Trip Report: Joshua Tree Traverse, aka 37 miles for my 37th birthday

I turn 37 this week.  Late 30s are a weird age, in that I sometimes forget how old I am. 36? 37? 38? It’s all kind of the same. You know when you’re turning 18, 21, 30, 40, etc. But 37? Not a major milestone.
So, this year I decided that running 37 miles for my 37th birthday would be a great way to celebrate, not to mention a good way to remember my age.

I chose the Joshua Tree traverse, which is exactly 37 miles. I remembered reading Christof Teuscher’s report from last year, and it sounded like a great option. The mileage was perfect, and the route only has 3000 ft of elevation gain. I’m just ramping up after my off-season, and I didn’t want anything super hard – no need to give myself an injury for my birthday. I planned to do it unsupported (same as Christoph) which is defined as: “unaccompanied… and must carry all your supplies right from the start, except any water that can be obtained along the way from natural sources.” (http://fastestknowntime.proboards.com/thread/19/read-first).

Going unsupported is what made the route compelling to me. Joshua Tree is in the middle of the desert, so there aren’t any natural water sources. Therefore, in addition to all my food, clothes, gear, etc., I would have to carry enough water to run 37 miles in the desert. No water caches allowed. I planned to follow Christof’s strategy of running through the night, when the temps were lower. If I succeeded, I’d be the first woman to do the route unsupported.

It turns out that carrying a bunch of water (3 liters, if you’re wondering) is kind of a pain, but not a deal-breaker. Running at night was the key.
What really made this trip memorable were the other logistics. The Joshua Tree route is a point-to-point traverse, which meant that I needed a shuttle. Normally my husband Tom is World’s Best Crew/Shuttle, but this time he needed to stay home and be World’s Best Dad/Co-Worker/Distiller. I decided to call some guide companies in Joshua Tree and see if they’d be willing to help.

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Route and elevation profile (courtesy of Christof Teuscher). Shuttle required.

I randomly stumbled upon Seth and Sabra, owners of Cliffhanger Guides, and connecting with them was one of the best parts of the trip. Seth told me he had a buddy, Carl, who would be able to run the shuttle. Carl is a river guide in the summer and a stuntman in the winter (not a bad life!), and was happy to pick up a bit of work during the shoulder season.
“But, I should tell you about Carl’s car…” Seth said over the phone as we started to discuss details. “You know what a Volvo wagon looks like, right?”
Yes, yes, I know what a Volvo wagon looks like.
“Well, Carl’s got a Volvo wagon… But then he chopped the top off, and lowered the whole thing, and ripped out all the seats, and the outside is matte black and the inside is red, white and blue. Just so you know what to expect.”

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A soccer mom probably drove this wagon in its past life. I bet it’s a lot happier now.
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View from the inside. If it looks like I’m lounging with my feet up, that’s because I am. There isn’t really a front seat – just a mat on the floor. Above the windshield it says “DON’T ROLL IT.”

As you can see, Seth did a great job of describing Carl’s car. It was one of the coolest cars I’ve ever ridden in. A work of art on wheels. Carl was also super nice and friendly. Of course I had to ask him about his stuntwork, and after a bit of prying I learned that he doubled for Harrison Ford in Indiana Jones! EDIT: I couldn’t find a pic of him as Indy, but here he is on fire for a Daft Punk video:

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Before the trip I also asked Seth if he knew of a cheap place to crash after my run. As mentioned above, I planned to run through the night, starting at sunset and finishing in the early morning hours. My flight home was at 1:30 pm the next day, and I wanted to sleep for a few hours before heading to the airport.

Seth explained that he and Sabra lived on a big piece of property in the desert, about 6 miles outside of Joshua Tree. He said I was welcome to crash in one of the cabins they had on their property. He warned me it would be rustic: no running water, no heat. I gratefully accepted his offer.

After checking flights, I realized it would be significantly cheaper to fly to Joshua Tree a few days before my birthday, rather than on the actual day. This also meant I’d get to spend my actual birthday with my family, which is really important to me. Although I love going off alone to do these little excursions, as soon as I’m gone I start missing Tom and Rowan. I wanted to be home for my birthday.

So, I flew into the Palm Springs airport on Oct 25 and headed straight for Seth and Sabra’s property. I called Seth as I was driving from the airport and he said “One thing, our road is a bit washed out from some recent flooding. It’s just the last 400 yards or so. But when you hit the deep sand, whatever you do, DON’T STOP.” I laughed and patted the dashboard of my poor little rental sedan. I figured worst-case I could just walk the last 400 yds. Turns out a Chevy Cruze actually handles fairly well in deep sand!

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On the road to Seth and Sabra’s place.

Seth and Sabra’s property is pretty awesome. They’ve got a great set-up in the desert, surrounded by friends, running their own climbing guide company, livin’ the dream. They showed me my cabin, which was called “Granny’s Love  Shack.”

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Granny’s Love Shack and the trusty Chevy Cruze.
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Seth and Sabra’s house

I dropped my stuff in the Shack and then wandered over to the main house, where Seth and Carl were hanging out. Seth asked me how much water I was bringing, and I told him 3 liters. “THAT’S IT? For 37 miles?” Of course that instantly had me concerned, since Seth has been living and working in the desert for years. I reminded myself that Seth spent most of his time climbing during daylight hours, and 3 liters for 37 miles under the blazing sun definitely would not be enough. But Christof had managed to get away with only 2.25 liters during his nighttime traverse. (Christof is also significantly faster than me, so I figured I’d pack a bit more water than he did, since I’d be out there longer than he was.)

I dropped my rental car at the North Entrance and then Carl drove me to the Black Rock Canyon trailhead.

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Desert sunset on the way to the Black Rock Canyon trailhead.
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Checking the map and turning on my Delorme. Almost-full moon rising in the background. (Photo by Carl.)

By 6:25 pm I was off. The first 5 miles of the route are a long gradual ascent in deep sand. I jogged the flatter sections, but I didn’t want to go out too hard, so I speed-hiked any time the climb steepened.

I admit that the first part of the trail was not my favorite. Partly it was because the terrain was a bit of a slog. But also, I was alone in an unfamiliar environment with the entire night ahead of me. Intellectually, I knew there was nothing to be afraid of, but I still had a general feeling of unease as I got used to the new terrain. In the Pacific Northwest, I can recognize trees and stumps in the dark, I know which animals make which sounds, and I know what trails look like at night. In Joshua Tree, I was brought to a halt by a man standing silently just 100 feet off the trail, unmoving, facing me with his arms at his sides. Only after a full 10 seconds did I realize it was a dead Joshua Tree.

Several miles later, I started hearing distant booming noises, so loud that the ground shook just slightly beneath my feet. Two deep BOOMS followed immediately by a tremor. Silence for a couple minutes. Then repeat. My best guess is that it was some kind of military testing, considering there is a base nearby. The sounds seemed too rhythmic to be an earthquake, although that crossed my mind as well. If anyone has more info about those noises, I’d love to know what they were!

By midnight, I was done with all of the climbing and enjoying some very fun runnable trail. The moon was almost full and it was a beautiful night. I attempted to take a few pictures of the landscape, but I don’t have the right photo gear and none of the pics really turned out. See below for my best attempt.

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I was hoping to finish the route in 9-10 hours – not speedy, but a somewhat reasonable time for an unsupported run with a heavy pack. I knew Christof had lost the trail at the very end, so as I headed into the final miles I told myself to stay alert. Yet I still managed to lose the trail at the same place as Christof! Losing the trail cost me approximately 10 minutes, which gave me a total time of just over 10 hours (10:02). Of course, 10 hours was just an arbitrary time goal I set for myself, and is a very soft time for this route. I’m hoping another woman will come along and put in a real effort at an unsupported Fastest Known Time. If she does, she will almost certainly beat my time by a couple hours, not just a couple minutes.

The cool thing is that losing the trail added a bit of a distance, accidentally putting me at exactly 37.0 miles for the complete traverse! Strava link here.

I finished the route just before 4:30 am, and was back at Granny’s Love Shack by 5:15 am. I slept for a couple hours, but by 7 am the sun was streaming in my window, so I gave up and wandered over to Seth and Sabra’s house. Sabra very kindly let me use their shower and then I sat and drank coffee with Sabra and several of her friends who were also staying on the property. I finished the morning with a Messie Jessie at Crossroads Cafe, before hopping a plane back to Seattle. Birthday run, done and done!

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Sabra headed out for a spin with her pups.
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Refueling. How could I not order a Messie Jessie?

6 Replies to “Trip Report: Joshua Tree Traverse, aka 37 miles for my 37th birthday”

  1. Jessi, Awesome report thanks. Just moved somewhat close to Joshua Tree and now have one more run to add to my bucket list. The booms were most likely 155mm artillery from 29-Palms (Marine Corps Base) that borders Joshua Tree. Congrats!

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