Aztecs adventure to Joshua Tree National Park

It’s 2:30 p.m. on Nov. 4. I huddle with campers around an Aztec Adventure van in the Aztec Recreation Center turnaround, eager to begin our rock-climbing trip. My group is equipped with our own interpretation of hiking shoes, JanSport backpacks, kooky straw hats and cold water bottles. We quietly introduce ourselves to each other as we throw our bags and gear atop the van. Our destination? Joshua Tree National Park—the desert refuge for misled anarchists, hippie children, rambunctious rock climbers, hungry hikers and venturous Aztec Adventure students.

The group is led by a spritely character, aptly named Forresst— two s’s to be exact. His name presumably given to him by his father after a happy smoke with a good ol’ chap named Forest. Forresst had large, blue eyes and a faintly carrot colored yet majestic beard. Our leader, while thin, was full of energy. “Joshua Tree!” he yells to us as he pulls the van out of the parking lot.

The car ride is a three-hour drive north on Interstate 15. It begins on the busy highway, crowded by cars, overreaching outlets and barbarous billboards which compete for attention with subliminal sexual innuendos. As the van passes a massive Skechers factory, I think to myself, “So this is where they are making our shoes, in the middle of the desert?”

Slowly, the urban chaos of Southern California begins to fade as the van approaches wind farms. Their turbines resemble hundreds of white toothpicks dotting the desert, mesmerizingly spinning in subtle unison. The desert swallows us like the ocean; we are just a small ant-like van crawling our way into its greatness. The land is accented with sparse brush and the isolated, strong Joshua trees.

Turning onto Indian Cove, the van makes its way into the park. Beautiful boulders sit peacefully on top of each other, as delicately placed as any stone in a Japanese garden. The van bumps through to the campgrounds, the tires slowly churning over the gravel and children play amongst the rocks, galloping and bellowing like miniature mountain goats.

We reach our campsite, which is nestled between boulders. Everyone unloads and dashes to the outhouse. A pleasant, simple outhouse: One toilet, one toilet- paper dispenser. The toilet hole, though, is dark and chilling.

“I have to sit my bare butt over this dark oblivion?” I thought to myself.

After unpacking the van and putting up the tents, it’s dinnertime. Hungry campers gather around the picnic table and are delegated orders to cook. The sun begins to set and the stars emerge. There is something beautiful in preparing a meal this way. It is a communal effort, a simple practice. But is this practice leaving us? When was the last time I made dinner with a group? I no longer prepare my food—I order fast-food. We have taken eating, which is so important and changed it into a nuisance. I give myself $5 to spend on dinner and five minutes to eat it. Workers hand me food like a prepackaged present—I devour, unconscious of what is in the food, how the food was prepared and how it will end up after.

But none of this bothers me at the camp. Dinner is made from simple ingredients and preparation. The meal is hearty and vegetarian—a delicious chili topped with corn bread and cheese. Like dogs, we grab our food and wander off to our own nooks around the campfire; satisfied and happy. Food tastes better out there in the cold. The food is necessary. It is essential for warmth energy and survival.

We each clean our dishes and pick up our trash, embodying the “leave no trace” principle at its finest: nothing can be forgotten. The food waste will be put into compost, the recyclable articles will be recycled. We flatten cans with rocks to preserve recycled space. It is a seemingly primitive act. I pick up a big rock, I smash the big rock to ground.

We huddle into our sleeping bags, packing clothes in the creases to keep us warm. The moon shines as bright as a headlight in the sky.

I wake up the next morning with a soft nudge from Eddie, the coleader. He is soft-spoken with an aptitude for English accents and witty humor. A bonanza of good breakfast items sits on the picnic table as the campers emerge from their cocoons. We eat and are off to the first day of climbing. With our gear loaded on our backs, we begin walking to the face of the cliff. We twist our way through the path already laid out by previous hungry climbers, brushing past spiked plants snagging our shirts like children vying for attention. We arrive at a rock and Forresst sets up the ropes.

Layla—who could have been Eric Clapton’s inspiration—makes her first ascent. I hold the rope tight as she grasps the rock, her chalked hands search desperately for a gracious crack, while her feet smear the wall for one fruitful foot chip. She successfully latches on as tight as a sticky-handed lizard to a twig and pulls herself up the rock.

Patience, strength and balance are key elements in rock climbing. It requires all the energy and focus your body has focused completely on one aspect. It’s just you and the rock.

This is just one day in the life of Aztec Adventure’s Joshua Tree trip. I went on the trip with no expectations, but left with a stronger sense of what is good: food, people and fun outside on the rocks under the sun and the stars.