Were you at any point in your life obsessed with Indiana Jones or Crocodile Dundee?  Well meet the real deal: local Joshua Tree resident and all-around desert badass Alexis Sonnefeld.  Alexis has been gracious enough to let me tag along with him through some awesome hikes, climbs, and scrambles around Indian Cove and Rattlesnake Canyon over the last week.  if you need a guide for climbs or hikes in the Joshua Tree area, this is your man.

Alexis Sonnefeld, desert badass

within five minutes of meeting Alexis, he showed me how to safely remove a scorpion from my shower.  important desert skill number 87.  it is not uncommon to meet people out here with a surprising array of skills.  the harshness of the desert climate attracts creative people who seek out and enjoy challenges.  Alexis is a self-admitted goal oriented perfectionist, a climber who grew up in California and Greece, and is an accomplished pianist and astronomer to boot.

The first time out hiking and climbing with him, after some scrambling up a huge, steep wall of rock that left my feet tingling Alexis said “Okay Joe, now we’re going to do some climbing.”  After a long pause he said “that is your name–Joe, right?”
i replied “Yes that’s my name, why?”
“You did not respond”
I told him, “I did not respond because I thought we already were doing some climbing!” At that point we passed vertically through a difficult gap in some rocks, which I later learned is Alexis’s test for tourists.  Thankfully, I passed, so I was invited to accompany him on other journeys. that was the last moment i was nervous on the rocks.  as it turns out, nervousness is not helpful.

a lot of my friends do not consider themselves “outdoorsy” people.  admittedly, there are far fewer spaces in the midwest that might inspire one to greatly appreciate the outdoors.  by contrast, many people here treat the land with a high level of regard, often with a spiritual or religious respect.  furthermore, physical strength and fortitude are not particularly high-valued qualities in the insular, bookish world of grad school or the art world.  so it has been truly refreshing to run around on the rocks out here with Alexis, and to be in an environment where some grit is not only valued but required.

tonight Alexis and Thomas were shooting pool at the Joshua Tree saloon.  I stopped by for one drink.  we ran into a drunk man who kept pointing at Alexis and saying “This guy!  everytime i’m at Indian Cove this guy is there and jumps out of the rocks.  This guy is a fucking mountainman!  He’s always schooling me.”  (On the presence of mountain lions, coyotes, etc.).
The drunk man’s friend chimed in “is he some kind of ranger or something?”
“No.  Rangers’ got nothing on this guy”
“it’s true,” I said.  “the other day i watched Alexis show a ranger an easier route back to the campsite.”
It was a real Chuck Norris moment.

anyway, so near Indian Cove is Alexis’s favorite haunt, Rattlesnake Canyon.  it wouldn’t be called Rattlesnake Canyon if there weren’t an abundance of real live rattlesnakes.  after stepping in some patches of quicksand yesterday, Alexis walked first and narrowly avoided a bite from a speckled rattlesnake.  just like they do on tv, the snake rattled and flashed its fangs and slowly, slowly slithered back into the brush.  it is incredible just how clear the signals from nature can be; there is no room for misinterpretation: “take one more step and i am going to sink my fangs into your leg.  it is going to hurt like hell.  also, i hate you.”  (That was the first of two rattlesnake encounters I have had on my adventure here, the second being quite similar.)

i respect the rattlesnakes and scorpions for being such wonderfully open communicators.  most creatures and plants are not so forthcoming about their feelings or intentions.  i randomly met an interpretive park ranger on a hike the other day and was having this very conversation.  he recited this quote from Edward Abbey (who is the late angry Gandalf of Joshua Tree):

Everything in the desert either stings, stabs, stinks, or sticks. You will find the flora here as venomous, hooked, barbed, thorny, prickly, needled, saw-toothed, hairy, stickered, mean, bitter, sharp, wiry, and fierce as the animals.

catsclaw Acacia, in Joshua Tree National Park

even the plants in the desert are preemptively angry with you.  some, like Acacia (also known as catsclaw) will literally rip holes in your skin if you steer too close.  Alexis characterized it as being attacked by a whole lot of cats, all at once.  and unfortunately it is everywhere.  so far i have been lucky.

if the small dangers do not make you feel alive, the trade-off is that the landscape is magic.  the desert is a puzzle of miniature dream-like worlds that change dramatically from area to area.  after a long hike we arrived at a secret cave with clear, refreshing natural spring water and small waterfalls.  i was terribly hot and somewhat exhausted by the time we arrived at the cave.  the water was like medicine.  no chlorine or mud.  just crystal, glassy water from the earth, with constellations of tiny tadpoles swimming around me, becoming alive.