“You should go to Palm Springs with us,” suggested Janette, my dearest friend since high school. “You CAN go hiking with us!”
This open invitation to join up with friends on a girls-only vacation sounded dreamy, but it was a genuine challenge for me to accept. The trip would not be for touring the movie star-laden hot spots in downtown, but instead, we would challenge ourselves to as many trails, hikes, and rock crawls that could be fit into a single day. A vacation without my family, with just grown-ups, and a plan to take in the sights of the California desert on up close and personal on foot? Hmmmm…could I physically keep up a five-day hiking schedule? It ended up being one the most fun excursions I have ever taken, but there was a cost…a bodily cost which included sore legs, over expanded lungs, perspiration at a level that would make a college wrestler cringe and at least one mega-size bottle of Advil depleted. But, I survived and brought back enough sun-drenched happy memories and laughter underneath those California palm trees to get me through the upcoming Oregon winter.
I am an avid outdoor person and I enjoy hiking nature trails, taking a kayak on a lake, riding a bike on a sunny day, and a stout workout walking the sand dunes to keep healthy. My activity is usually limited to three miles a day or and two hours of labor around the farm. That is about my physical limit, much further than that and I hit the exhaustion wall. So, I would say I am in “mediocre” shape for a 50-year-old woman.
On the other hand, the “us” that Janette so cavalierly mentioned included herself and her longtime running buddy, Robyn. These two ladies have been competitive marathon runners, triathletes, and ultimately, the grand finale of all human physical strain: Ironman competitors. Yes, Ironman competitors…no way to sugar coat that fact. Basically, superhumans were asking me to join them on a week-long trek, on foot, through the wilderness areas of Joshua Tree National Park, Mt. San Jacinto State Park, the Coachella Valley, and other heat prone landscapes within 40 miles of a posh Palms Springs resort. All I had to do was keep up.
The ladies picked me up at the airport and we spent the first evening enjoying the pool and lazy river view from the resort balcony. We looked over some maps and tourist trail guides to decide on where we wanted to begin in the morning. We would be driving to Joshua Tree National Park, where there were a multitude trails with ranking difficulty levels to choose from. I suggested the 29 Palms Oasis trail, in part because of the notation of a beautiful palm tree scene at the end of the trail along with the promise it was only 3.2 miles long. It looked much more amiable than some of the others at 5 or 7 miles long over, what brochures referred to as, “strenuous terrain.”
Janette, Robyn, and I got going the next morning. They started their day with a zesty 8-mile run, while I went for a much shorter walk around the golf course to wake up my body for the day. We ate a light breakfast, packed water, sandwiches, and away we went.
Joshua Tree is a beautiful place with different landscapes, cacti, palms, yucca plants, and of course Joshua trees cropping up in all directions. We checked the trailhead notice board at 29 Palms Oasis and were eyeballing two things: First, it was 9 am and already 82 degrees. And second, there was a notice that said, “Don’t Die Today, Hike Safely” posted by the parks department. Really? I’m carrying one Dasani bottled water and a thin ham sandwich, so I’m starting to have second thoughts about how well prepared I am to hike safely.
Janette and Robyn just smile and encourage me to move along. They said the sign was for people who go out without water and no sense of direction, get lost, then dehydrated in the heat. Oh, yeah, guess who cannot tell left from right or South from North? Yep, the third wheel in this group, myself. There was no way I was going to lose sight of my two friends no matter how fast they might be traversing the terrain. If left to find my own way without a compass, I could just as easily end up in Bolivia instead of back at the trailhead parking lot. No worries, both Janette and Robyn made certain that the pace was rigorous but that I was always within 20 feet of the last turn or incline they made. Very thankful they were happy to keep their high-octane momentum to a level I could stay in tempo with them. This is especially important with Robyn. This is a woman of incredible speed and tenacity. Standing at about 5’ 3”, this running dynamo reminds me of the Flash from comic books. Robyn can be right beside you until you gaze down to see if your shoe is untied, then she is 15 yards ahead of you. No warning, just zoom and she is gone.
So, up relentless hills, over rocks, slate steps, across gravel, between rock faces, ascending downhill trails we went. Huffing and puffing, I took in the sights between oxygen breaks, and what sights there were. I could not have imagined a more stunning contrast of dry desert, brown landscapes, and prickly foliage leading to a tucked away oasis where palms trees jet out from nowhere. I imagined how the explorers of old must have felt when they first laid eyes on the shaded palms after miles of hot dust and desert temperatures. We ate our lunch under the palms and headed back without losing anyone in our three-woman party…I was gaining confidence. Believing we were done for the day and would drive back to the resort, the girls took a detour to fit in a few more miles on a different trail down the road. Based on the pain in my calves and swollen ankles, I imagine we covered about 8 miles that day in about 5 hours. Who knew how much legs could shake with over-exertion and still keep moving forward to the next bend on the trail. Very cool to push yourself in a safe and encouraging environment. It really made me feel capable and strong…but also in desperate need of a huge enchilada dinner, which came just in the nick of time that evening.
Each day was more fun than the last, as Janette and Robyn helped choreograph a different adventure to try each day. My favorite of the week had to be the tram ride 8000 feet up Mt. San Jacinto to drop us off at the top of the wilderness area. Here we were treated to nature trails filled with ancient trees, monstrous boulders, rock formations, and sheer cliffs jetting out over the valleys, gorges, and ravines (and rattlesnake warnings on every signpost!). Farther into the wilderness, we collected passes from the ranger station to visit the truly remote areas of the mountain. The elevation increased, our lungs pulled in more air to keep up with the demands of hand over foot climbing through rocks and over the unmanaged terrain. So much quiet beauty and fresh air that a person can easily forget about their cellular data and how much they pay for car insurance. Just peaceful and natural visual input for miles and miles. A powerful reminder that earth is still a wondrous place to call home. We ate granola and apples on the tip-top of the mountain, let the sun beat down on our backs, and enjoyed just being friends sharing in the solitude.
We also enjoyed a few crazy-delicious dinner outings that will stick in my memory. One place that must be added to the do-over list if I ever get back to Palm Springs is the Jackalope Ranch restaurant. With a rustic vibe and comfortable outdoor seating, the entire eating area had a backdrop of waterfalls, weeping willows, and cactus. The food was more than nourishing, providing generous servings of perfectly smoked tri-tip steaks, beef brisket, fish, salads…and margaritas. Big, icy, salty, luscious margaritas that made us laugh and slap a knee while we talked about our favorite highlights from the day.
The week ended with all of us having satisfied our craving for adventure, seeing new surroundings, getting some sun on our skin, a couple afternoons poolside wearing our biggest movie star sunglasses, and daydreaming how fun it would be to refuse to go back home for at least another month.
Hiking, walking, and being outdoors all day was a solid way to bond with these amazing women and blend with their kind spirits. The wholesome interaction and the multitude of exciting experiences, which pressed me to keep lifting my feet to move forward even when I was drained, did more than help expand my physical conditioning. The time spent with these ladies, out in the warm outskirts of mountains, trails, and valleys, ended up shining my soul.