This is a really personal tale, as it personally happened to me personally. It is a harrowing tale, a cautionary tale. Yet I'm not telling you this so you can learn from my perhaps near-fatal blunder, but so you can delight in my suffering. I mean, why not? What follows is the firsthand account of one of the most miserable 12 hours of my life. Please, I hope you enjoy it.
Welcome to California
I had taken a bus from Los Angeles to Palm Springs because I was going to visit my father, who lives in Joshua Tree. Palm Springs being the closest stop (and the ticket was only like 18 bucks), my plan was to exit the bus there and hitchhike the rest of the way. The place is like 30 miles from Palm Springs.
This was in July of 2012, by the way. So, middle of damn summer.
I knew that it would work because Joshua Tree has, like, Marines and stuff nearby, so there had to be plenty of traffic. Someone would pick me up. The odds were in my favor, like if a bunch of first-graders came up and said they were going to kick my ass.
The plan was a no-brainer. But I had to consider the possibility that I wouldn't score a ride. It was then that I, in my infinite cerebral glory, concocted a fall-back plan in case Palm Springsians (Palm Springsites?) happened to be relentless assholes with a zero tolerance policy for hitchhikers. My plan was to take the shortest route, since in that case I'd be walking. Why walk 34 miles when you can walk 32?
I chose the little hiker icon in Google Maps so it would provide me with the optimal route. I blindly trusted Google's algorithms for such things, because they do such a good job with finding midget porn. My backpack was loaded out at around 50 pounds or so, and I'd take plenty of water and snacks so as not to die throughout the day. I'd done plenty of ruck marches in the military, and since I could take my time, the entire journey oughtn't be too stressful. It wouldn't be timed, but somewhat leisurely.
Now some of you who are more geographically-savvy might be wondering where Death Valley factors into all this. Okay, you caught me. I'm not a geography aficionado. I didn't even know that Russia was considered part of Europe, despite being 77% in Asia, until today (I had to look something up for this article). Technically it wasn't Death Valley. But let me tell you something. It was my own personal Death Valley. When I stepped off the bus in Palm Springs that evening in July, the wind was on a rampage like your asshole after too much tequila. Have you ever stood in front of a furnace? That's what it was like. It was like walking behind the engine of a Chinook helicopter. I'm surprised I wasn't incinerated. That was my first experience of that neck of the woods. At least there were roads.
Ultimately, Google ended up fucking me hard by leading me through landscape that looked just like this:
So trekking through this hellscape in July with 50+ pounds strapped to my thorax is Death Valley. So leave me alone, okay?
In Google We Trust
This is how Google fucked me from the get-go: I arrived in the evening and decided to eat at Denny's there so I could charge my phone. To be safe. Then I grabbed directions using Google Maps. I said before I chose the walking option, since it would be less of a haul. Look, I'd never been here before. The directions seemed simple enough. Google advised me to walk down the highway a couple miles and cut through a residential area, eventually ending up on something called "Power Line Road."
I did not even think twice. Some places give their roads stupid names. Plus, it's California. It's normal there to name things stupidly.
I decided to wait until morning. I camped out on the other side of a barbed wire fence in what I can only assume someone considered a pasture (I had a one-man tent). The next morning I got up around 7 and backtracked to a gas station so I could load up on supplies. I bought a few bottles of water, a couple Gatorades, and some snacks. After all was said and done, my pack probably weighed close to 60 pounds. But I knew it would lighten as the day went on and I consumed the shit, because that's just science and math.
Good to go, right? I had everything I needed, so I began. I left my phone on so I could get directions until I got to Power Line Road. Since that was the last road until Joshua Tree, I could shut the phone off.
Everything is Fucked, Man
Several things happened in quick succession here.
- Power Line Road was not a road at all, but a trail that happened to be somewhat near a power line.
- My phone died on me around 11 am like Atreyu's stupid horse Artax.
- I ran out of liquids around 1 pm, despite taking my time with it. This is widely considered a bad thing.
- I saw not a single soul the entire day, which amplified the fact that I would likely die alone.
Let me tell you about this Power Line Road. It was a dirt trail. There was nothing "road" about it, unless you're talking Mad Max. Also, normal roads have signs. You know, to indicate you're in the right place. There was never any sign. I had to Sherlock Holmes that shit. Wait a got-damn minute! This ain't a road! But there is a power line. Hmm. Google, you dumbass. Nevertheless, I was committed. Once I left that residential neighborhood, I didn't see another soul the rest of the day. No one. No vehicles. Not even an airplane in the distance, no circling buzzards. Even the buzzards stayed the fuck away from that place! There was evidence of people having been there - tire tracks, fucking utility poles strung with electrical wire - but that was it. No other sign of life. I was the only moron out there leaving footprints. And since I'm no Native American tracker, nor am I Australian (I hold the belief that the best trackers in the world are either Native American or Australian; there is no basis for this belief whatsoever), I could not tell how long it had been since another human passed through there.
It could have been years for all I knew. Years. I had to assume no one would be passing through that day.
Did I mention it was hot? Did I mention it was July? Did I mention it was the desert? Did I mention I had a heavy ass backpack on? Did I mention I ran out of fluids? Did I mention it was 30 fucking miles?
There is no shade out there. You can try to curl up beneath a sage brush if you like, but the sun will still find you, because it is a relentless bastard. It is the child who won't go somewhere else to play. There is no solace out there. The other issue is that the trail zig-zags in between the hills. So you have no idea how far you've come or how far you still have to go. You can't see shit but the next hill in front of you. It's like being in a movie theater behind Vince Vaughn and getting up to move, only to end up behind Conan O'Brien. But repeat that for several fucking hours.
So no shade, no idea how much farther. That wasn't the worst part, though. The worst part was not having any more water. Should I drink my own piss? Should I wring the sweat out of my shorts? I'd been through survival school. I'd seen Man Vs. Wild. I knew what Bear Grylls would say in the situation. I saw him do it. He found a low spot with considerable shade and dug until he found water. Why didn't I think of that?
I did think of that.
I kept my eyes peeled for any sign of moisture, trust me. There was none. Everything was dry. The land there is like an overcooked turkey.
I wasn't getting any water from Mother Nature. My only recourse was to just keep walking. Eventually I told myself, "It's probably right after this next hill."
It wasn't. There were only more hills after this next hill.
I kept walking, though, partly because I knew I'd eventually get there, but mostly because I knew that if I gave up and sat down and decided to die like Atreyu's good-for-nothing horse, no one would find my corpse for months (if at all), and if they did, they'd find me and the town would, in fact, be right over the fucking hill.
I would die just short of my destination, and I couldn't let that happen.
"Hey Cecil, this shit-for-brains died a mile from town. Just think, he come all this way for nothing."
That's what kept me going. Not the hope of a better life or a dream fulfilled, not the face of a loved one. I simply didn't want to be that idiot. Never mind that I was the idiot who decided to hike 30 miles on probably a gallon of fluids in late July. I kept going because you fuckers would think less of me, I was sure of it. I suffered for it, though. I was out there all damn day, baking like a casserole.
I Triumphed Anyway, Obviously
Around 6 that evening I saw the power line veer from the trail and climb up over the hill. Having been acquainted with it for several hours, I thought that was strange behavior. Do I keep walking down the bullshit trail or do I follow the power line? I climbed the hill. It was a great decision, despite expending a tremendous amount of energy to do so, and I have to tell you, a more beautiful set of city lights I will never see in my life. I imagine that's what it's like to see someone open up a briefcase full of hundred dollar bills intended for you.
I was magnificent. For the first time in hours, I knew everything was going to be okey-dokey.
I made it to Joshua Tree around 7pm, (so right around the time Google predicted, go figure), went straight to 7-Eleven and bought a 64-ounce Sprite and two ice cream sandwiches. I'd made it.
The lesson I want to impart to you all is this: stay the fuck away from the desert near Joshua Tree. Unless you want to see if you've got what it takes. Did I inadvertently create the next Marathon? (Note: the marathon commemorates the guy who is said to have run back to Athens to announce their victory. That guy fucking died right afterward.) But yeah. Go ahead and make the hike. Just don't blame me if you die.