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Whistling in the Dark 

A story of boulders, stars and emergency recreation

Wednesday, Jan 27 1999
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Photo by Debra DiPaoloI could swear the rocks have started to hum. That's why I'm having problems hearing the whistle -- the rocks are talking. Not that I mind. I have all night. I am climbing high on the exposed granite boulders of Joshua Tree National Park, two, maybe three hundred feet above level ground. I have no flashlight. I am navigating by the light of the waxing gibbous moon, following the sound of my friend Jay's whistling, a distinct tune with which he challenges me to find him in hiding. I struggle to negotiate safe ledges for my hands and feet, to move gracefully in my fleece-and-nylon layers, to spot gaping chasms with my eyes before I explore them with my legs. "Again?" I plead for a reprise of the homing tune, tipping my head to the side like a terrier decoding a human voice. Jaw set in defiance of my usual caution, I set out again toward what I take to be its location. Later, I'll remember this nocturnal game of hide and seek as fun, but I'll never forget the fear. At times my knees start to tremble out of control, and I have to freeze between rocks, legs split to their limit, until the vibrations stop.

At last, when I spot his moon-shadowed silhouette against a low-hanging rock, I'm elated; all traces of terror dissolve. We sit on a flat-topped boulder and guzzle water, both of us marveling effusively at my astounding orienteering skill, my keen sense of direction. This is hubris, I think to myself. Who are we to be defying all the rules of outdoor recreation each of us has so assiduously absorbed since childhood, out scaling heights long after dark, on empty stomachs, far from our supplies and possibly lost? "Want to do it again?" he asks. "In a minute," I promise, bracing myself for the next round, curiously anxious to get back to the game. While I catch my breath and allow sweat to chill my skin, we survey the night sky. Jupiter has set and Saturn is on her way down. Leo is rising, Orion is high overhead, the Pleiades glitter like specks of frost.

I'm always amazed there's no one to stop us. This is not a game to which I would have consented were I on a normal camping trip, the sane kind that takes up a normal weekend -- arrive Friday evening, or at least Saturday morning, pay a visit and a fee to the ranger, sleep in a tent for two or three nights, hike by day and stop for a nice lunch. Live by the sun, huddle into down-filled mummy sacks at night. This is emergency recreation, a single stolen night in a desert; adventure must be maximized. We are out, as the yogis say, to quiet the chattering monkeys of our civilized minds as efficiently as we can, and thus have no time for formalities like tents, square meals or waiting until dawn for adventure. On nights like these we pull into the parking lot around seven, pack in a few miles to our familiar spot among the rocks, drop our gear and head out into the moony night. Tomorrow, after a nap in the cold sun, we'll head home.

Over eight years in L.A. I've amassed a small repertoire of locations for such guerrilla rituals, remote wildernesses a short trip by fast car on the freeway. You can drive three hours out of some cities and find things pretty much the same, but picking the right road out of Los Angeles can land you in another country, climate or ecosystem, amid strange landscapes where women can wander into the night with impunity, where I for one sleep more soundly on hard ground than I do in my soft Hollywood bed. There's the pine-forested "Yellow Post" site in the San Jacinto Mountains I discovered after visiting a friend's cabin in Idyllwild; the heart-shaped lake in the Sierra's Onion Valley, where a salesperson sent a friend and me one afternoon when we'd stopped by an outdoor store merely to browse (it was the last weekend of a sweltering June, and we awoke the next morning to the tickle of snow on our noses); and this secret spot among the Joshua trees to which I return often enough to consider it a country home -- one without roof or taxes or gardener, the only kind I'd ever want.

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I look back on these adventures not as hectic getaways but as luxurious stretches of unstructured time, hours without the abstract or arbitrary rules of city life, but full of more important things to puzzle over: how to turn a water bottle frozen solid into morning coffee, and whether rocks can sing.

Reach the writer at judith.lewis@laweekly.com

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