Reconsidering the Cholla Garden Parking Lot

Pinto Basin Road | Photo: Ken Lund/Flickr/Creative Commons License

Back in October I wrote about Joshua Tree National Park's plan to straighten the upgrade Pinto Basin Road, which plan included widening the parking lot at the popular Cholla Garden. In my October piece, I criticized the National Park Service's plans, saying that the needs of motorized tourism were winning out over the needs of the Park's non-human residents.

Not long after, Joshua Tree National Park's Superintendent Mark Butler persuaded me that I might need to reconsider. And he did so with one sentence.

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The project, which has been in the works for some time, mostly focuses on fixing up the admittedly deteriorated Pinto Basin Road. The road has been crumbling for years, but summer storms in 2011 added substantial damage to the decay.

In October, I wrote:

It's hard to argue with the need to make to road safer. It's even hard to argue with the need to make it wider, unless the Park Service were to ban vehicles above a certain size from the road, a move that would likely be criticized as unfair to Winnebago drivers. Soft shoulders on narrow desert roads almost guarantee accidents, as inattentive or bored drivers wander off onto the gravel and lose control of their vehicles.

But then went on;

[T]here's something about the parking lot aspect of the project that bugs me beyond the usual problems with making it easier to drive through a National Park, beyond Abbey's exhortation in "Desert Solitaire" that:
You can't see anything from a car; you've got to get out of the goddamn contraption and walk, better yet crawl, on hands and knees, over the sandstone and through the thornbrush and cactus. When traces of blood begin to mark your trail, you'll see something, maybe.

People stop at the Cholla Cactus Garden for any number of reasons: to stretch their legs, to eat a sandwich after a couple hours of driving, or because it's a sanctioned site, but mostly they stop there to see the cholla. Helping a few more of them do so safely is a worthy goal.

But it makes no sense to me to make it easier for people to leave their cars and see the cholla by removing the cholla to make more room for cars.

In November, not long after my article was published, I ran into Mark Butler and spoke with him about the issue. Butler had seen my October piece and thought I'd missed something important. Among other good points he raised, he said something that has stuck with me in the months since:

"You know, we can't even get a schoolbus in there."

I'd spent so much time in my piece poking fun at Winnebagos that I'd forgotten they aren't the only large vehicles negotiating Pinto Basin Road.

Long before I ever saw Joshua Tree I lived in Buffalo, New York. Buffalo has a rather nice Science Museum, an appealing building somewhere in between Beaux Arts and Art Deco in design with a verdigris observatory grafted atop it, and I'd begged my parents to take me there since we moved to town when I was 6. They never got around to it. Eventually, when I was 12 or so, I gave up on waiting for my parents to take me, slipped out of the house, and walked the nearly four miles to the Museum.

And then came a moment I'll always remember: Already a bit footsore, I walked up the grand-seeming steps of what was then the Museum's front entrance, arrived at the heavy glass door, and -- my fingers on the door handle -- I read the gold leaf letters on the glass, which said:

"NO CHILDREN UNDER 16 WITHOUT ADULT SUPERVISION."

Or it may have been 18. It was older than I was, at any rate, and I sighed and turned to take the long walk back home.

At which point the uniformed security guard opened the door. He must have seen my shoulders sag as I read the door. He cocked a stern eyebrow at me. He said "behave yourself." And then he waved me into the museum.

I may have walked more miles in the museum halls that day than I did in the eight mile round trip between there and home.

I can't honestly say that that guard changed my life: I was already fascinated by science, an old hand at watching nature with a few years of woodland solitude under my belt, and I would very likely have ended up doing something very similar with my life had he said "and STAY out!" rather than "behave yourself." Still, I remember how grateful I was to the random grownup who'd given me a way to contemplate the bits of nature represented in old-school dioramas.

When Mark Butler reminded me about the whole "getting a schoolbus to the cholla garden" issue, that's the moment that came to me.

I've been on school field trips too, of course, and I know well that in every busload of middle schoolers taken to the cholla patch there will be perhaps one kid who actually has her life changed as a result. But those are pretty good odds nonetheless. As someone who got those middle-school years out of the way almost a half century ago, I had a lot more opportunities to hang out in natural settings than do the clichéd Kids These Days. That one kid in a busload might turn out to be the desert protection activist of 2028. Or just a person unlikely to think it's a good idea to pave, landfill, or develop the desert for our own minor comforts.

And this came to mind yet again this weekend, as we visited the National Park with some friends. I watched a couple of kids with parents, taking photos in front of Joshua trees and chollas, looking at the odd, spiny plants with something like awe and adoration. You never know which moments each kid will carry with her for the rest of her life. If a parking lot with room for a school bus can make some of those moments possible, that may not be the worst possible outcome. I still have my concerns over still more promotion of motorized tourism in the National Parks, but Mark Butler made me expand my perspective a bit to remember that my point of view isn't the only one around.

And when you come right down to it, isn't expanding your perspective one of the things the National Parks are for?

Chris Clarke is an environmental writer of two decades standing. He writes from Joshua Tree regularly at his acclaimed blog Coyote Crossing and comments on desert issues on KCET weekly. Read his recent posts here and follow him on Twitter.

About the Author

Chris Clarke is a natural history writer and environmental journalist currently at work on a book about the Joshua tree. He lives in Joshua Tree.
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