Ocotillo may look like a bunch of green pipe cleaners, but they’re one part of the hostile environment at Joshua Tree National Park.
Ocotillo may look like a bunch of green pipe cleaners, but they’re one part of the hostile environment at Joshua Tree National Park.

The sign at the dusty trailhead didn’t mince words.

“Don’t die today,” it said in red letters, with an illustration of a bighorn sheep skull beneath it.

I surveyed the vast, barren desert around me, and looked at the strong sun in the nearly cloudless sky. The phone in my hand had no service. No people were around, except for my two companions: my brother and my fiancée.

A realization sunk in. It was true. Joshua Tree National Park could kill me today.

In the Southern California desert, the environment makes no concessions. Plant life—like the ocotillo, which looks like a bush made from green pipe cleaners—defends itself with spines that can stick unsuspecting passersby. Venomous rattlesnakes and scorpions roam the wilderness. The surprisingly rocky terrain crumbles and slips beneath your feet. And there’s nothing to shade you from exposure to the sun.

I started sweating almost as soon as we embarked Oct. 1 on our 7.25-mile hike, an out-and-back route to something called the Lost Palms Oasis. I began drinking from the four quarts of water on my back much earlier than I anticipated. My sweat started attracting a swarm of flies and bees, which I later learned were only interested in grabbing a drink. They, too, were thirsty, and a sweaty hiker just happened to have the most moisture of anything in the desert.

Just a half-mile into the trek, I couldn’t draw the energy to press forward. My feet dragged, and my mind raced. The potential dangers of the desert had worn me down. I worried that every step could bring me face-to-face with a rattlesnake or a crumbling cliff or even a parched fly. The sun could be cooking me alive, slowly. I had hardly started, and I already had reached a mental crisis point. I stopped walking.

“This is it,” I thought. “This is how I go.”

On the list of good ideas I’ve had, “Long hike in the desert at midday in late summer” will never appear. But I had a choice—I could obsess about the ever-present danger all around me, or I could enjoy the journey. I forced myself to pull it together, take another swig of water and press on.

About two miles after that breakdown, my mentality had changed completely. I marvelled at the varied topography, with trails following narrow ridgelines with deep valleys on each side. I laughed as small lizards darted out of trailside shrubs, startled by the vibration of our footsteps. My brother pointed out rock formations that would be good for climbing, and I agreed even if I knew I would never be the one to climb them.

I started to think about the environment that surrounded me and how different it was from home. How it was beautiful in a way I never would have considered possible. How diversity and variety makes the earth a wonderful place, and how each thing serves its purpose. I started to consider how a homogeneous world would not thrive, how a world without change would limit its and our potential. I agreed with myself that this hike was an apt metaphor for life and the choices we must make—be controlled and limited by the fear something bad could happen, or accept that the threat of danger is part of a grander, richer experience.

Then, as my hours in the sun started to add up, I began to think about shade and trees and how shade is good but trees are weird and how I’d struggle to explain a tree to someone who never had seen one. Because, really, what are trees?

Unable to acquire an answer, I switched, for the last three miles, to humming Simon and Garfunkel’s “Sound of Silence” to myself. I’ve heard stories from the 1970s about rock musicians going into the California desert and coming out with their minds altered after some psychedelic experience. Suffice it to say, boys, the drugs weren’t necessary.

Once back to the car, my brother drove us 90 minutes to buy camping supplies at the nearest Wal-Mart, where I slumped over a shopping cart and used it for support/mobility. Sensing my own delirium, I threw two fruit punch Gatorades into the cart. I drank them that night with gusto, and gradually returned to a state of equilibrium.

The next day, at one of the park’s visitors centers, I shared with a ranger that we had done the Lost Palms Oasis hike.

“Well, probably not the best idea,” she said, “but you made it, you’re here, you’re alive, and that’s all that matters.”

She handed me a sticker that read, “I hiked 5 miles | Joshua Tree National Park.” It hangs at my desk at work, a reminder that I’m here, I’m alive, and that’s all that matters.

Rob Anthes is senior community editor of the Hamilton Post. Connect with him on Twitter, @RobAnthes.