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Wander Knot | Blog

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Arriving in Joshua Tree National Park on Cross-Country Road Trip

travel writer

As I sit in an artsy coffee shop reflecting back to the first destination on my 25-day road trip, I cannot help but be overwhelmed with a crazy amount of emotions. I felt as if I was standing right back at the very spot in Joshua Tree National Park when my heart was flooded with happiness, excitement, and even disbelief at the fact that I was standing in California all alone. "Is this real life?" I thought to myself as I was still trying to come to the realization that I just drove across the entire country over the past few days.

On a Tuesday morning I set off on this journey with a set plan but no plan at all. Yeah that doesn't make too much sense does it? See, I had particular stops along the way on this adventure as I had 5 styled weddings I had designed to photograph; and the first was Joshua Tree. Between these stops would be time to just explore anything and everything I could. Wherever my heart told me to go, wherever I felt the need to sleep, and whatever I had the notion to do – I simply went with it – a simple little kind of free. Sure I had a tentative plan at the beginning of the trip as to where I would sleep each night or the closest campground to where I thought I would make it to... but guess what!? Outside the two nights at specific campgrounds I booked months before because they sell out and were "must-sleeps", not one single night on the entire trip did I sleep where I anticipated.

The first day of the trip I drove all across the state of Tennessee, and I'll admit I was nervous as I planned to sleep in a Walmart parking lot because I'd learned that's a thing. I couldn't do it. I hadn't quite mustered up the courage to pull that one off... yet. So instead I made it to Little Rock, Arkansas where my aunt's sister lives. An out-of-the-blue phone call from someone you only see on rare occasions asking to sleep in your driveway can leave a person a little confused. As I asked the question knowing she was going to think I'm a little weird, and I got the response "Um, no but you can come sleep in my bed!" After explaining what I was doing and that a huge factor in this trip was not to lay my head in an actual bed but rather sleep in my camper-made VW Jetta Sportwagen or my tent, she reluctantly said yes. Within minutes of arriving and not even knocking on the door because it was so late, I passed out and slept like a baby - at least until I got a tap on the window at 6:00 am when her husband needed me to move my car so he could go to work. The next night I realized I was a rock-star and could do this; Walmart here I come! Sleeping in a parking lot definitely isn't the highlight of my trip, but the two nights I did utilize that privilege (thanks to the All Stays app) I was able to rest my head for a few hours on the long-stretch highway as I was just trying to make it across the country.

joshua tree national park entrance sign
cactus needles
joshua tree
rock formations joshua tree national park

Fast-forward to Friday morning: after making my way across the plains of Oklahoma, through wildfires in Texas, making pit stops at Native American shops in New Mexico, and laying eyes on the beautiful canyons and gorges of Arizona; I stepped foot in the desert lands of California. A beautiful, unique place I'd never seen before. The diversity of Joshua Tree is fascinating – every few miles it was as if I'd arrived in a completely new place. The scenery and plants change entirely - from rock-faced mountains and patches of various cacti as you enter the south end near Cottonwood Visitor Center; to the astonishing boulders and abundance of renowned Yucca brevifolia (otherwise known as the Joshua tree) in the Northwest part of the park. 

With intentions on camping at White Tank campground within the park, I quickly learned these first-come-first-served sites fill rather quickly. Where on Earth am I suppose to sleep for the next two nights as I explore? Then, the discovery of Bureau of Land Management happened. I actually spent the majority of the trip resting my nights in BLM land that provided either free or $5/night primitive campsites depending on area. This means no toilets, no water...no nothing. A trip as such isn't mean to be luxurious and is not for the faint-hearted; it is all about the adventure and the extraordinary experience that are guaranteed to happen. In fact there isn't any potable water within the park's amenities either. I discovered my first shower would not come until day six when I would make my way through Palm Springs on Easter morning and get an opportunity to freshen up at a Pilot truck stop. But no worries, because the caked in dirt from my hikes left my hair looking not the slightest bit greasy :-) It only took three times of washing to remove the Earth that was growing on me.

The trip truly was all about going with the flow. It's nice that I came back home to carry that lesson into my everyday life. Letting things go. Not worrying about how I think "plans" should happen. Life has a beautiful way of working itself out just how it is suppose to.

reading in coffee shop
writing in coffee shop
foam heart design in latte

I often found it hard to find time to write – instead I walked aimlessly around taking in every bit of the new places I encountered. I didn't spend a lot of time taking notes because I didn't want to miss a second of the experience; however Wayfaren's travel journal is great for those highlighted moments you want to be sure to revisit later. Logging key thoughts in a perfectly sized lined notebook that fits so easily in your backpack is a must-have for a trip like this. It also works great to bring your stories back to life by adding details when you get back home, reflect on memories, and perhaps laugh hysterically at remembered mishap stories.

artist in coffee shop

Speaking of hilarious stories, bless the hearts of the people who meet me! I've never been the type to just get out and talk to random strangers; so one of my promises to myself was this trip I would talk to whoever I encountered. I would share my story if they wanted to hear, and most importantly I would listen to theirs. Meeting so many distinct individuals was a really cool part of the trip and oddly wasn't as I hard as I thought it would be. I thoroughly enjoyed sharing a part of my mind with a total stranger. Sometimes though they got a little more than they bargained - for instance the painter from LA who invited me to tag along as we walked shortly around a couple of areas.

We went to the Cholla Cactus Garden (pictured below). These desert plants stretched out as far as I could see, and of course I wanted to see just how far they went, duh! In an effort to avoid the parade of people on site, we must have entered from the wrong side – there was no fence or path – because the warning signs were completely missed until after the fact. As we made our way all the way out to where they stopped growing, we turned around to find that I stepped on one of the cacti and had a needle in my shoe. Normally I am not a helpless gal; in fact I'm really rather stubborn and want to do things myself. However, when I was a child I stepped on a cactus and had it painfully go into my foot. At that very moment my vivid childhood memory came roaring back in my mind and I freaked. This poor man gracefully knelt down and tried his best to rid this stupid thing from my shoe because I didn't want to continue stepping on it. Sweet right? Until I stepped on another one and all compassion was lost. The next time he just stood as I rested my bare foot on his in my attempt to get the second thorn out myself, all while I continuously apologized. Needless to say we didn't continue to another exploration. But I am forever grateful for the artist who saved my foot.

adventure blogger
cactus needles
cactus garden joshua tree national park
warning bees ahead sign
warning sign in national park

In retrospect, the entire trip was about facing fears. Whether it was walking through terrifying bees, sleeping in the unknown under a blanket of stars, or realizing nothing would go as planned – the fear of putting myself out there and just being me was diminished. This was a time that was all about letting go of expectation of how I thought things are suppose to be. I knew this was the start of something great. Little did I know that after just the first day of exploring, what all I was in for. The was only the beginning.

More Joshua Tree coming soon as I share my experience sleeping in a tent alone for the first time.