I tell Josh to go on ahead, that I need a moment. I leave it vague so that he thinks I probably need to pee. I sit down and cry. I cry my eyes out in quiet, bursting sobs that shake my body and rock my core. On this high fin of rock and sand in the Mojave Desert, I can see for miles. The relative emptiness and endlessness of the landscape feels like the vast void of my soul right now.
I came to Joshua Tree to join in the annual New Years shenanigans: climbing, bonfires, costumes, communal meals with way too much coffee and whiskey (sometimes together), and general hilarity. I had read this account of running a Joshua Tree traverse and was excited to give it a go, especially when my failure to get picked in the Western States lottery (for the second time) meant I would now be running my first 100-miler in just four short months rather than seven. I had not run much over the course of the fall and suddenly realized I would need to amp up my fitness if I was to be ready by April.
|Annual shenanigans at play.|
|Andy sends it.|
And so we found ourselves several hours before sunrise on one of the shortest days of the year, sailing along the quiet highway between Joshua Tree and Yucca Valley. We lamented that we hadn't made coffee and wished against all hope that there might be a Starbucks open. Sure enough, a few minutes later, we saw one with lights on...yeah-ah!
Duly caffeinated, we drove on to the far western end of Joshua Tree National Park: Black Rock. It was darned chilly and I realized that somewhere along the way I had lost one of my gloves. I tucked my other hand in my sleeve and we got to moving right away. The first section was gradual uphill across semi-frozen sand. Josh wasted no time at all in launching into a narrative arc of his life - his recent travels in eastern Africa, his bike tours with Andy, the complex relationships between his siblings and his mother. It was apparent to me immediately that Josh's fitness could run circles around my meager fitness, and I was content to let him talk while I tried to keep a slow, even pace.
We reached the top of the climb just as the sun popped over the nearby hills, and we cheered and celebrated with margarita-flavored shotbloks. The terrain changed from sand to a dirt road for a couple miles, then we hit a glorious ridge: knife-edged with steep gullies on either side, barrel cacti and joshua trees and yucca, red dirt and rolling hills. We whooped and hollered and repeated over and over how incredible it was, racing down the ridge through a landscape that felt as remote as any I have encountered yet.
As we carried on toward Keys View Road, the heat started creeping up and doubts started creeping into my head. I was so grateful when we hit the parking lot, where we had stashed water and snacks in a bear canister the night before. I wanted to stretch the break out as long as possible, but Josh was antsy and reasoned, "We better keep moving, eh?" Knowing he was right, we headed back out. The section behind Ryan Campground was the hottest of the day, and I felt tired and dehydrated. Josh got about 200m ahead of me, and I settled into a dirge of a jog, feeling alone and adrift and vulnerable and sad. At one point, Josh waited for me to catch up, and seeing him made me feel even more vulnerable, and I urged him on.
It was here that I broke down. The sound of my sobs was swallowed by the stillness of the endless desert. I sat down in the dirt, grabbed my knees to my chest, and rocked back and forth, tears streaming down my face. I missed her, more than anyone could possibly know, more than I would admit to myself. Since my mom's death, I had allowed myself sadness, but I wouldn't allow any other feelings. People had said, "But she was so young. And you are so young. It's not supposed to happen like this." I had shrugged them off - "supposed to" is a silly thing that has no bearing on my life. There is only what is.
For some reason, alone and feeling kind of dehydrated and tired in that desert, I suddenly felt all the things I had fought: sadness that I would never get to talk to her again, anger that she hadn't taken care of herself, pity for myself as a motherless being in the great, big world, scorn for everyone who couldn't understand. It all washed over me in a great big wave.
And then it was gone. As if waking from a dream, I stood up, wiped my eyes, felt my eyes adjust to the vividness of the desert again, and started running, invigorated anew. Just a ways on, I found Josh. "All good?" he asked, having no idea what I had just been through. "Yup, I just needed a minute. Thanks for waiting."
Josh scampered away and I once again settled into a moderate jog. The terrain throughout had been sandy and not conducive to fast running, and this section was no different. The ecosystem felt different here, though - a floodplain of braided sandy washes and more scrubby plants than cacti and joshua trees. The washes were hard to follow. I looked for Josh's footprints, but I lost sight of those, too. I had no idea if I was on the trail any more, but I knew the road was just off to my left, so if worse came to worse, I could run along it until I hit the entrance station. This section is downhill and shaded and though I was worked, I knew at this point that I would finish. I was super low on water, but I knew Andy would have some with him and in his car. Eventually, I found a section that definitely looked like the trail and I continued on it for another half-mile or so until I hit the parking lot.
When I arrived, Josh was there, sitting on the hood of Andy's car. Andy was nowhere to be seen. Josh looked at me and said, "You didn't see Andy either?" The car was locked and we were both out of water, no Andy in sight. Shit. Realizing that we both took different routes through the rolling washes and scrub brush, it was easy to believe that Andy took yet another route through and missed seeing us completely. We wondered how long he might go before realizing we missed each other.
After a time, Andy showed up, just as relieved as us, having had visions of us with a broken leg somewhere further along the trail. At this point, I was dehydrated, a little nauseous, and freezing - not uncommon for me after a long run, but also heightened by the approaching darkness of the late afternoon. I crawled into Andy's sleeping bag in the back seat and napped deliriously until we made it to the pizza place in Twenty-nine Palms. Three slices of pizza later, I was coherent and bubbly again and already trying to convince Andy to join me next year...