The New Normal

Pulling in to the West Entrance of Joshua Tree National Park at about 7:45 a.m., I was surprised to see the booth already open that early in the morning, manned by a ranger.  The park had only just re-opened a couple days prior, after Congress had raised the white flag and released the hostage.

I had considered bringing a bouquet of flowers for the rangers.  But there were no good roses in my yard that morning, so I decided to instead just give them a big “welcome back!” and “thank you for your patience!”

When I pulled up to the booth, I got a really weird vibe from the ranger before I could even say anything.  In hindsight, he was probably just bracing himself for yet another irate visitor with misdirected anger issues, ranting about how these are OUR parks and it was ILLEGAL to close them, etc.

Whatever.  We completed our transaction, and I quickly moved on. No time to dwell on the psychology of that little exchange.  I had things to do.  I had traditions to break.


It never fails.  Every time I drive into the park from the West Entrance, I’ve drive past people pulled over just inside the park boundary, taking photos on the side of the road, marveling at the awesomeness of Joshua Tree.

And I always laugh at them.

“Come on, people!” I say. “Just drive another five or ten minutes, you morons!  It gets so much better!”

Yeah, that's kind of nice, but KEEP GOING!  IT GETS MUCH BETTER!

Yeah, that’s kind of nice, but KEEP GOING! IT GETS MUCH BETTER!

But this day would be different.

After finally retiring my ragged old copy of Mari Ginery’s classic Joshua Tree Bouldering guidebook and upgrading to Robert Miramontes’ awesome new guidebook of the same name, I discovered that there were a bunch of bouldering areas near the West Entrance.  Who knew?

So at 0.4 miles from the West Entrance, I pulled over at the same spot where I always saw tourists stopped.  There were no other cars, just mine.  All I could do was laugh at myself.

Karma’s a funny thing…


“I wish that I could be as dumb as you.”

Stan Ridgway

After crossing the road, it was about a half mile hike on faint use trails and cross country over sand and rocks before I reached the Lonely Boulders.  And lonely they were.  I saw no human footprints other than my own the entire time, yet a lot of animal tracks.  There was a surprising amount of trash–but it all appeared to be pages from a single issue of Maxim magazine that had blown in from somewhere else.  This place was so desolate that there was no intentional litter.


A little chimney action at the Lonely Boulders to check out the loose flakes at the top.

At the Lonely Boulders, I probably climbed all of the easy (5.8 and under) boulder problems in the guidebook, some more than once, and explored some other boulders not in the guide–my favorite being a little pyramid/fin boulder with a short problem on it that was so fun I had to do it multiple times.  But mostly it was just good to be back in the desert again, out in Joshua Tree, exploring an area previously unknown to me, filling in yet another one of the too-many blank spots on my mental map of the world.

Fun times on the unnamed pyramid/fin boulder.

Fun times on the unnamed pyramid/fin boulder.


In the 100 or so times I’ve been to Joshua Tree National Park, I’ve always avoided the Lost Horse area.  It just seemed too close to the road, and people were always there.  But it was already a day for breaking traditions, so why not keep with the theme?

Next stop: the Mel’s Diner Boulder at Lost Horse.

It was a quick walk from the parking area out to this easy-to-find boulder.  And I instantly fell in love.  Heavily featured, with a number of easy routes up, and it was even in the shade.  What a fool I had been, avoiding this area for the last ~20 years.

Untitled-2 copy

Is it possible to be in love with a piece of quartz monzonite?  Indeed it is!

Halfway through my first climb–Chitlins, which ascends jugs up the 15 foot face and goes at a modest 5.5–I came to a realization.

After years of pushing hard, injuring myself, living with chronic pain while climbing, and finally giving up the pastime for almost a decade, only to be lured back in and forced to walk a very fine line between pleasure and pain, it all made sense.

This was the way forward.  I could still enjoy climbing at 51 years and counting, without destroying my body.  Instead of spending all my time and energy chasing numbers, I could finally kick back and enjoy the beauty of my surroundings and of movement across the stone.  All I had to do was seek out the quality, easy boulder problems, like those I discovered at that morning at Mel’s Diner.  What used to be my warm-ups would now be my destinations.

More fun at Mel's Diner.

More fun at Mel’s Diner.

This was it.

This awesome little boulder summed up everything I liked about climbing–what got me in to it in the first place, and what pulled me back to it after all those years.

I found my new normal.


After my revelation at Mel’s diner, I decided to check out the Billy Barty Boulders on the way back to the car.  The guide notes that they are just 100 yards south of Mel’s Diner, and describes the boulders as “all about 8 feet tall and sporting about 10 problems.”

Now, I know that some people find humor in making fun of shorties.  They’re an easy target.  But I love the little ones.  After all, I spent a big chunk of my life developing a plethora of easily forgettable low-ball boulder problems at Snow Valley.  And I’ll be back in the future to spend some quality time with the little beauties at the Billy Barty Boulders.

I told you it gets better...

I told you it gets better…

Driving out of the park, I cranked up Stan Ridgway‘s Black Diamond on the iPod and reflected on another fabulous day in the desert.  I saw a few cars parked at the pullouts just inside the West Entrance.  Only this time there was no laughing.

“I guess I’ll just shut up and move along.”

Stan Ridgway


One thought on “The New Normal

  1. Hey Matt
    Was just surfing the web
    And I saw ur blog
    Good to know ur still climbing.
    I now live in Palm Springs.
    Moved here in 2005 from a decade in Thailand. Still climbing myself, but my body is older than my mind and the numbers have dropped for me as well.
    That was a nice little story about ur day a few years ago.
    Got three kids into climbing as well and I help coach the youth team at Hangar 18 Riverside.
    Give me a call sometimes
    760 844-4420

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