We were surrounded by trees that could have been drawn by Dr. Seuss. A desert hare had just crossed the trail in front of us, its ears translucent in the rising sun. But it was something else that caught the attention of my 28-year-old son.
"I can't believe how silent it is out here," he said.
I agreed but said nothing. We walked on.
My son, Will, works for a start-up in Los Angeles, about three hours west of Joshua Tree National Park. When I visited him, he'd had the job for less than a year and had recently moved from a house-and-yard neighborhood to a loft in the Fashion District. I'd planned on five days there, but he had only the weekend off.
He and I had done a fair amount of camping when he was younger — backpacking on the Long Trail in Vermont, kayaking on the Chesapeake Bay, that sort of thing. His enthusiasm had waned as he grew older, and I was a bit surprised when he agreed that we should visit Joshua Tree. I had never been, but he had gone while attending college in California.
I booked us rooms at the Campbell House bed-and-breakfast in Twentynine Palms, a town outside the Oasis Visitor Center on the park's northern border.
We'd do a short hike on Saturday after driving to the park. On Sunday morning, we'd do one of the "challenging hikes" listed on the park's website — the eight-mile Boy Scout Trail – and strive for getting back to L.A. by 4 p.m., so Will could prepare for the workweek.
We missed out on my first choice — a tour of the abandoned Keys Ranch — and instead headed from the visitor center to hike the nearby Split Rock loop. Half a dozen cars were parked in an unpaved lot. Will got out of the car, and as I changed shoes and stuffed a daypack with water bottles, he ran to the closest ridge of rocks. Soon he was 60 feet up. "Oh, man, I forgot how cool a place this is," he called down.
The trip was already worth it.
The dominant geological feature on the 2.5-mile Split Rock Loop is a fine-grained rock — sometimes tan, sometimes gray — called monzogranite, the cooled and weathered remnant of magma that welled up from deep in the earth more than 100 million years ago. The boulders, ranging in size from baskets to buildings, awoke my imagination.
A few minutes after we started, I shot a photograph of an inclusion running through a rock, and above it a jet contrail of the same shape. We stopped at one formation that looked like bread dough from a kitchen with no pans. Elsewhere I saw the head of a dinosaur whose chief feature was nostrils. And a whale with a racing stripe.
I'd heard that Joshua Tree was a favored destination for people taking hallucinogenic drugs. I was starting to see why.
The rock also invited climbing. Will, who has done some climbing, made it to the knife-edge top of a group of boulders next to the trail. He announced he was going to stand up, but not proceed along the edge "because it's a long way down."
I pictured my long-dead mother watching me do something stupid like this and wondering what to say that wasn't alarmist.
The Campbell House B&B is an 11-room stone house that was finished in 1929. It was the architectural embodiment of a love story of Hollywood dimensions (with a significant Philadelphia component).
Elizabeth Crozer, the daughter of a Philadelphia banker, and William Campbell, a California orphan, met in 1917. Crozer's family owned coal, iron, and steel companies and textile mills, among other assets. She graduated from what is now the Agnes Irwin School; the family name is attached to Crozer-Keystone Health System.
Campbell enlisted in the Army and was sent to Europe during World War I. Two days before the armistice, he was gassed. Frail and in declining health, he married Elizabeth — whose father then disowned her.
In 1924, the couple moved to the Oasis of Mara, near Twentynine Palms, on the advice of a doctor who specialized in the care of mustard-gas victims. They lived in a tent. William's breathing improved. They built a cabin, erected a windmill, planted a garden.
In late 1925, Elizabeth learned that her father, on his deathbed, had restored her to his will. She was beneficiary of a trust worth $6 million. They built a stone house, and they became notable archaeologists.
Today, the couple greets guests inside the front hall from a large wall photograph, though they have eyes only for each other. An adoring Elizabeth gazes at her war-damaged William, in uniform.
Outside, shaggy palms and tamarisks shaded the raked-gravel yard. Chairs and tables sat on islands of fieldstone. Behind the house were cottages and a picket fence. At the edge of the property, a wooden water tank stood next to a headless windmill tower. The place was a cross between a Zen temple garden and an abandoned set for Oklahoma!
We arrived at the parking area for the Boy Scout Trail at 7 a.m. The plan was to get a ride back to the car from the other end. I'd been told that Uber drivers operated inside the park. We'd see whether that were so.
There were 18 cars at the trailhead. It seemed unlikely that all those people were day hikers who had risen earlier than we had. Soon, it was clear who they were.
To our right, a woman with pink hair, carrying a sleeping child, made her way through the spiky scrub, followed by a man clutching sleeping bags to his chest. We stepped aside to let five people pass; they were pulling two blue plastic wagons piled with stuff. Soon after, two men passed us, hugging a tent and sleeping gear.
Car camping out of sight of the car — but not so far that a backpack was necessary — appeared to be popular in Joshua Tree.
After that, we had the trail to ourselves. It was flat for a while, then climbed gradually. The Joshua trees — actually a species of yucca — became bigger and more evenly spaced the deeper we went into the park. They were also more extravagant, as if finally free to do what they wanted.
"How well do you remember your Dr. Seuss?" Will asked at one point. "These trees remind me of the trees in The Lorax. It's an allegory of environmentalism."
Soon we crossed a ledge. Across it ran a strip of white quartzite, segmented and raised from the surface. It looked like the fossil backbone of a creature from the Seussian Epoch.
For a stretch, the trail was a dry streambed, channeling us between gigantic hills of rock. I suggested that we leave it to get a taste of exploration.
Our destination was a high spot about half a mile up a slope to our left. The land was a boulder garden, every step an invitation to twist an ankle or fall into a crevice. I looked back toward the trail several times, taking visual bearings in case we needed to retrace our steps. But the landmarks disappeared into the geological jumble as we climbed.
Will scrambled straight up. I walked in switchbacks. When he reached the top, he spread his arms out, haloed in the sun. "Take a picture of me like the statue in Rio de Janeiro," he called back.
We sat at the top, ate energy bars, and drank from our water bottles. The trail, sandy and serpentine, was in plain view. Beyond another ridge was a basin and, far away, a few hazy buildings. There'd be no getting lost today.
A truth about walks in the wilderness is that they're invitations not just to silence and contemplation but to conversation and revelation. Two people walking single-file on a trail have a perfect balance of intimacy and distance.
They can speak in ordinary tones. They don't have eye contact. They can stop a conversation because of real or feigned distraction. They can resume it without asking permission.
During our two walks, my son and I talked about many things. He told me what he wanted to change to get ready for his 30s. I told him things I'd never mentioned about mistakes and bad decisions I'd made. We talked about money. We talked about generosity. We talked about what was around us.
On our hike there was no music, nothing to read, nobody to visit, no shortcut, no responsibilities.
A long switchback took us down to a plain where the trail was wide and indistinct. We saw a road and estimated how long it would take us to get there. Soon, we had a cellphone signal. We called for an Uber.
Fifteen minutes later, a man named Greg picked us up. He was my age. He'd grown up in Compton, south of downtown Los Angeles. He'd moved from L.A. 18 years before and had supported himself doing plumbing, electrical, and air-conditioning work.
Soon, we were back on Interstate 10, one of thousands of cars streaming west.
We got to Will's apartment at 4.12 p.m. We'd been gone 29 hours. We took showers. Will said he wanted some time to himself.
Joshua Tree National Park: 760-367-5500 or nps.gov/jotr
Campbell House: 760-367-3238 or campbellhouse29palms.com
29 Palms Inn: 760-367-3505 or 29palmsinn.com