Fall/Winter 2020Non-Fiction

Burning Canaan – Nikki Stavile

The view from Keys Ranch road in Joshua Tree National Park is a vast one. The hillsides are freckled with heather purple brush and spikey stands of yucca; the mountains in the foreground are creased and rumpled like a giant’s laundry. Beyond is the Coachella Valley with its wind turbine farms and the looming snow capped summits of Mount San Jacinto and Mount Gorgonio, the highest peaks in Southern California. The sky is a sheer crystal blue devoid of clouds. I squint into the late winter sun, looking south. I can see the faint glimmer of the Salton Sea, but not Mount Signal, which is ninety miles away and located on the U.S.-Mexico Border. Instead there is only a blur, either air pollution from Los Angeles or the limits of my own nearsightedness.

Each morning, my partner and I drive from our campsite through the neighborhoods of Yucca Valley and Joshua Tree. The suburbs are comprised of ranch style houses with flat, drab yards. Some of the local cacti are festooned with tinsel. One house has a weather-beaten stuffed Santa riding bareback on a metal Apatosaurus lawn ornament. Our journey takes us past a shuttered visitor’s center with overflowing trash cans out front. I have not yet seen a park ranger at the toll booth, even though I wish one would appear. There is no donation box; only a typed notice taped to the booth’s metal raise panel door, stating that park operations have ceased for the time being and visitors should be cautious. It reads more like an out-of-office reply than a government communication. Nowhere does it mention that an area larger than Rhode Island is wide open and unprotected.

I am visiting Joshua Tree National Park during what will become the longest government shutdown in modern U.S. history, an event stemmed from an impasse. President Trump is demanding a $5.7 billion border wall, and the Democratic Party will not give it to him. The park ranger I spoke with on December 21st, 2018 told me that Joshua Tree would be open and law enforcement would be on duty. Restrooms and public water sources would be unlocked until they became public health hazards. There would be no entrance fees collected, no trash pickup, no visitor center access, no interpretive programs and no campground supervision. My partner and I decided to make the trip anyway, after seeing reports on social media by Joshua Tree volunteers stating that visitors were packing out trash and staying on marked trails. But many locals wanted the park closed, citing damages that occurred in January 2018, when the park had also been left unsupervised. Besides acts of vandalism, theft of artifacts and illegal off-roading at Joshua Tree, animal poaching had occurred at other parks and someone in Yellowstone had given snowmobile tours dangerously close to the geysers.

The Trump administration insisted that communities that relied on public land tourism wanted America’s national treasures open for business, even though they would not be staffed. Besides, the Obama administration’s decision to close the parks for sixteen days during a shutdown over healthcare in 2013 had been regarded as unfair, partisan, and worthy of public backlash. Never mind that shuttering the parks was also considered good environmental stewardship. What Trump needed was good optics for his border wall fight, and not inconveniencing park tourists would supposedly swing the debate in his favor. In addition, many people were dismissing the potential severity of the shutdown, stating that public lands were for, and would be taken care of by, the American people.

“Besides,” wrote one individual on Facebook. “Can you really close a National Park?”

 

The unpopular backcountry trailhead to Lost Horse Mine begins at Jumbo Rocks campground, a haven for climbers due to its proximity to some of the best bouldering that Joshua Tree has to offer. Every campsite is full and the road is half blocked by vehicles. On one site marker, instead of a reservation tag there is a handwritten sign: it’s the anarchist symbol and WE CAN SHARE THE SPACE is scrawled below it in black marker.

My partner and I shoulder our packs and bolt into the desert. After we are out of site of the campground, we do not see any humans for hours. Around us, the unearthly expansive high desert is broken by bumpy peaks and immense piles of boulders. The trees cluster on the plateaus like alien sentinels, their Seussian branches tipped with jagged fronds. The whole place is like an ancient Lovecraftian city. There is something waking in my body; a deep, ossified memory of a time that only my bones know.

Trails in Joshua Tree are only marked at intersections. Eighty-five percent of the park is classified as wilderness, and minimizing disturbances helps to preserve the fragile landscape and cryptobiotic soil crusts. Resembling limestone deposits on a cave wall, the crusts are made of fungi and other microorganisms and are often referred to as “desert glue”. In addition to performing carbon and nitrogen fixation, the crusts stabilize the soil, making them a vital part of desert ecosystems. They also take thousands of years to form, and one footstep can demolish them. Because of this, I am determined to stay on trail.

I am not used to wayfinding in the desert. It is difficult to tell the difference between a footpath and a wash, and there appears to be many unofficial routes here. Our National Geographic topo map is the latest edition, but it was last updated in 2005. Some of the trails now have different names or extend for far longer than the green dotted lines on our map. But additional wayfinding markings seem difficult to justify. Creating cairns also seems difficult as the rocks here come in two sizes—sand grains or tors. Painting blazes on Joshua trees also seems like unnecessary defacement, even if the practice is common on many forested hiking trails.

As I hike, the trees do not coalesce into anything that fits my concept of a woodland. They stand too far apart from one another, their branches squiggling upward but not out, as if the trees are self-conscious. The name Joshua tree is deceiving as well. The plants are a giant type of grass, a unique species of yucca that takes sixty years to mature and relies on yucca moths for pollination and reproduction. The insect is having difficulty surviving the increasing temperatures that are symptomatic of human induced climate change. Because of this, scientists predict that Joshua trees will vanish by 2100.

My partner and I hike further, searching for signs of wildlife—tracks of the Gambel’s quail or greater roadrunner, or perhaps a burrow made by the elusive desert tortoise. We do encounter a black tailed jackrabbit, and the three of us observe one another before the animal hops away into the brush, rump in the air, his position given away by his huge ears.

Our trail eventually intersects with one of the park’s main roads, and we find ourselves surrounded by other hikers. Lost Horse Mine is a rusting, cubelike structure that is blocked off by a chain link fence. It appears to be mostly untouched until I notice the engravings. Despite the fence, some tourists from years past etched their names, doings and promises of love into the metal. I look around, suddenly anxious, and realize that most of my fellow sightseers are not staying on the marked trails. One couple is taking a slow descent straight down the mountain, bushwhacking as they go, even though the established trail was clear and not more than a few steps away from them. Another group behind them is considering doing the same.

“It’s probably fine,” they say. “Look, those two are doing it.” And they too begin to carve a new trail down the slope.

 

I would witness many acts like these during my time at Joshua Tree. Venturing off trail was the most common, even in areas like the Cholla Cactus Garden, where stepping off the boardwalk would land you in a thicket of spines. Instagram was clogged with photos of people decorating Joshua trees for Christmas, a mistake as the plants have fragile root systems that make them vulnerable to toppling over. Most of the park’s dumpsters were overflowing and some of the toilets were beginning to stink. Even on the less popular trials, I saw piles of dog waste every quarter of a mile or so. Dogs are not permitted to go more than one hundred feet away from any campsite, road or trailhead, as they can endanger wildlife. Joshua Tree does have a small population of bighorn sheep and if the animals see a dog they will spook and run. This can be especially deadly if it is a hot summer day and the incident happens near a water source—the dehydrated sheep will literally run themselves to death rather than go back and get a drink.

For a while, I told other park visitors when they were violating rules or Leave No Trace principles, often with a brief explanation about why adhering to these practices was better for everyone. Often I was met with blank stares, or the behavior was corrected just long enough so I would look the other way. I am sure that I was perceived as a spoilsport, especially since I didn’t have any legal authority to enforce park policy. After one too many eyerolls, my attempts seemed futile compared to the rule breaking that was going on around me. I soon gave up.

I was not the only one concerned about the state of Joshua Tree. According to The Los Angeles Times, there was a small army of volunteers trying to keep the park open and sanitary. Local climbing groups provided toilet paper, hauled out trash and scrubbed down the restrooms even on holidays. Rand Abbott, a longtime resident, rock climber and paraplegic veteran, took it upon himself to report illegal campfires, improper use of picnic areas and general vandalism. He claimed that at least seventy percent of the time, the culprits confronted him. At least two angered visitors threatened his life.

 

My partner and I are cooking dinner on our camp stove one evening when a black Tesla pulls into one of the sites near ours. Out steps a group of college aged men, most wearing hoodies and sweatpants, although one was decked out in a designer parka, black skinny jeans and shiny pair of loafers. They release their dog, an aging black and white doodle of some variety, and begin setting up their tent. While winter days at Joshua Tree National Park are usually mild, the nights are frigid, with high winds and temperatures hovering around freezing.

“Guys,” one of the newcomers says. “It’s getting cold out here, and I don’t really have gloves or anything.” As the sun sets and my partner and I huddle in our tent, the situation seems to grow more dire. Our unprepared neighbors do not appear to have brought sleeping bags, but they do have plenty of food, in the form of multiple Chipotle burritos. They are cursing at the wind, as they are relying on the campfire to keep them warm. At some point, they meet up with a group of women camping nearby who are better prepared than they are. There is talk about sharing several bottles of wine. The smell of pots mixes in with the scent of burning wood. The temperatures drop into the mid-twenties and the conversations grow more slurred. I think about what I could do to help, but my partner and I have no spare gear. I am also worried that any offers of assistance would be seen as unwelcoming. Besides, this is our first time camping in temperatures this cold, too.

“Hey,” someone says. “Hey. I’m stone. And you’re stoned. So we should…”

This proposition is never directly answered. At some point, the party agrees that they need to get out of the cold and they decide to go to the town’s Wal-mart. The car idles. My anxiety spikes. Even though the temperatures could be hypothermic inducing, the fire danger in Joshua Tree is still ridiculously high. Are any of the campers sober enough to put out the fire before they leave? I hear the car drive away and I scramble out of our tent. Luckily, the fire is out, but due to forethought or the wind, I don’t know.

I awake at dawn, unzip my sleeping bag and stumble into the crisp morning air, jumping up and down to get warm, even though I slept in three layers. The party returned sometime during the night. In the dim light, it appears that at least one of the individuals has fallen asleep on the cold ground outside their tent, perhaps near a now extinguished fire. They are starting to come to.

“What’s with all these rocks?” they say. “There are rocks everywhere. And where’s the dog?”

 

One park ranger wrote on Twitter during the first weeks of the shutdown that “we were so interested in getting Americans outside that we forgot to show them how to do so.” And it is true that National Park attendance has skyrocketed in recent years. Three hundred and thirty million visits were recorded in 2017, a number equivalent to every single American visiting one National Park, and then some. Joshua Tree’s visitation spike to over two million visits in that same year. Winter is one of the most popular times to visit the park as well, and I suspect that the huge influx of people that I saw during my time there was due to the park being only a two hour drive from L.A. There was no thirty dollar visitor fee being collected either.

Some attribute the surge of interest in Joshua Tree to the use of social media, specifically Instagram influencers. Others claim that tech-addicted millennials are trying to find solace in nature. On the Joshua Tree National Park Facebook page, I saw many locals voice their discontent with the historic traffic the park was receiving. “Don’t these kids have anything better to do than visit a National Park?” one woman wrote.

With all of the incidents that I witnessed at Joshua Tree, I tried to attribute the destruction and negligence not to malice, but to ignorance. Parking lots, flush toilets and visitor centers make National Parks more accessible to everyone, but some argue that the higher attendance, of both the foot and vehicular kind, create a huge strain on the natural resources that the park is trying to protect. Several parks have installed shuttle systems and are considering raising their entrance fees or utilizing a reservation system to even enter the park, in order to stem the flow of interested people.

One park ranger I met in the Great Smoky Mountains believes that ninety five percent of the people who visit the National Parks never get out of their cars, except to take pictures. Of those that do leave their vehicles, ninety five percent want a trail that is flat, less than a mile long and has immense payoff, such as a waterfall or a majestic view. The remaining slim percentage, what this ranger considered the ideal National Park visitor and the ones that the Park Service’s mission was built around and for, researched the park before they got there and took their time, often spending several days and going on long hikes, usually in the backcountry. They practiced Leave No Trace principles and attended educational programs. I fall into that last bracket myself.

I must admit that it is difficult for me to understand the type of park visitor who writes on Trip Advisor that they want to see the best of Yellowstone, Glacier or Denali in a few hours. But it also seems unfair for me to decide what an ideal park visitor is, and what they do on public lands. The National Park System, like the rest of America, has an intense racial history. The National Park system is a complicated patchwork of natural islands deemed worth saving at the expense of those who lived there for generations. The public lands that were gifted to the US government for the American people are the sacred sites and homelands of indigenous peoples, who were brutally forced off their homeland by white colonizers. The parks were also subject to segregation laws, and even today the sites are trying to win back black, Asian, Latinx and other racial minority visitors who don’t fit into the white male adventurer bracket.

The names on my topo map reflect this history. The Mojave Desert, where the Joshua tree lives, takes its name from a tribe which utilized the area’s resources as they traveled to what is now know as the Colorado River and the Pacific Coast. Other indigenous peoples who used to live within the park’s boundaries include the Serano, the Cahulla and the Chemehuevi. Now their descendants live on communities outside the park; one example is the Twentynine Palms band of Mission Indians who own a reservation nearby. The land shaping forces of human settlement differentiates Joshua Tree from the communities around it, as white settlers brought large scale irrigation systems for citrus tree plantations in the 1920s. Even the Joshua tree gets its name from white settlers—according to legend, the Mormon leader Jedediah Smith believed the plant resembled Joshua reaching his arms towards heaven.

Today, the National Parks are still under threat from private interests and the Trump administration’s gutting of the Antiquities Act. This is not to say that the environment has fared better under liberal control. The oil and gas leases are always given out, and the budget for land conservation efforts have been miniscule for years. Ultimately, it seems that the issue with the National Park system is that it continues to place capitalist and national interests front and center. After all, “America’s Best Idea” is considered constitutional because the parks are designed to inspire patriotism. Political borders as a real, tangible objects are essential to the idea of empire, and the idea is so embedded in American culture that I had difficulty understanding maps and distances as a child. I believed the black border lines in my childhood atlas were depictions of what it was actually like to cross into another country—a wall of darkness, or a thin but terribly dep abyss that one had to cross if they were to walk from Mexico into the United States. In a post 9/11 world, the near impenetrable border is a reality, as it becomes increasingly fortified and militarized. Never mind that in the Southwest that the border wall is destroying the homes of butterflies, burrowing owls, Mexican gray wolves and humans who reside in these political grey zones.

 

Although I don’t believe the writer ever made the trip out to Joshua Tree, Edward Abbey’s Desert Solitaire filled the shelves of the shuttered visitor center store at Twentynine Palms. The following quote from the book even appeared in the information section of our Joshua Tree topo map: “A man could be a lover and defender of wilderness without ever in his lifetime leaving the boundaries of asphalt, power lines and right-angle surfaces. We need wilderness whether or not we ever set foot in it. We need a refuge even though we may need never go there. We need the possibility of escape as surely as we need hope…”

I will be the first to admit that I love Desert Solitaire, and a well-worn copy of the dirtbag classic is on my bookshelf. I also know that reading Abbey in this day and age is fraught with a set of dilemmas. While the anarchist nature writer was no supporter of big government or its public land policies, he also believed that the threat to American wilderness came from immigration. Upon reading his essays again in the midst of the government shutdown, I was reminded again of Abbey’s misogyny, and xenophobia. His racism was so pervasive that he worried that the white race would disappear entirely unless harsh immigration policies were enacted to keep America from being “overrun”. I cannot help but think that today, Abbey and I might be political opponents, even though we both care deeply about public lands.

Abbey wrote Desert Solitaire in 1968, before the age of social media and the internet, before climate change and “the wall” were household words. Back then, Arches was a National Monument on the verge of becoming a park. Joshua Tree also had this status, and would not become a National Park until 1994, the year after I was born. The quote on our topo map, while I wish it to be true, makes several assumptions—that man realizes wilderness’ importance, and that he will also strive and have the means to protect it. It also, whether Abbey intended it as such, implies a degree of separation, that wilderness is some untouchable place that we can still escape to. But in a world that is ever more aware of its connections, climate change and pollution know no borders. Does the man in Abbey’s quote recognize that the gas in his car, the plastic from his takeout lunch, the sil-nylon in his backpacking tent, the very infrastructure that his modern life depends on, all shrink and pollute our wildernesses? And if he knows, does he even care?

Joshua Tree National closed its gates on January 8th, 2019 because of the sheer amount of damage the landscape suffered. Popular climbing rocks had been graffitied. Historical artifacts were stolen from the mines. ATV’s had gouged miles of new roads into the desert soil. Media reports claimed that the damage done to Joshua Tree would require three hundred years of recovery, a type of healing that would require a geological scale. Meanwhile, the Trump administration continued to administer drilling permits for fossil fuel industries to operate in our wild spaces. I called my representatives each day, asking for the government to reopen so that our public lands would still be somewhat intact for future generations to enjoy—including those who crossed from Mexico into the United States, in search of a better life. Thirty-five days later, the shutdown ended.

There have been some victories in the conservation battle – in April 2019, 4,518 new acres were added to Joshua Tree National Park. Trump signed the Great American Outdoors Act, widely regarded as the most significant conservation act in modern history, into law in August of 2020. Still, it seems that one victory comes with a tradeoff. As I write this, the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge is being sectioned off for drilling. Some argue that such exchange is part of the democratic process. I don’t think such thinking serves us well, in the long or short run. It seems less like a trade and more like a massacre.

Upon reading the legend of where the Joshua tree received its name, I believed that it referred to a story where the Biblical figure viewed Canaan for the first time. But I was mistaken. Although there are several instances where Joshua raised his arms in prayer, the most descriptive one is during the conquest of Canaan, namely the fiery razing of Jericho and Ai. As I waited for the shutdown to end, and wondered if the next one was inevitable, I thought about climate change and how I have never lived on a planet with normal weather. I thought about poor environmental policy, about melting ice caps, about mass extinction and drought and the disappearance of the yucca moth. Two years later, a pandemic would rage, over four million acres would burn in the state of California, and everyone would flee outside for solace. But in that moment, on my plane ride back to Pittsburgh, I thought about a park two hours from Los Angeles where the fire danger was so high that one small mistake could set the entire space alight. Was the haze outside the window L.A. smog or smoke from the Camp Fire, the deadliest in California’s modern history? I didn’t know. But I worried that, in the distance, some sacred promised land was burning.


 

Nikki Stavile received her MFA in Creative Writing from Hollins University and her work has appeared in Coal Hill Review, Cleaver Magazine, Scoundrel Time and Artemis Journal, among others. Her work “Losing the Great One” won second place in Parks and Points’s  Fall 2019 essay contest and was nominated for a Pushcart Prize.  She resides at the confluence of the Allegheny and Monongahela rivers with her partner and her cat, and is training for a thru—hike of the Appalachian Trail

The author: John Carter

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