Ah, tourist season. The days are slightly cooler, and it's easier to be comfortable in the desert during the day. The local economic scene comes alive in the environs of Joshua Tree National Park. Hotel rooms start to fill up, as do trailhead parking lots and tables at local eateries. It's the beginning of that part of the year when the Morongo Basin starts to pull in cash from visitors who hail from far-flung places like Köln, Osaka, and Pacoima.
It's also that time of year when driving around here becomes a lot more like an extreme sport. Or so I thought the other day on the two-lane near my house as the guy behind me rode my bumper.
It was classic road rage. Or 'roid rage, maybe. I was driving a few miles per hour above the limit, certainly faster than I should have been considering the road goes through a significant wildlife area. That wasn't fast enough for this guy: he drove perhaps three feet behind me. He had no hands on the wheel. I could tell because he was flipping me the bird with each one, hands pressed up against the windshield. And he was the second person to tailgate aggressively on that stretch of road in as many days.
The day before, two young men in a pickup heading for the park raced up behind my fiancee and me as we headed home at the speed limit. They hung on our rear bumper for a mile or so, then passed us when the opposing traffic cleared -- and gave us a shot with an air horn they'd brought along for some reason -- perhaps to substitute for the vocabulary they lacked.
Those were just the two most obnoxious tailgaters. There have been plenty of others in the last couple weeks. The road I'm talking about is an arrow-straight two-lane that offers a tempting shortcut between Joshua Tree National Park's entrance at Quail Springs Road and all points west. Tourists aren't the only people who drive too fast on the road: locals do as well, myself occasionally included, and sometimes that has less than pleasant outcomes.
It's not just my road that's the problem. According to this interactive map of road fatalities in the years 2001-2009, downtown Joshua Tree has a chronic problem with traffic related fatalities:
That deadly stretch on the 62 results from people assuming they can stay at freeway speeds through the town center and its string of stoplights, cross-streets, and jaywalkers. Some of my neighbors are talking about pushing for a 25 mph speed limit on the 62's route through town. That's likely to generate a lot of income for the California Highway Patrol.
It's too easy to automatically reduce this issue to one of tourists versus locals. In her book "From Where We Stand," poet Deborah Tall describes coming to terms with the shifting perspectives that muddy such annoyed snap-judgments:
A car pulls out right in front of you on a two-lane road. You have to slam on your brakes to avoid hitting it. It creeps along at twenty miles an hour, turns off a few hundred yards down the road. You lean on the horn, let them have it.
Next day, you only have to go a short way down the road to pick up a neighbor. You pull out of the driveway as you do every morning and meander down, indignant at the out-of-state Buick that races up onto your bumper, honking. You let them have it.
It's entirely possible that in any of the interactions I've had with tailgaters in the last couple weeks, both I and the tailgater have silently fumed with the presumption that the other is a tourist.
Still, it's hard to deny the raw numbers: the desert cools down and the number of jerks on the road swells.
I don't have any problem with tourists. I am one, myself. My usual mode of tourism is a bit more relaxed than those people doing 70 on a desert two-lane on their way to an awesome boulder. I tend to move into a place for a year or two or a decade to get to know it more deeply.
You get to know a place more deeply if you slow down.
Speeding and aggressive driving are acts of arrogance when you get right down to it. Such behavior is a way of saying that your time is more valuable than other people's comfort and safety, not to mention the lives of animals and small children in the neighborhood you drive through.
That arrogance is especially tempting in the desert, especially for people unused to the desert. Long straight roads with long stretches between points of interest make your foot heavier. If you've trained yourself to find points of interest that don't have signs and pull-outs attached, it's easier to tolerate a slower pace.
I've mentioned the wildlife impacts here before. They'e worth mentioning again. It just so happens that this week has been designated by Caltrans and the California Department of Fish and Wildlife as Watch Out for Wildlife Week, a good reminder that shouldn't be limited to a week. The road I've been tailgated on lately runs between the national park and a designated wildlife preserve bought at great cost by the Mojave Desert Land Trust, and animals ranging from mice and squirrels to coyotes, bobcats, badgers, and mule deer cross that road -- the last of which could ding up your Camaro pretty good if you hit it at 75. And there are kids in the neighborhood, too, and they don't always look both ways before they step onto the asphalt.
But even if you never hit so much as a moth, there are other casualties of your need for speed. The desert becomes an obstacle between you and your destination. That's true even if your destination is a particular spot in that desert. The desert is a place worth experiencing on its own terms. Racing through it to get to your campsite -- or the casino, or the 5.11 climb where your friends are waiting with the boulder pads and beer, or your prized reservation in Room 8 at the Joshua Tree Inn --- is a little like racing through the Louvre to get to that one painting of Lisa Gherardini. It may seem worth it, but you miss the Odalisque right behind you.
In your hurry to get to the end of the line of cars idling at the park gate, you pass millennia-old plants. You pass rugged mountains. You pass kestrels sitting on power poles. You pass views northward across the Marine Corps base to the Granite Mountains in the Mojave National Preserve, an easy line-of-sight connection between two desert National Parks. You miss the color of the clouds above the Sheephole Mountains to the east, and the arcs of desert mockingbirds defending their territories in the Joshua trees.
You miss the main lesson the desert has to teach you: that you are not more important than the scenery. There is no scenery, in the sense of a view put there like stage props to provide a backdrop for your life. The desert reminds us of just how unimportant each of us really is, in that all-important larger sense. No wonder some people hurry through it.
Still. Consider choosing leisure. Your date with that rock face is not more important than the things the other people on the road are up to. And once you slow down you just may find yourself wondering why you were in such a hurry.