A Poster Remembered

The long walk to baggage claim. Montreal International Airport. Naomi and I are on the moving walkway but the space beside us, a long and wide and very smooth floor, is there for the taking. Two kids, fashionably dressed in black — caps, T-shirts and pants — glide by us on skateboards. “The perfect place to skateboard,” I remark to Naomi, herself happy to not be walking, following a sick-to-her stomach arrival in Montreal. I watch admiringly at the kids, brother and sister.

 

Their mother is ahead of us on the walkway, a skateboard attached to her back.

 

We have just completed a 12-day trip which included a week hiking in Joshua Tree National Park in southern California, a couple of hours east of Los Angeles, followed by four days of ocean at Laguna Beach, an hour’s drive south of the sprawling metropolis.

 

It was funny how we came to be visiting the park. I happened upon a photo of the famous Joshua Tree one day online and a memory of a famous iconic photo which had been turned into a popular poster in the 1960s, when posters were just becoming popular, returned to mind. I remembered how much I had loved that photo and thought that wherever it had been taken (I knew somewhere in California) would be a very special place to visit. I told Naomi about it, we did some Internet researching, and before too long we cancelled plans to visit Escalante Staircase in southwestern Utah and replaced it with this one.

 

Little did I know at the time that Joshua Tree National Park was one of the most visited national parks in the United States. Over 2,000,000 people come every year, the majority of them visiting in the spring. Still, over seven days Naomi and I will have hiked eight times, and only on occasion will we feel that we are sharing the trail with a lot of other hikers.

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Joshua Trees are only found in the northern part of the park. The southern part, part of the Colorado desert, has an equally diverse ecosystem but without these interesting trees. We had two days of very intense winds which, due to the wind chill, made for chilly hiking.

At the same time that I found out how many people visit JTNP each year, I also discovered that Zion National Park, close to Escalante Staircase and a park which we would have visited in the discarded trip to Utah, was in the “Top Ten Most Visited Parks in the U.S.” (almost 3,000,000 visitors). Hmm, little did we know…

 

But talk about timing: February 2017 was one of the rainiest in years if not decades. We were hoping we might be lucky in seeing lots of flowers and flowering trees and cacti during our time there, but nothing prepared us for the incredible sights that awaited. People were flocking to the park simply because of the enormous flowering that was taking place in the “high desert”, which is the category of the JTNP ecology.

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Even satellite images of California are coming up bright yellow. A carpet of flowers often accompanied our walks. Cacti also were sprouting dozens of flowers. Blue and red flowers were almost equally abundant. The reddish cactus is called barrel cactus.

 There are two places in which to base yourself while visiting the park, the village of Joshua Tree or nearby Yucca Valley (unpleasantly rhyming with “sucka”, not “youka”). Naomi and I, after much research, chose a house on the Airbnb website which was situated in Yucca Valley, but really located in between the two towns, in a serene, isolated spot at the end of a dirt road and surrounded by Joshua Trees and nearby mountains. It was sparsely furnished (no TV, for example, not that we missed it), a 600 square foot, one-storey home rented out by a couple living in LA. 

 

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Our “home away from home” for a week. There is a giant Joshua Tree right in front of the house, no curtains in the bedroom (no neighbours) and plenty of serenity all around, plus an abundant number of jackrabbits and roadrunners…

We have now rented out on Airbnb at least a dozen times with very few misgivings. A number of times Naomi and I remarked how superior our accommodations were to the hotels, motels and campsites in and around the park. After a day of hiking we would come home to a hot bath and perhaps an afternoon siesta and dinner or to making plans for going out to dinner at a nearby restaurant. We are Airbnb fans and always look up available places instead of looking into hotels when we think of travelling somewhere.

 

II

 

One of the first surprises that awaited us in LA was the car. The lady at Budget Rental was trying to sell us, for only $14 a day more, a “small SUV” but since we were already going to pay more for GPS, we opted to retain the small economy car we reserved online. Much to my surprise and delight, it was a 2017 Mazda 3. My car is a 2007 Mazda 3, a car I’m very comfortable with. Our last trip to California, six years ago, the economy car I rented possessed an engine so weak I could barely get over the hills on the freeway.

 

The second shocker was far less pleasant. It has to do with freeway (and local) driving. In a nutshell, it’s awful.

 

This fact would cast a shadow on all our drives, getting to Joshua Tree, leaving Joshua Tree for Laguna Beach, returning to LA from Laguna Beach for the return flight home, and all the driving in between.

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I don’t want to be here, but do I have a choice?

 

We met some very friendly Americans during our stay. Servers are friendly. Fellow hikers are very friendly, each one saying “Hello” or “Good morning” when we pass. Strangers on the sidewalk will even smile at you and greet you as you pass by.

 

But something changes when there are a few inches between their feet and the gas pedal. Something dark.

 

On our ride into LA on the last morning, keeping to the speed limit, I was passed by every car on the freeway. There were four lanes, sometimes five or six, but never any slow lane. There is no slow lane in California, only slower, which even then is disdained by mostly everyone. 

 

There is something called the “safe trailing distance” (I used to teach driving many moons ago), also known as the “two-second rule” (count “thousand one, thousand two” after the car you are following passes a point on the side of the road. If you reach this same point before you finish counting “thousand one, thousand two” you are driving too close to this car.)

 

This “safe trailing distance” doesn’t exist in California. I don’t know if it’s taught in driving school but if it is it is quickly forgotten or discarded.

 

And I come from Quebec which has a reputation for having bad drivers. Compared to Californians, Quebec drivers are exemplary.

 

Please forbear a teeny bit more.

 

In the late 80s I visited Cuba and one day swam a little too far out into the ocean. Instead of being surrounded by a nice medium blue colour, I was soon swimming in a deep dark blue-coloured sea. What was most remarkable was the change in energy, from peaceful to menacing. My only thought was to return as quickly as possible to a spot closer to the beach, which I did.

 

This menacing feeling was very vivid and tangible on the roads we drove on. Out of the blue a car, or worse a pickup truck (every second vehicle in Joshua Tree, much rarer in Laguna Beach), would loom in your rear-view mirror; there would be no honking (which we almost never heard) but the intention was there: drive faster guy! 

 

The worst drivers that I noticed were, sadly, women. The very friendly American woman seems to take out her aggression, as I said, a couple of inches above the gas pedal.

 

This morning, on our way into Montreal from the West Island (we’re staying in town for the Jewish festival of Passover), it was a relief to be on a Canadian freeway, the Trans-Canada Highway. Where once I might have been a tad nervous with the drivers rushing into the city, this time I rejoiced at the lack of stress on all sides.

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