It’s National Park Week! The U.S. National Park Service oversees nearly 425 sites. This includes not just our fabled national parks, but national monuments, preserves, battlefields and historic sites, too. So far, I’ve explored 110 of those sites. I’ve hit a few of the big ones, like Yellowstone, Denali and the Grand Canyon, and lots and lots of little sites in between. Since I can’t get out and explore the parks this week, I’m sharing stories instead, like this one from a visit to Mojave National Preserve back in 2019.
Terra & the Tarantula
The first time I visited Mojave National Preserve, I was just passing through. It was at the end of a 10-day trip split between L.A., Palm Springs and Death Valley. I spent about five hours in the park that first visit. In those hours, I managed to hike 3.2 miles, met a coyote, got butt-ass naked in a parking lot and promised to come back.
I returned the very next year, using Mojave as a pit stop between L.A. and Utah. This time, Mojave was at the front of my trip and as I headed east, out of the city and into the desert, I was overwhelmed with the very specific sort of joy that swells only at the start of an adventure. It’s the feeling that comes from the sprawling freedom of a multi-day itinerary free of commitments, hard times or other people. It is one of my favorite things.
With me, I had a pile of snacks, a duffle bag full of camping gear and stunningly specific directions to a cluster of dispersed campsites. This was my first foray into dispersed camping and as I drove through Mojave, I was both nervous and excited. It would just me and myself, alone in the desert. I wondered what it feel like to be out there alone, out of earshot, out of cell range, just alone.
Despite the specificity of the directions, I still managed to take a few wrong turns. But finally, I made it. I pitched my tent next to a fire ring and a rock pile, organized my gear and cracked open a beer. Then, I realized, that was it. There wasn’t anything else to do except to exist in that place. I’d driven the miles, gotten the groceries, erected my tent, plotted my plans, the only thing left to do was to enjoy it. I took off my shoes and went for a wander.
As a kid, I grew up barefoot. I’m sure there were shoes somewhere, but I sure as shit wasn’t wearing them. The desire to be perpetually barefoot has continued into adulthood along with an erroneous and persistent belief that my adult feet are as tough as my kid feet were. My kid feet were essentially cloven hooves hardened by running through fields, down gravel driveways and across creek beds. These adult feet shuffle from area rug to hardwood with an occasional jaunt into the backyard. They are not hard. They are not tough. Still, I set off into the desert at dusk, barefoot with a beer in hand.
I checked out the other campsites, robbed them of their abandoned firewood for use in my own fire. I watched the light shift across the rocks, picked burrs from my bare feet and then, on the edge of my periphery, a tarantula skittered across the desert floor.
I’d only ever encountered a tarantula once before, in New Mexico. I was wearing shoes that time, on a well-worn path with other humans nearby. What happened in Mojave was the opposite of that.
When I spotted the tarantula, the tarantula spotted me. We both froze, both instantly immobilized by the sight of the other. I wanted to google how fast tarantulas could run, wanted to know if their eyesight is based on movement, but instead, I just stared at the tarantula as he stared at me. I was in his territory. He’d been cruising right along, minding his tarantula business before spotting me. I didn’t want to mess up anymore of his giant spider mojo. Clearly, he had shit to do.
I took a careful step back. And then another. And then one more before staring at him some more. He didn’t move. I worried I’d killed him with my mere existence, scared him to literal death. I walked away, picked up some more firewood and peeked back at where he’d been.
He was gone.
I shook myself off, stuck in an imagination loop of a him sneakily crawling on me in what would have been the most trope-ridden camping experience of my life. I walked back to camp, spooked a rabbit on the way and yelled because, FUCK, BUN BUN, THESE ARE TENSE TIMES.
Back at camp, I lit a fire with my pilfered firewood, shook myself off one more time for good measure and hid my shoes inside my tent. I felt certain a desert creature would make a nest of them if given the chance and the thought of crunching my feet against a tarantula was too much for me to even to consider.
That night, I slept with the rainfly off, nothing but a thin piece of mesh separating me from the desert night. After a few hours of fitful sleep, the moon rose and woke me up. It was so bright, almost full. I thought, in my sleep-addled haze, that someone was shining a light on me, but no. It was just the moon, placing a spotlight on me and my nest.
“Goodnight, moon,” I said as I pulled my sleeping bag over my face to shield it from the light. “I’ll be back again soon. I promise.”
Mojave National Preserve is nestled against the Californian border with Nevada. It's got more Joshua trees than Joshua Tree National Park and far fewer people. The Kelso Dunes are a big draw, and I'd highly recommend hiking Teutonia Peak (moderate, 3.2 mile out and back) & checking out the Cima Dome from that trail. More on my first and second visit here.
📍Mojave National Preserve rests on the native lands of the Chemehuevi, Southern Paiute, Serrano and Western Shoshone.