To say that the Mojave and Colorado Deserts served me up a huge slice of humble pie this past weekend would be a gross understatement. All I wanted to do was visit Joshua Tree National Park while I was in the Palm Springs area for work. Joshua Tree – to me, the name connotes either a hippy dippy nature experience or an overplayed U2 album; either way, a pretty benign experience. However, what I learned the hard way is that the desert is no joke and really doesn’t give a shit about being nice to an indoorsy New Englander who is not used to that dry heat. When I set out last Friday morning from Palm Springs by myself at 8:30am SO EXCITED to explore all that Joshua Tree had to offer, I had no idea this would end up being one of the most harrowing experiences I’ve faced in sobriety. I am just grateful that since I have been in recovery, the notion of “asking for help” has been so ingrained in me, that when I knew I was in danger physically, asking for help was my automatic first move.
I really did think I prepared for a day in the desert appropriately. I got a good night’s sleep, ate a healthy breakfast, packed bananas as a snack, drank a liter and a half of water on my way, and was sure that I had plenty of water in a cooler in my car for the entire day. Plus, I had done two 4-hour hikes in the Australian Outback in 100 degree heat with no problems. So, I didn’t even hesitate in setting off by myself on the hour drive from my Palm Springs AirBnb to the small desert town of Joshua Tree, even though there was a heat advisory for the day (the “real feel” was 98 degrees). And it was a beautiful drive through the desolate desert-scape into the middle of nowhere.
My plan was to enter the park through the North Entrance in the town of Twentynine Palms – I made it into the park around 9:30am with no line at the entrance and was greeted by SO MANY of the odd-looking Joshua trees. Fun fact: these trees were named by a group of Mormon settlers in the Mojave Desert because the trees’ unique shape reminded them of a Biblical story in which Joshua reaches his hands up to the sky in prayer (a very appropriate pose for me that day, it turns out). There is a road running through the entire park, and there are various points of interest and hikes peppered throughout the expanse of the park. So, I followed along the road and got out at each point of interest, including a couple of mile-long hikes among the boulders and Joshua trees, hoping to catch a glimpse of the elusive coyote or desert bighorn sheep native to the area.
First glimpse of the Joshua trees on the north side of the park
And, my god, it was beautiful! On the way back to my car from my first hike of the day, I ran into a young woman who had just moved to the desert from Wisconsin. She asked me if there was anything to see on the trail ahead of her and proceeded to tell me how underwhelmed she was with Joshua Tree and that it was a “piece of crap.” I looked at her incredulously, because we couldn’t possibly be looking at the same landscape. The untrained eye may quickly scan the desert and come to the conclusion that it is a barren land, repetitive, rocky, boring. But if you look more closely, I promise there is beauty there in the reds, browns, and tans of the desert sand and rock, with the Little San Bernardino Mountain chain looming in the backdrop. The roadrunners and other desert birds darting among the gigantic boulders that litter the apocalyptic landscape bring the scene to life, as well as the many different varieties of cacti and, of course, the spiky playful Joshua trees scattered across the northern section of the park. I was having the time of my life frolicking from site to site, making sure to chug plenty of cold water in between.
Boulders and interesting rock formations litter the entire park
After about 4 hours in the desert, I started to get one of those monstrous pounding headaches, so I thought I must just be hungry and/or dehydrated. So, I ate a banana and some Red Vines (I knowwwwww, but I thought they would keep my blood sugar from crashing!) But I knew I was in trouble about 6 hours in, when I got out of my car to ascend the steps to the highest point in Joshua Tree National Park for fantastic views over the whole Coachella Valley. At that point, my headache was getting worse, I was becoming nauseous, I was very dizzy, and my eye sight became blurry. Luckily, I was familiar with the symptoms of heat exhaustion and heat stroke because I grew up playing tennis in the HOT Florida summers, so I knew I needed to get out of the sun to try to cool my body down. The trouble is, Joshua Tree is in a very remote part of California, and there is not much around. Plus, the park is huge, so it took me about a half hour to drive out of it.
A desolate dirt road in the middle of the park
At this point, I was feeling really unwell, dizzy and nauseous, and I didn’t think I was going to be able to drive the hour back by myself. So, I pulled into the dirt lot in front of a gift shop in the town of Joshua Tree called “Coyote Corner” hoping that I could go in there and ask for some help. As soon as I got out of my car, I started projectile vomiting everywhere, and from there, my condition rapidly deteriorated. And this is where the absolute kindness of strangers really saved my ass last Friday. A young woman, maybe in her twenties, was grabbing something out of her car, parked near mine, and I called out to her from the ground (I couldn’t walk by myself at this point) and told her I think I had heatstroke and asked her if she could help me. She immediately ran over to me, grabbed me under my arm, and helped me to walk to the bench outside the gift shop. Thank god, there was a Ranger inside the gift shop named Marley, who lifted me up and took me inside to try to cool me down. I could not stop vomiting and couldn’t even keep water down. I couldn’t remember my name or address when the people inside were asking me, and I said I needed help to get to the hospital. Marley didn’t even hesitate. She gave me a barf bag and threw me into the front seat of her car and drove me to the High Desert Medical Center, which was luckily about 5 minutes away. She walked me in to the Emergency Room, grabbed a nurse, and got me the help that I desperately needed. She stayed with me until they got me admitted to a bed, which only took about 10 minutes, because they were afraid I was going to go into cardiac arrest or shock because of all the vomiting. Marley left me her phone number and a note with the address of where I had left my rental car, and then I was in the hospital’s care. I don’t remember too much more from the early part of my hospital stay. I do know that I kept asking my nurse Paul if I was going to die. Because I really thought I was going to, and it terrified me that I was all alone and no one even knew where I was, and I didn’t have the wherewithal to text my sister or my ex-husband, who are my two emergency contacts and were on the complete opposite end of the country from me.
Fifteen hours, three liters of fluid, two potassium pills, and two pieces of bread later, I could finally stand up and walk on my own again. The following day when I woke up in my hospital bed, my other nurse who looked like John Malkovich told me that I was very lucky, that my sodium and potassium had been at fatally low levels the day before, and that if I had waited even a half hour more to come to the hospital, I might not have made it. Thinking about this is still giving me shivers down my spine. I am a bit shocked from this whole experience and, like a good alcoholic, have been morbidly obsessing over it, which is not helpful and is just keeping me really freaked out. And my first thought was to never go on another hike again. But that’s just plain wrong. This is EXACTLY WHY I need to go on all the hikes for as long as I’m physically able – because life is fleetingly short, and I want to milk every last sweet drop of experience while I still can. So FUCK YES I’m going to hike in a desert again. But next time, I’m going to pack electrolytes and leave my specific itinerary with at least two people!
I owe a huge shout-out to the kindness of strangers. I am ETERNALLY GRATEFUL to the girl who helped me into Coyote Corner and for Marley, because God knows my first instinct would NOT be to put a puking, stumbling stranger into my car. And she was SO NICE to me. I kept apologizing because I could not stop puking everywhere, and she just kept rubbing my back and telling me I was going to be okay, which I really needed to hear in the moment. I texted Marley when I was medically cleared the next day and thanked her for saving my life – I won’t ever forget her, even though I can’t even picture her face because I was that out of it. She sent me the sweetest text back and was thrilled to hear that I was cleared to fly home to Boston. I’m also grateful as hell for my recovery because through it, I have been conditioned to ask for help – and this time, my life actually depended on it. There was no room for pride, ego, or stubbornness in the High Desert that day. So, here I am, continuing to live on borrowed time and determined as hell to keep living my best life. And in the spirit of living my best life, I’m officially announcing that I just booked my next trip…finally off to Madagascar this November as a 40th birthday present to myself and could not be happier about it. Baby lemurs, here I come!
Dorking out with the Joshua trees before I started feeling poorly
I own two shirts that say "INDOORSY" on them, but really, I am happiest when I am outside surrounded by nature
Cholla cactus garden
Bono was on to something...
Last glimpse before I knew I had to leave