Even though the US has a total of 317 million inhabitants, and the larger metropoles can be rather crowded and overrun, the country is actually not that densely populated. Because the landmass is ENORMOUS! And there are many long stretches along the highways and vast areas of the country where you will find only a small number of people, if any at all. The wild nature here is stunning! We come almost directly from New Zealand, and I would like to think that we have high standards when judging beautiful nature. That we are hard to impress! But America can certainly impress in terms of beautiful nature! And this on a large scale!
There are 59 protected National Parks in the US. The largest one is in Alaska and is actually larger than any of the 9 smallest states in the country! Naturally, inside a National Park there are strict rules in terms of what the guests are allowed to do while visiting. For instance, you are not allowed to wander around just as you like. This is partly because of your own safety, but also in order to protect plants and animals. But if you do not mind following the rules and guidelines inside the parks, and obey whatever instructions a park ranger on site might give you, you are in for a grand experience. Already in the State of Washington we had our first taste of an American National Park. But an even larger and better experience awaited us in southern California. In Joshua Tree National Park.
The park includes both areas of the Mojave Desert and the Colorado Desert. And it has many interesting trails for almost any physical condition and current mood. You will find both long and hard trips that will take days to walk, or you can choose to just spend a few hours or even less, on shorter walks that will bring you back to your car before long.
Joshua Tree National Park is very different from anything else I have ever seen. It is a real desert! In large areas of the park everything is barren and desolate, but there are many “pockets” where you find plenty of life. It is named after the “Joshua Tree” which is a Yucca-type palm tree that thrives here. There are hundreds of thousands of them! Needless to say only highly specialized species of life can even exist here, where the average temperature during the daytime easily exceeds 45 degrees celsius in summer and drops well below minus 10 degrees celsius during winter. The earth is not exactly lush and rich. It is sand. Also it hardly ever rains. So what you see here are mostly cactuses of many sorts and trees that have specialized in thriving under what we can easily categorize as “hard and severe conditions”. In other words, they are not found many other places on the planet. Oftentimes we even walked by some trees that literally grew in cracks in the bare rocks! They do not make it easy for themselves!
Joshua Tree National Park is also home to many strange rock formations. Gigantic, terracotta-coloured rocks in the funnest shapes. Huge stones that are cracked open and have fallen on top of one another, making it all look like it was human made. Which it is not. We took a few walks along the shorter, marked trails and we found it really interesting to see just how the elements of nature have fought some dramatic battles through the ages. Unfortunately we did not see any animals at all. Except a few birds. This is yet another sign that the area is not exactly an easy place to live. But there are in fact goats, ibex, many types of birds and then of course snakes, scorpions and spiders. Every time Anton played a little too close to some bushes, moved some larger stones around or played with some of the holes in the dirt, I had to remind myself that IF any of these creatures should even be there, they would most likely run away as fast as possible before we even got close. We had a great time all together and spent quite a few hours without any dangerous encounters, real or imaginary!
We cruised around the area between Palm Springs, 29 Palms and San Bernardino for a few days. Outside the National Park we saw a few of the small, dusty desert towns, that you sometimes see in the movies: A sign in each end of the town, a couple of small, sleepy shops, a diner and a gas station. And in second and third row from the main street, on both sides, there are a few old houses. Everything is more or less worn down and in desperate need of maintenance.
This might sound sad and gloomy. But oftentimes we found ourselves smiling a bit as we drove through these areas. We were happy to see exactly this kind of country life. I am actually impressed that people can live there, and even more impressed that they WANT to live there! But they do, and I am sure that they are living a good and happy life just the way it is, and that they would not want it any other way. The roads are VERY straight over VERY long distances, which has made me appreciate the cruise control in our rental car. Otherwise I would have gotten a few speeding tickets by now. There is NO traffic and if you are rocking along, listening to a good “cruising-song” on the iPod, you have to pay attention not to speed up just a little. But with a cruise control installed, and set to the maximum speed allowed, this is easily avoided!
A little north of 29 Palms you can ride along the historic Route 66. The late author John Steinbeck named this “The Mother Road”. Route 66 is no longer an official route like it once was, and it has been replaced by Interstates and highways, cutting their way through the country from east to west, and from north to south. But the road has not been demolished and removed entirely and is still used for some of the lighter, local traffic. The stretches that we drove were, however, in bad shape and in desperate need of maintenance. The pavement had not been renewed for decades and we only saw a few other cars. Sometimes we could look over to the Interstate running parallel to us. It was almost surreal. We had Route 66 all to ourselves while the Interstate was pretty crowded just a few hundred meters away. Along the historic road you find houses, restaurants and service stations that are all long abandoned and in rapid decay. We passed through many ghost towns, just left behind. Now empty, hollow shells reminding us of a bygone era with a slower pace of traveling and just generally more time to make it from A to B, in the open convertible with hands resting on the wheel and wind through the hair. In the good old days you would spend days driving the same distance that you will now do in just hours. You would stop by a diner to get some coffee, a sandwich and an ice-cream. A service station was in fact a SERVICE station, where staff would fill the gas for you whilst chatting along about all and nothing. And motels were not quite as disgusting as they are now and they were not only for the toughest guys.
Today the times have changed, and except for the few towns that have made the Route 66 nostalgia an attraction, the road is just a sad and worn down stripe of asphalt far away from its heydays, where it was an important, logistic artery.
But this was not a sad experience at all. We got a very interesting insight to the more deserted and far less populated areas of the US. Those places that do not get visitors every day. After many hours on old, bumpy pavement it was, however, rather nice to turn the car up on the ramp to the Interstate and head towards Santa Monica. This is where we start our journey back towards San Francisco. We will stay there over Christmas. My mother is flying in from Denmark to be with us and travel along for a couple of weeks. We are really looking forward to her visit. And I am rather proud that I finally convinced her to come over. Most of her life she has sworn that she would never come to the US! But she’s coming now... :-)
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