INTERPRETING NATURE: Growth and Reflection in Joshua Tree National Park

By Ingrid Carrillo and Edgar Pedroza

On December 31, 2018 to January 4, 2019 eight Los Angeles Audubon staff and program alumni received the opportunity to participate in a backpacking trip with Outward Bound California in the Joshua Tree National Park backcountry. Both Outward Bound California and Los Angeles Audubon worked together to grant scholarships to all participants. Some of the scholarship recipients were part of the Baldwin Hills Parklands Conservation Certificate Program and others were alumni of the Baldwin Hills Greenhouse Program. Five of the participants that were part of the Baldwin Hills Parklands Certificate Program were Jamie, Racine, Alex, Felistus, Edgar, and Maya. The remaining two, Ingrid and Behtsabe, were Greenhouse Program Alumna. Almost all of us were new to backpacking. Edgar Pedroza and Ingrid Carrillo are currently Los Angeles Audubon staff members and they are also the writers of this reflection. They share their story in the style of a journal where they express their experience through both perspectives.

Outward Bound California instructors and Los Angeles Audubon backpacking group, hiking to the first camping site.

Outward Bound California instructors and Los Angeles Audubon backpacking group, hiking to the first camping site.

Day 1:

Ingrid — The first thing I saw pulling into the parking lot was snow. There were eight backpacks set up in a circle filled with clothes in them that I immediately layered on because I wasn’t equipped for the cold I was experiencing. I felt like I was in an episode of man vs wild, in this case woman vs Joshua tree. It was my first time ever backpacking. Beginning the hike to the camping site I started to look around at everyone and wondered if they were all as uncomfortable as I was. I looked towards Edgar and asked him if it’s supposed to hurt this much and he answered, “well it’s not supposed to feel good.” During the night all I heard was the tarp slapping back and forth because of the high wind. The winds were so rough I truly thought the tarp would go flying and we’d be left shelter-less. The girls got up to the sound of both side of the tarp disconnecting from the rocks holding it down. We all started yelling in fear because none of us knew what to do. The instructors came to our rescue and started to help us fix our shelter. Jamie and I held on to the pole in the center to keep it straight, we held on to that pole like we were holding on to our lives. Though clearly afraid, we both laughed. I didn't know whether the situation was humorous or we were just that nervous. I remember thinking to myself, “is this karma for something I did, what did I get myself into, is this going to be every night?” As these questions rush into my mind I heard Felistus counting down. Was I spending my new years grabbing on to a metal pole for dear life? Yes.

Edgar — Immediately after stepping out of the truck I was greeted with the cold, strong winds of the Mojave Desert. I briefly introduced myself to the Course Directors, Kenja and Wendy, along with our instructors, Danelia (D-Low) and Lauren. We had to skip all formalities and shift into survival mode since we were obviously not prepared to deal with the sub-freezing temperature and high winds. I added layers with intense urgency. It never became so clear to me that the only thing between myself and the elements were only sheets of fabric on my body. It felt as if the desert knew we were coming and wanted to display its power before these unsuspecting city folks. The first time wearing the pack all I could think about was the weight—sixty pounds! I came to truly understand the meaning of the weight carried the more time we spent in the back-country. The packs are heavy, but we eventually learn that we are more than strong enough to carry the load. After setting up camp, we went to bed by 8 p.m. The plan was to rest in preparation for the full day ahead, but the desert had other ideas. The winds got stronger around midnight as if in celebration of the New Year. Our shelters were being blown away one by one. I had no doubt in my mind that every one of us was awake at that point. I was able to rest enough to find the winds’ midnight antics amusing. I couldn’t help but smile as I heard shrieks and laughter mixed into the storm.

Outward Bound instructor passing by campsite during sunset.

Outward Bound instructor passing by campsite during sunset.

Day 2:

Ingrid — The desert announced it was morning by shining its bright light onto my face. I got up and immediately felt pain in my feet. It was a weird type of pain, my feet felt cold and numb to the point it hurt to stand or walk on them. I threw on my hiking boots and ran around camp —that didn’t work. I entered the shelter and removed my shoes and socks in hopes to warm up my feet using my hands. I was shocked once I saw my feet: red, white, pale blue like a weird American flag. I asked Jamie, who happens to be an EMT worker, to describe the symptoms of frostbite. She informed me that the skin looks like candle wax with reddish borders. I responded, “Yup, I think I have first degree frostbite.” I was told in the beginning of the course that cotton retained moisture, so we were only allowed to wear wool. I didn’t listen because I assumed that if I layered 3 pairs of socks it wouldn’t matter if one of them was cotton. It mattered. As soon as I took those evil socks off my life got instantly better. Later that day, it was time for the first day rock climbing. I sat out most of the time. I was too busy mentally and physically preparing myself. Mentally because I’m afraid of heights, and physically because my body was so cold it felt immobile. After lots of contemplation and running in place I was ready to go. D-Low volunteered to be my belayer (the person responsible for your rope and safety while you’re climbing) because I showed signs of uncertainty. I made it about 10 feet up without thinking. I wasn’t able to make it to the top, but I was able to challenge myself in trusting my belayer and the rope. When it was time to go back to camp I kept thinking to myself, I should’ve taken advantage of this opportunity. I promised myself I would climb more the next chance I got.

Edgar — The morning of the second day was a low point in the trip, pretty much for everyone. My energy was low and I was not excited to climb. Even though the sun had risen, it was still very cold. It also did not help that the climbing wall was in the shade, depriving us of the luminous desert sun. I felt cold-blooded and sluggish from lack of warmth. It was a relatively easy day in terms of activity. The climb site was a short hike from camp. I could see it when I walked up the hill that our camp was tucked against. It’s only initially that a new environment seems foreign. I felt like a coyote cub emerging from its den eager to investigate the surrounding desert. At moments I lamented being tied to the group and having such a tight schedule. I felt the urge to explore all the hidden nooks and crannies that I know exist somewhere in the desert, the places hidden away from the pounding gusts and frigid cold. I wanted to be free to roam the desert. Somehow it didn’t seem so large the second day and gradually the land around me began to shrink. Or was it that it was expanding? I no longer cared. After the climb, we raced against the sun to squeeze in a boulder scramble. Walking in a tight line, we made our way up the hill. It was a fun climb and we made it to the summit shortly. The view revealed the desert valley around us. I have always been interested in navigation and quickly made a mental note of the key landmarks in the area. This allowed me to developed a mental map of our camp. It was then I realized we had taken baby steps away from civilization.

Racine, taking a scenic break before continuing his climb.

Racine, taking a scenic break before continuing his climb.

Day 3:

Ingrid — The hike leaving camp felt longer than it did the first day. I think much of it had to do with the slight upward incline. After two days of complaining about the cold I began to complain about the heat, it never stopped. The desert isn’t very forgiving. I kept repeating to myself, “I will make it, just keep on pushing.” I challenged myself that day, those long three miles. We all checked in with each other and made sure we were staying hydrated. It’s times like these that we need the most support from others to help maintain a positive mindset. Having support from your peers makes a difference and is what helped us get to our destination. In the desert, everything requires thinking, strategizing, and planning. You must think before you act, strategize on how much energy and resources you’re using, and create a legitimate plan. Once we got to our destination we needed to restock. It was our job to redistribute water and food weight. We all had an assigned task — you were either doing food, trash, water, or equipment. Every job is equally important. We learned to rely on each other and to hold each other accountable. Lessons like these are best learned when you are put in challenging situations, which is why I think this trip is important for students to attend.

Edgar — The morning of our third day we got the opportunity to apply packing techniques. Only ten minutes behind schedule, we made our way to the meeting point. I felt a bit more comfortable on this hike despite the added incline. My body was beginning to adjust all on its own. It was another story for the rookies in our group who struggled to keep a steady pace. I saw how quickly we formed support networks within our group. We were all lifting each other up, and it all happened so organically. I realized that hierarchies and roles can serve to limit us. While they do provide guidelines for specific tasks and duties that need to be accomplished, we must not cling to them, and they should not define us or our experience. Due to the government shutdown, it had been unclear whether we would be allowed to continue the course, but we got word that we had obtained special permission to stay inside the park. Waves of excitement permeated all over my body and a grin spread across my face. I wanted to head out to the second site ASAP, but we had to restock food and water first. After making sure we had everything we needed, we ate a quick lunch and prepared to hike out. The lack of quality sleep and the stress of the desert were taking a toll. Although I was reaching my limit physically, the surrounding Joshua Tree forest and rock formations filled me with awe and wonder. I thought about the adventures still awaiting me and moved forward with steady determination.

Ingrid, Jamie, and Behtsabe checking harnesses before their climb.

Ingrid, Jamie, and Behtsabe checking harnesses before their climb.

Day 4

Ingrid — On our official last full day in the desert I felt so eager to climb that I volunteered to go first. My fears began to vanish and excitement flooded my body. I trusted my body and my belayer more than I did the first time. The trust I put into them and myself was what got me all the way up 30 feet. I looked down and saw everyone cheering for me. I felt so accomplished, I wanted to stay up there forever. After having fun testing our skills at the climbing spot we moved on to rappelling. You’d think after rock climbing this would be a breeze but it wasn’t. I felt the tension and anxiety levels rise. Each person that went down stayed at the bottom ready to greet the next person with a warm hug and a high-five. It amazes me how a simple gesture has so much affect on your self-esteem. During our final night we had the pin ceremony which is where you express why you think you’ve deserved the Outward Bound pin. D-Low started the ceremony by reading aloud to the group a powerful writing she had written earlier in the day during our reflection time. I layed down on my back and looked up at the stars. I had something originally written for the ceremony, but after listening to her speech and feeling the warmth of her words warming my spirit, I dismissed what I had first wanted to say. I remembered why I came here and what my passions were: I love people, I love nature, and I want to make sure these spaces are always available to people of all backgrounds. The ceremonial pin I received was a promise to keep doing what I love and to keep helping others. That is what I learned from this trip, to give meaning to everything I do. I think everyone deserves an opportunity like this, to look deep into themselves and realize what’s truly important. When you’re away from the city and away from distractions you have no other choice but to be introspective. Things that usually cross your mind in the city don’t cross your mind when you’re in the wilderness, and I remind myself to make note of that. Appreciate those moments of pure freedom.

Edgar — Our last full day at Joshua Tree was also our busiest. The instructors had a full schedule of climbing and repelling planned. The excitement in the group for this second climb was much greater compared to the first. Many first-time climbers went much higher than they thought possible. There was cheering and laughter, but most importantly there was warm sunlight. It is not often that I get access to a world famous climbing site. I decided that I was going to take a more challenging route. The only thing that existed at that moment was the rock and my body pressed up against it. My heart was pounding and I was scared. The fear slowly faded the higher up I climbed. Whenever I felt stuck I just had to remember to stay calm and not give up. I learned that having the tenacity to never give up can have a big pay-off. As every climber went up the wall, we built upon our experiences and learned from each others’ mistakes. We were learning together and helping to surpass our limits. I was amazed by the growth within the group that day. I saw people initially frightened and not confident in their abilities in Day 2 now smiling as they clung onto the ancient granite mounds. What had changed over the last few days to cause such a transformation? Where had this strength come from? It was there all along, just waiting to be discovered. Therein lies the importance of placing ourselves in environments that will not only challenge us but make us uncomfortable and reveal the strength within us.

Felistus, assembling lunch for the rest of the backpacking group.

Felistus, assembling lunch for the rest of the backpacking group.

Originally Published in The Western Tanager, Vol. 85 No. 5, May-June 2019