, potent, perfumes.
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It was a good year for Cholla cacti in the desert.

The single-digit humidity and light winds kept me unexpectedly comfortable in the direct sun while we pedaled up the 5th of 5 hills on our last bike ride for the season in Palm Springs. We weren’t in the tropics, but the abundant green lawns and numerous, lush plantings in this posh residential area made it feel tropical.

The bulk of our ride had been on narrow, dead-end roads on the dry Indian lands that shouted “desert,” unlike this adjacent neighborhood. The low traffic in both areas and the dramatic contrasts between the 2 made it a favorite route for our weekly, 20 mile ride. This day however, had been special because of the powerful fragrances and perfect mix of sun and wind. Much of the winter had been unseasonably cool and damp and we couldn’t have crafted a more delightful finale to our 3 month stay in Palm Springs.

On the Patio
The night before, we’d enjoyed an end-of-the-season hiking club patio party for the hike leaders. Usually it is held after our March 1 departure for nearby Joshua Tree National Park, but one of the legacy members spoke up and said “You should be there” and proposed a February date. It too was a source of deeply satisfying closure for our winter stay.

Only 2 hours long, it was a smaller group than attends the monthly socials and we knew a higher percentage of the people. Like on the bike ride, we felt satiated rather than a sense of loss with this, the last club event for us until December. We find endings to be difficult, there is usually a sense of being torn away and then of a need to mend the scar. This time it was different, this time, these endings were nurturing instead of diminishing.

In the Streets
The backdrop to our satisfying finale events had been the very festive Modernism Week in Palm Springs, which sets the holiday destination abuzz. It’s an annual, 10-day event celebrating mid-century

architecture and design. Bright red, open-topped, double-decker buses are brought in to tour the city, taking delighted tourists to the former homes of the rich and famous. Small guided groups of people on foot are out and about looking at the gates and walls of the same enclosed homes.
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Some of the Club’s hike leaders on the trail.

A vintage car show and auction piggy-back on Modernism Week and bring exotic cars out of their local, vault-like garages into town, as well as others from far and wide. These cars swarm the streets, many cruising slowly with the tops down and grinning guys at the wheels. A Lamborghini and McLaren were smartly positioned in the drive-way of a pay-to-see home on display near us. There was something for everyone, from Model A’s to turquoise Caddie’s with enormous fins to the latest high tech, high priced models. These iconic Palm Springs events had created a lively backdrop to our own finales that made us smile, that made our annual, 3 month stay in the desert feel complete.

On the Trail
On our last day in Palm Springs, I shared a grand outing with Margaret, one of the few club members that undertakes long hikes. At her suggestion, we drove into the nearby mountains to escape the heat, to walk a section of the Pacific Crest Trail. At Mile 7, Margaret decided to go for it, to make this day her first 20 miler, and we charged up to nearly 7,000’. By chance, I was having a rare day when my performance wasn’t encumbered by antihypertensive medications and I was able to fly down the rolling return. We didn’t quite make 3 mph on the descent, but setting that intention got us very close to it. Margaret was thrilled to be breaking through her 20 mile barrier, I was thrilled to be faster and more surefooted than I’d been all season, and we were both delighted to be off the trail at sunset.

Chatting during the drive down the narrow, winding road, I realized that this hike had presented another validation, that of my ‘heavy pack training’ that Bill and I began in July. We had gradually pushed our usual pack weight of about 12 pounds to 20 pounds for our first backpack trip in October. We’d had 4 months to adapt to the extra weight and we both struggled with the additional load but made it. I had wondered if at 6 months, the usual neuro-muscular adaptation time required for a new sport, I would be noticeably better.

The hoped for improvement at the 6 month point in December wasn’t there but, amazingly, it was on this day, at the end of 8 months since beginning the conditioning for the additional strain. Not feeling well from medication side-effects, I hadn’t attempted carrying a 20 pound pack since the 6 month point. But interestingly, when I had hoisted my 20 pound pack to weigh it in the morning, I noticed that it was effortless, that it didn’t elicit the usual groans that had speckled the preceding 6 months. It wasn’t until we were in the car that evening that it all came together: the ease of weighing the pack, the unusual obliviousness to the heavy pack on my back for 20 miles and 3200’ of gain, and the timing. The adaptation wasn’t complete at 6 months, but it certainly was there at 8 even though I hadn’t specifically trained for the weight the last 2 months. I’d made it; I’d fully adapted to carrying a 20 pound load; it now would be safe to go for more. And even better: I’d effortlessly completed my first “20/20,” a 20 miler with 20 pounds.

Birds of the Salton Sea
The Backstory
“Exercise, eat; exercise, eat; exercise, eat” continues to describe almost all of our days no matter where we are in the world but we do strive to introduce a bit of novelty. This winter our special events included participating in an all-day, bird-watching, audio tour around the Salton Sea. The more than 150 miles driven would qualify as a traveling day when pulling our trailer, but this was only for entertainment.
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Bird man Kurt in an ancient Indian rock fish trap on the former edge of the Salton Sea.

The Salton Sea sits atop the San Andreas Fault and is a major landmark in the Coachella Valley, at the east end of 45 miles of desert cities with Palm Springs being at the west end. Even though it is far from our hiking trails, “Oh look, you can see the Salton Sea” can be heard on hikes. In there with the golf courses and the Palm Springs airport, the Salton Sea is a reference point when taking a breather on a trail.

The current manifestation of the Salton Sea was formed in 1905 by an ill-fated effort to redirect the Lower Colorado River, the river we know so well from the Grand Canyon. But the Salton Sea has a long history and was known as the Ancient Lake Cahuilla in its earlier iterations.

The ancient lake was 3 times the size of the current Salton Sea, which filled and emptied at least 5 times in the last 1,300 years. Water lines formed by mineral deposits are clearly visible on the hillsides. It was one of the largest lakes in North America. The modern Salton Sea is about 33 miles long, 13 miles wide, about 25’ deep, and its surface is about 235’ below sea level.

In the 1950’s, the Salton Sea was the second most visited state recreation area in California and more people visited it than Yosemite. It was a major destination for celebrities visiting their yachts from nearby LA, as well as the burgeoning middle class coming with their families to boat and camp. There were over 400,000 boats per year on the lake. The boom was short-lived however, and increasing salinity and a flood were the end of the hotel and marinas.

Currently, the Salton Sea is loved, hated, and lamented. It keeps coming out on the losing end of the perpetual competition for water rights in the SW. The critically important agriculture industry wants its share, San Diego won its battle for more water, and tourism and recreational interests struggle to be heard. Definitely one of the losers is the Salton Sea itself—it’s shrinking and shrinking because of the diversion of its source waters.
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Old marina on the Salton Sea.

The salinity of the Salton Sea is now at 6.7%, compared to the ocean which is 3.5% and the Dead Sea which is 33.3%. The 400 million tilapia fish of a few years ago are all but gone, as are the fish-eating migratory birds. Being on the Pacific Flyway, the loss of the fish is a crisis for the 400 of the 660 species of birds known to breed in North America that stop at the Salton Sea.

The Outing
For $40 per person, we signed up for this adventure lead by a professional birder. With a walkie-talkie in each of the 9 vehicles, Kurt’s running commentary of “A meadowlark on the power line ahead on the right and a turkey vulture at 2 o’clock on the left” was interspersed with information about the next right turn or a tricky intersection ahead. Clearly experienced with herding cats as well as watching birds, Kurt had a stop at a Travel Center (commercial version of a highway rest stop) in the first hour where attendees could fill their near-empty gas tank or belly and empty their bladders.

Even though both my mother and my father were committed birders, it didn’t take long for us both to discover that we weren’t there yet. The sport does seem to have a strong appeal to the older set, to which we belong, but we proved to have hardly moved the needle on our level of interest in birds. Birds are nice enough and I love seeing a snowy egret, a Great Blue Heron, or a red-tailed hawk now and then, but isolated sightings are still sufficient for me. I don’t need to go looking for them and I find identifying a wild flower more engaging than ‘parting out’ a bird while looking through binoculars.

I strove to stay open minded, to be fascinated by our numerous stops to scout the next bird. Kurt knew his stuff: where the burrow owls could reliably be found sitting outside their burrows; the dead-end road with the friendly little dog and the vermillion flycatchers that could be spotted on the electrified fence’s posts; and the field favored by the hundreds of the weighty-looking Sandhill cranes for overnighting though a few guards could usually be found during the day, which were the ones we saw.

We enjoyed these close-at-hand specimens but our eyes glazed over when looking at a hundred little birds in a Salton Sea wetlands with a half-dozen species moving about. It was baffling to the untrained eye, even with binoculars.
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The fascinating thermal mud pots.

When we visited the mud pots and mud volcanoes before our picnic lunch stop, it became clear that we were still much more enamored with geology than with birds. The mud pots were right there, at our feet, bubbling and blurping, delighting our bored brains. We could stare as long as we wanted, pace around them, and take photos without them disappearing like the birds were prone to doing. Even at the first bird stop where we saw the vermillion flycatcher, our imaginations were more activated when Kurt invited us to turn around to admire a 10,000 year-old rockslide. We clearly had not yet learned how to be thrilled by the sight of a bird.

We had immediately confessed to our 2 carpooling passengers that we weren’t the real thing, that we weren’t birders, and that we’d had to borrow binoculars. We shared a laugh when they proposed that we were infiltrators sponsored by the cats, and they let it be. They enjoyed the comfy ride in the back seat of our big truck and we appreciated their guidance when we were off the mark with a bird sighting. This was their 3 or 4th time to join Kurt for the all-day event.

The real birders raved about our tour guide whereas we labeled the activity as “low content.” It reminded us of our ‘outsider status’ at another recent talk given by a Search & Rescue (SAR) volunteer. The legacy hiking club members thought his presentation was great and invited him to speak next year; we however also labeled it as “low content”. To us, it was a rambling bit of off-the-top-of-the-head story-telling. One of his topics was advertised to be wildfire safety for hikers, which I was eagerly anticipating. When asked, he dismissed the topic with “use common sense.” It’s not like we are impossible to please; several years ago we were riveted by the stream of useful information imparted by the story telling of a SAR volunteer at Yosemite, potentially life-saving stories we still pass-on to our club hikers when on the trail.

Tour de Palm
Our hiking friend, Margaret, gifted us with her pair of tickets for the 22nd annual charity cycling event “Tour de Palm Springs.” Visitors from out-of-state announced their arrival plans just after Margaret and her husband committed to the cycling event and she graciously offered us her tickets, giving us another new regional experience.
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At the Tour de Palm start line.

Lucky for us, they had signed up for the 28 mile, not the 102 mile, event. We slowly recalled that our tens of thousands of miles of cycling had never included a day ride event like this even though we’d participated in many such running events years ago, a realization which added to our anticipation.

It was fun to be out on the closed or controlled-traffic roads that we’d never been tempted to ride and we enjoyed the camaraderie of our fellow riders. We admired the hundreds of like-new, high-end bikes, surprisingly well-represented even on our shorter event. We were on our somewhat battered, 35 pound, 20 year-old, touring bikes and stared at the amazing variety of colorful, sleek machines.

We were shocked however, to discover that many of the 28-mile event riders were far out-classed by their bikes. Our eyes bugged-out when we all hit the first grades, like when going up freeway overpasses, and the majority of riders hopped off these lovely steads to walk. And walking uphill wasn’t easy in their proper cycling shoes with bulky cleats protruding below the balls of their feet. It was such a contradiction to ride past them pushing their bikes that probably weighed half of what our over-built, steel bikes weighed.

We hadn’t realized that the event provided ‘sag wagons’ to haul riders and their bikes off of the course if they got into trouble but the services were well used from the get-go. While we digested the scene of walkers that looked like cycling carnage to us, we realized that one could ride a lot of miles in this, the Coachella Valley, without going up a single hill. And we slowly remembered our early days of cycling, back when we had learned the hard way, like they were, that one must go in search of steep hills to develop the cycling ability needed to fully enjoy the sport.

“Fast Walk & Famous Homes Tour” in Palm Springs
Christy, a hiking club member for 15 years, posted a novel event on the club calendar, which combined an easy sightseeing city walk with an introduction to race walking. She co-sponsored the Saturday morning activity with her medal-toting, masters-level, race-walking friend, Darlene.

We all did warm-up stretches against a wire fence and took a number of laps around a high school track to practice both the race walking form (straight knee) and the power walking technic (bent knee) while Darlene instructed us on the fine points. We then reconvened in an historic Palm Springs neighborhood to walk to a number of homes that were once occupied by Hollywood stars.

I’ve never had an interest in celebrities and, as expected, standing out in front of the fences and gates of these homes was as riveting to me as bird watching. But the activity did deliver what I had anticipated, which was the opportunity to meet members of the hiking club that I didn’t see on the trails and to obtain some tips about increasing my walking speed. I was once again hoping to break my 4 mph (6.4 km/hr) barrier with some consistency.
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This non-famous door in the Palm Springs historic district caught my eye.

Rather than actually learning anything new, the instruction was a great reminder of what I’d previously learned when reading about barefoot running years ago, which was primarily using a short gait and a tight, elevated arm swing. It wasn’t long after that that I was able to sustain a 4 mph pace for 2 or more miles under ideal conditions. Most importantly, I learned that my failure over the preceding months to walk at that clip was because of the drag on my system from my anti-hypertension medication. I’d decreased my dose a month earlier because of show-stopping dizziness and suddenly, my access to snappy walking was there.

Epic Hikes
We didn’t do any truly epic hikes during our 3 months in the Palm Springs area this year. The early and frequent storms brought snow and flash floods and continued into March, keeping us off of the peaks. We did however make several of the hiking club’s classic, all-day hikes, both on official club hikes and on private hikes with select members.

The only new, big, hike for us was the one-way Jo Pond Trail hike that began on the valley floor and went to 6800’. The hike organizer and I dropped off her car in the mountains the night before so it was waiting for us when we finished the hike shortly before sundown the next day. Only 12 miles but with 6600’ of gain and an upper segment for which there was no trail, made it a ‘bonding experience.’ One of those where you say “Oh, you were on that hike!?”

Bushwhacking through dense brush and downed trees towards the end of the hike was physically and mentally exhausting and Bill and I were both plucking tiny bits of spines and other sharp plant material out of our calves and thighs a month later, despite wearing long pants. The patches of snow were a little worrisome though the ice coated trees were beautiful. And, after many navigation challenges out in the open, the uncertainty felt so much more dire once down in a hollow with a heavy tree canopy. Five hikers and 2 or 3 opinions about which was the right direction to go so late in the afternoon took its toll on everyone’s confidence. Bill saved the day with his year’s of experience in using the GPS app, Gaia, which allowed him to decisively end the confusion.
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Route finding on the Jo Pond hike was challenging much of the way.

We also did our annual trek on several 15-miler hikes, like Guadalupe and Palm Desert to Palm Springs routes. Like the memorable Jo Pond recon hike, these were also one-direction hikes that required parking a car at the finish. Sometimes they are done as car key exchanges between 2 groups going opposite directions when they encounter each other in the middle, though they weren’t done that way this year. These long hikes are routes that we couldn’t do with just the 2 of us, it takes a community of hikers to draw upon to make them happen.

Relocating to Twentynine Palms, At Joshua Tree National Park’s Doorstep
We made the slow, 90 minute drive from Palm Springs to Joshua Tree National Park in high winds on March 1, a time when the assessment of the coronavirus’s reach was escalating multiple times a day. We’d be there 3 weeks and would have much greater “social distance” than in Palm Springs to buffer us from the bug. Our only daily hygiene challenge would be using the public shower house twice a day in the RV park and once a week, we’d drive to Palm Springs for acupuncture appointments and marketing. We expected those three weeks to be a defining interval for the epidemic.

By the hour, our 4 months overseas was increasingly looking like a no-go. No decision was made, but we were making peace with the thousands of dollars we’d forfeit in airfare and reservations. Plan B was to spend the summer in Colorado in our trailer hiking the 14’ers, some of the 50 or so peaks over 14,000’ (4,300m). We might not hike that high, but they’d make a good focus, a good destination, for us. And they would make for good trail chat in the future. There was no ready Plan C that was as appealing and with equally good social distancing as the 14’ers

Joshua Tree: The Simple Life
Our “exercise-eat” mantra is never more true than when we are parked at 29 Palms. We gravitate towards out-and-back segments on the 37 mile-long, California Riding & Hiking trail within the nearby Joshua Tree National Park.
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Ice on trees high on the Jo Pond recon hike.

The trail is a tad bit boring but for a few weeks each year, we treasure it for the opportunity to do long, relatively easy, walks. This season we positioned ourselves to eat lunch in the truck most days because of the cool, windy weather. We’d park at one of the few junctions of the park roads with the trail, do an out-and-back hike of around 8 miles, and return to the truck. There we could put our feet up, eat the lunch waiting for us, and make any gear adjustments that we wanted. After lunch, we’d head out in the opposite direction, doing another out-and-back. It was a simple way to get the miles we wanted with less repetition on a given segment of the trail. It also felt a bit safer to do long hikes in 2 shorter segments on the days I hiked alone.

We once again enjoyed our annual event of streaming a 3 day ketogenic diet conference while in 29 Palms. We always eagerly anticipate the flood of new information but by lunchtime on the second day, Bill was saying “It makes my head hurt.” Yup, that is why we do it. Some of the science is over our heads and some of the concepts challenge the decisions we’d made about our diet, but we knew we’d be having “ah-ha” moments for weeks, if not months, after digesting the new information.

What’s Next
Our orderly life of hiking 40 miles a week, making the difficult 25 mile bike ride into the park, and cautiously re-introducing our bodies to the special stresses of using our vertical climber, had been in profound contrast to the constantly escalating coronavirus chaos and uncertainty around us while at 29 Palms. We had perfect clarity that we would not be going overseas for the summer, though we were postponing canceling our flights and lodging reservations in hopes of receiving refunds.

We still hoped that we’d be heading for Colorado for a summer of hiking after spending April at home tending to our medical and other needs, but the various “lockdowns” threw even those plans into question. We’d be heading back to the Pacific NW not knowing if we’d be showing-up for the 2 dozen appointments we’d made or visiting any friends. The need to increase our tolerance for uncertainty seemed the only certain thing.