Sunday, October 10, 2010

Sunrise at Cottonwood Spring

This is such a distant, random memory for me to access.  I think it’s hard to recall all of the specific details because of how busy I was at the time: I just recall portions of this mini-adventure, which I will tell below.  But I know overall how important weekend getaways have always been to me.

I was in the middle of production on “Fantasia Continued,” which could have been named, “Fantasia 1999,” or “Fantasia 2000,” since the project inherited all of these names at one time or another based on how far past the release deadline the film was.  But it must have been about 1997 as I had been on the project just over a year.  I was enjoying weekend trips due to my recently found ability to earn enough of a salary to pay for traveling, which was a luxury I hadn’t experienced while previously working in the slightly higher than minimum wage-paying mental health field.  These weekend getaways, when I could arrange for them, were islets of calm in the high-pressure rapids of work life.  I think that these trips, along with my daily running, were what kept me sane.

I lived in Manhattan Beach, CA at the time, and commuted each day to Burbank (actually, Glendale is where the  “Fantasia Continued” project happened to be located), and I had just joined the Sierra Club to meet people and have some new adventures.  I signed up for a camping trip to Cottonwood Springs in Joshua Tree National Park, which sounded like an interesting destination.

As I have described in earlier blog entries, I tried to work very late Friday nights at Disney in a desperate attempt to avoid coming in Saturdays.  My end of the week job was to tally production numbers and generate reports for the Production Manager and Producer, which they would need by Monday morning if not earlier.  My chances of successfully ending the week on a Friday night were always around 50/50.  However, those times when I had a weekend away planned for myself, I was determined to end the week on the same day as any normal person.

In preparing for the trip to Cottonwood Spring, I went during a weekday lunch to the Sports Chalet in La Cañada and rented a tent and some cooking accessories.  Friday night came, and as usual, I was running around generating reports from the various departments I was managing (Animation, Clean Up, Sweatbox, Final Color and Editorial).  With no one else left in the building with the exception of a cleaning person or two, I pattered around in my socks, running queries and printing end of the week numbers, all in the goal of finishing my production report package. It was late, and yet, I was intent on getting to my desert location that night no matter what.

I finally left Royce Hall, our production building, at just after 12:00 Midnight in my Mustang GT with all of my weekend’s cloths and gear somehow crammed into it.  The highways were vacant of traffic and it was easy cruise-controlling all the way across Interstate 10 to the turnoff near Joshua Tree.

The Sierra Club had provided a map with instructions on how to enter the park.  Remember that in those days, there were no Mapquest, GoogleMaps or GPS navigation systems.  I left I-10 as instructed and arrived at the south entrance to the park…which was closed.  It was 2:30am after all.  So in the darkness, I made my way around the west side of the park, where I found a road that went toward the interior.  And with some vague memory of the Joshua Tree map that I had looked at earlier, and maybe even a little species intuition, I guided my car with it’s two dim headlamps forward into the darkness, illuminating just enough road in front of me through the surrounding ink-black desert to make it to the Sierra Club campground.  To this day, I still can’t believe I found it that night.

I entered the dirt parking area and shut off my lights and engine as fast as I could, given that all of the tents were dark, and people were obviously asleep.  It took me a good fifteen minutes to get all of my gear out of the car and find a little plot of land to set up.  By now, it was 3:00am.  I tried to drive my tent stakes into the ground, but in the darkness I had inadvertently chosen the only granite-hard portion of the Mojave Desert in which to attempt to upright my temporary home.  It just wasn’t going to happen; not this late. I left my pile of tent materials just where they lay, walked back to the car, leaned my driver’s seat all the way back and immediately fell to sleep.

I awoke to the sounds of faint talking and clinking pots and pans as the campers were beginning to stir.  I got out of my car and sleepily stumbled over to a partially covered picnic table what was being used as a makeshift backpack-sorting surface.  It felt good to stretch since I had been in the same position in my car for the last five hours.  A middle-aged man who was organizing cooking tins for his backpack looked up at me, chuckled and said, “Oh, so you’re the late night arrival.”  I said that I was indeed and that I hoped I hadn’t made too much of a racket.  “Oh, no not at all.  There are usually a few people who get in late.  Looks like you had trouble with the tent.”  Oh jeez! How embarrassed I felt.  Everybody knew that the abandoned heap of canvass and aluminum dowels on the desert floor, failed attempts at something over yonder, were mine.  “Yeah, it was just so late, and I couldn’t see what I was doing.”  He said knowingly, “You’ll find some soft ground around there somewhere.”  I told him the story of having to leave work so late, and not being able to enter the park from the south. He found it amusing and he was very pleasant to talk with.  By now, I had attracted few more people as my audience and so I began to introduce myself to my new camp-mates.

After a bit, I started towards my tent pile and I suddenly realized on this early desert fall morning just how incredibly beautiful it all was around me.  I guess my brain was finally turning on, or starting to let go of the city.  There was reddish-brown sand, dotted with Joshua Trees as far as my eye could see, hugging the local topography of small, rigid hills and canyons.  It made me think that a simple flash flood at any time of the year could render the area totally different.  The way the sand, rocks and gorges had settled was all very temporary.  I noticed that the morning sky was a light fuchsia about to give way to nothing other than a piercing blue.  I also noted that my sapphire blue Mustang, normally a bit of a loud color in ordinary circumstances, looked just gorgeous set into the backdrop of the desert scenery.

After raising my tent successfully, and so, restoring a portion of my self-esteem, I made something to eat and joined the others in the picnic area, more of whom had woken up.  They were discussing the hike for the day.  We finished breakfast, got our trail shoes on and were ready to go.

We hiked for quite a ways that Saturday.  We walked through dried riverbeds and low-lying canyons, all the while talking about everything under the sun.  My spirit felt liberated being outdoors, seeing something new at every turn, and speaking whatever was on my mind.  Our Sierra Club guide showed us several abandoned mine shaft openings, most of which were at the base of small hills, but whose openings were at foot level and even with the ground.  All were covered with protective grates.  The bars were large enough to lose a shoe into, and looking down their 45-degree shafts into utter darkness, I couldn’t help but think of how unsafe they would be if one were wandering lost through the desert after nightfall.  Brrrr; the idea gave me chills.

As we finished our hike that afternoon, the sun was lowering into an orange sky.  I noted how the silhouettes of the Joshua Trees and other wildlife all around us stood like stoic guardians of the desert as dusk arrived.

One of the friends I made during this first hike was a girl named Catherine.  She was a little younger than I, tall, blonde an athletic.  Her personality was bubbly and animated, and the funny thing for me was that she lived in Manhattan Beach, not five blocks from my house.  We later went out a few times, and she always said of my Mustang, “Boy, this thing really growls!”  I liked that.  It made me feel manly.

We all settled into the campsite that Saturday evening, and the rest of our time that night was spent cooking, eating, telling stories around the fire pit, and sampling odd desserts that people had brought.  This was a good bunch that I had found, or who had found me.  I particularly liked how we all came from diverse areas of Southern California.  Some from San Diego, LA, Santa Barbara, Ridgecrest, even a couple from the bay area had made it down.

I slept better in my tent than my previous night’s car-slumber.  I woke up to another pristine, arid, high desert morning.  Sunday’s hiking with took us through additional canyons and hills, where we came upon the occasional small herd of rabbits bounding into the low brush on the sides of trails.  Our guide taught us about the fauna as we explored.  I was in great shape and I remember the feeling of floating along with everyone throughout these hikes, enjoying being immersed in their company.

This is what I needed; a weekend sleeping under a blanket of stars and meandering through utter beauty during the day.  These escapes are what kept me going during a very rigorous work time in my life.  And no doubt it made a difference; one little weekend has remained in my mind for all these years.