Hiking Joshua Tree National Park

Hiking Joshua Tree National Park

“Welcome to California.”

I still remember the text from my sister when I landed in San Diego last March. When I was growing up in a small town in Ohio, California always had the aura of a place far away, out west, that was just, well, California.

I’ve been there a few times, including a trip to the Palm Springs/Twentynine Palms area in 2011 and again last year, to get away from Capitol Hill, regroup, and gain perspective that comes from being on the opposite side of the continent.

It didn’t disappoint. When you grow up in the flat, deciduous Midwest, a trip to the desert is so radically different from what you know that your inner adventurous child is wide awake as the desert air hits your face for the first time and you take it all in. (On that point, all of the photos we’ve used so far for A Desert Journey come from Joshua Tree National Park or the surrounding area). None of the hiking I’ve done in the Mojave Desert has been hard core or strenuous, but there are take-aways from desert hikes that apply to politics, especially as they relate to personal well-being.

Time in the desert is restorative.

At this point in the life of Liberatus, the idea that we need time away from the city to decompress, renew perspective, and be energized by the outdoors barely needs to be said. Although, saying it and making it be part of our lifestyle—even daily routine—are not the same thing; it is a constant human need that, if not met, will make your work suffer. As I’m writing this, we’re in the middle of the 2016 Blizzard. Sitting at my desk inside, I realized half way through writing the first version that it was total junk. I had to scrap what I originally wrote, head out for a 5k run around the neighborhood (snow running is amazing, even in a blizzard!), and come back to it fresh.

When you get the chance to visit Joshua Tree National Park, be sure to find the trail up Ryan Mountain. Making your way up the non-strenuous (although Wikipedia says otherwise) path in the dry air, your mind will almost sink into the desert landscape stretching out in every direction. The contrast between the busy, crowded streets of Washington and the desolate emptiness is sure worth the cross -country flights it will take to find it. If you need space to let the earth clear your mind, you’ll find it in Joshua Tree National Park.  

Although not a long hike, the summit still offers a panoramic view of the valleys and mountains that surround it. Over the mountains separating the park from Palm Springs, you can see the snow-covered peak of San Jacinto, about twice the elevation of Ryan Mountain at 10,833 feet.  If you can’t take the heat of the desert, try riding the tram up the mountain and picking up the trails on San Jacinto from there. In March 2015 I did exactly that, hiking the (chillier) snow-packed trails with my siblings and a friend.

Back in Joshua Tree, I’ve also made the short walk through the Cholla Cactus Garden, a plant that, if unfamiliar, is definitely bizarrely intriguing (I have a picture of one from a walk there on my wall for its uniqueness; they are also featured in the cover photo of our home page). To add in even more variety, try the hike to the 49 Palms Oasis (see the Work As Restoration journal photo), up and down smaller hills and along a rocky trail (see The Situation Is Critical journal photo). The trail ends abruptly, and perhaps fittingly since it’s an oasis in the desert—a place of rest in a challenging landscape—you have to climb over large boulders to reach the place of rest in the shade of the palm trees. Take a light backpack with you and snacks or a book; it’s a great place to let your mind rest and listen to the water trickling down the mountain. Once you’re done hiking for the day, drive through the park as the sun is setting with your camera to snag pictures of the light streaming past the Joshua Trees. From there, you’re going to want to stop by the Crossroads Café and Tavern to refuel and take in the groovy atmosphere, or perhaps drop in before you head out for a Breakfast to Nowhere, complete with fresh orange juice (that’s actually fresh, and has that sunshine ripened, fresh squeezed taste that somehow tastes fresher than an actual orange), a generously thick slice of banana bread, fresh fruit, and of course bacon, eggs, and more.

With the trails of Joshua Tree our wide open  stage for today, I’m remembering how I’ve noted previously on the journal that I’ve been on my own “desert” journey over the past year. I think it’s interesting that the journey to create Liberatus was so long (well over two years), and now that it’s here, there’s another journey just sorting through faith, what it really means to follow Jesus, and especially the inner longing to move past all of the moralistic, religious (and politico-religious) noise in the world to find something deeper, richer, more life-giving and authentic. Too often in my life and perhaps in the lives of some around me it seems following—or rather, living a moral code without really enjoying it—has been the thing to do because not following isn’t a good option, rather than because of a coherent knowledge of how following can actually shape our identity, ease our restlessness, and totally disrupt the “normal” way of operating in our work, especially politics. I think many of the reasons political culture is so dysfunctional are rooted in a search for significance or approval, a restless fear of “what will happen to America”, and a complete disbelief that followers of Jesus are called to view their work even in politics as an opportunity for restoration. So I’ll close with a few thoughts in light of both the inner desert journey it has taken to gain the change of perspective above, in addition to the journey of creating LIBERATUS now, and the limited time I’ve spent in the literal desert.

You can’t wish yourself out of the desert.

I think that even inwardly, a desert journey is ultimately restorative, even though it isn’t necessarily fun. But even so, it’s not as if you can magically start swimming in the Great Lakes, surrounded by water, if you’re trekking through Death Valley. Time and place have their limits, and there are miles and elevation changes to be conquered to make it from Joshua Tree back to the coast, or back east. And having visited an oasis, even though it does offer shade and cooler temperatures, I know that an oasis means you’re still in the desert and hearing good news doesn’t necessarily hydrate you out of the tough time you’re experiencing. Chiding a friend for hiking in the desert while on his way to the ocean won’t help him get to the ocean, but hiking with him might. In the same way, there are just times when the gospel doesn’t resonate, and it helps to have friends who understand and share the gospel with you again, even if in hearing it, it feels like you’re staring blankly out of an oasis at the dry, dusty trail you soon have to resume hiking. (That said, I think the culture of burnout is an entirely different story on Capitol Hill, and one that’s a symptom of deeper issues, as I’ve already noted).

We will all experience harder times in life, and I think that’s why we need a much greater sense of community in politics, instead of a culture so often defined by performance, searching for significance, and fear of the other side.

At the end of the journey, there is a homecoming.

Recently, I made time to get away from D.C. with a stack of books to read and take in as much as I could ahead of what will likely be a couple months of a lot of fundraising and writing. I read nearly a thousand pages across eight books, but there was one line, one sentence that stood out above the rest. At the end of a week away, to be honest, I was struggling again, feeling restless, wondering if the trip had been valuable, and if work to bring restoration to American politics is even worth pursuing.

I was on my way home, on a plane, looking out the window at the last glow of red and orange on the horizon at sunset. And then I read this*:

            “Trust is that deep inner conviction that the Father wants me home.”

It’s very hard to describe what a “deep inner conviction” feels like emotionally, or what it feels like to live in anticipation of a homecoming, of returning to a place where you are wanted, and sought after uniquely and personally, where you finally find the ultimate “Welcome to California” for which it seems we all long.

But something inside shifted when I read that line; something about following Jesus, something about life seems to have changed. What would I have done differently, over the past ten years that I’ve worked in politics, if I had lived in the joy of knowing there’s a homecoming ahead, not just intellectually, but emotionally?

I think for anyone working in politics, the stress (often both fake stress conjured up by our identiy-crisis wanderings, and a product of a burnout culture), the constant worrying about how you’re going to be received, and the inability to see reality bigger than your tribe all hang on a disbelief that there is a place where we are fully welcomed, fully known, and fully loved, where we are free to reflect the truth and beauty we were created to enjoy.

I know I’m not fully describing the window into deeper reality that opened for me when I read that line, but I know without question that the pursuit continues, that a deeper joy has been awakened: LIBERATUS—we are set free.


*Buy a copy of The Return of the Prodigal Son: A Story of Homecoming by Henri J.M. Nouwen (the quote is on page 84), and plan a trip out of town for at least a day (or to the Mojave Desert) to read it. If you’ve already read it, share it with a friend, or go on a hike or snow run with a friend who just needs a companion. 

Cover Photo Credit: Heather Gibbons