A blog about a hike across Scotland (and possibly other things)

Month: December 2018

29 hours in Joshua Tree

From The Washington Post, October 14, 2018

We were surrounded by trees that could have been drawn by Dr. Seuss. A desert hare had just crossed the trail in front of us, its ears translucent in the still-rising sun.  But it was something else that caught my 28-year-old son’s attention.

“I can’t believe how silent it is out here,” he said.

This was an offhand comment. I agreed, but said nothing. We walked on.

So I think I know the answer to the questions I brought with me to Joshua Tree National Park that Sunday morning. Can a person find isolation, silence, and beauty in a visit measured in hours? Is it possible to experience a national park’s wildness in the time usually allotted for a blacktop tour?


Speaking only for myself, this is useful knowledge when vying with work, friends, sleep, and entertainment for the attention of a person in his late 20s. 

My son, Will, works for a start-up in Los Angeles. When I visited him recently, he’d had the job less than a year. He’d recently moved from a house-and-yard neighborhood to a loft in the Fashion District. I’d be there five days, but he’d only have the weekend off, and he’d graciously reserved it all for me. 

He and I had done a fair amount of camping when he was younger – backpacking on the Long Trail in Vermont, kayaking on the Chesapeake Bay, that sort of thing. His enthusiasm had waned with age. I was a bit surprised when he said yes to my proposal that we visit Joshua Tree, where I’d never been.

He’d been to the park while he was in college in California. He was not only willing to go back, he was even willing to camp. But I didn’t press my luck. (In truth, the logistics required for a one-night backpacking trip is hardly worth it.)

I booked us rooms at a bed-and-breakfast called the Campbell House in Twentynine Palms, a town outside the Oasis Visitor Center on the park’s northern border. “This made my evening!” he texted after I informed him of the plan. 

I think he was eager for a break from the hyper-urban neighborhood of repurposed factories, crowded restaurants, and sidewalks lacquered in dog urine. It wouldn’t be a big break, but more like a surgical strike. We’d do a short hike on Saturday after a two-hour drive to the park. On Sunday morning we’d do one of the “challenging hikes” listed on the park’s website – the eight-mile Boy Scout Trail. Will wanted to be home by 4 o’clock so he could get a head start on the work week.

We left Los Angeles at 10:58 a.m., an hour later than planned. Twenty miles west of the park we began seeing Joshua trees.

They’re not actually trees, but a species of yucca. One could be forgiven the confusion. Their trunks are shaggy with the dessicated foliage of previous seasons, which eventually falls off to reveal treelike bark. The new growth at the ends of branches looks like exuberant pineapples. They’re a kindergartner’s version of a tree.

We arrived at the visitor center with 15 minutes to spare before the 2 p.m. start of my choice for the afternoon activity. It was a tour of the abandoned Keys Ranch, one of the few successful homesteads in the pre-park desert. Unfortunately, the rangers stopped selling tickets at 12.30 p.m., a mildly annoying fact not mentioned on the website. 

We came up with an alternative – hiking the nearby Split Rock loop. After a lunch at a kebab shop in town we drove there, arriving at 3:30. Our phones no longer had service, but the stored temperature prediction was for 96 degrees at 4 o’clock.

A half-dozen cars were parked in an unpaved lot next to a map board and a kiosk with a composting toilet. Will got out of the car. While I changed shoes and stuffed a day pack with water bottles, he ran to the closest ridge of rocks. Soon he was up 60 feet. “Oh, man, I forgot how cool a place this is,” he called down. 

The trip was already worth it.

The Split Rock Loop was 2.5 miles long. 

The dominant geological feature is a fine-grained rock – sometimes tan, sometimes gray – called “monzogranite.” It’s the cooled and weathered remnant of magma that welled up from deep in the earth more than 100 million years ago. The boulders, ranging from basket- to building-size, awake the imagination. 

A few minutes after we started, I took a picture of an inclusion running through a rock, and above it a jet contrail of the same shape. We stopped at one formation that looked like bread dough from a kitchen with no pans. Elsewhere, I saw the head of a dinosaur whose chief feature was nostrils. And a whale with a racing stripe. 

I’d heard that Joshua Tree was a favored destination for people taking hallucinogenic drugs. I was starting to see why.

The rock also invited climbing. About 300,000 of the park’s 2.8 million visitors last year were rock climbers. Will, who’s done some climbing, got to the knife-edge top of a group of boulders next to the trail. He announced he was going to stand up, but not proceed along the edge “because it’s a long way down.” 

Suddenly, I felt like my long-dead mother, watching me do something stupid like this and wondering what to say that wasn’t alarmist. I was communing with two generations.

We’d hardly seen anyone by the time we got back to the car at 5:15. It was a great warm-up, and we had another half-day ahead of us.

 Our bed-and-breakfast, the Campbell House, is a “sister property” of the 29 Palms Inn, which was a few miles away and full.  An 11-room stone house finished in 1929, it was the architectural embodiment of a love story of Hollywood dimensions.

William Campbell, a California orphan, and Elizabeth Crozer, the daughter of a Philadelphia banker, met in 1917. They fell in love. Soon after, William enlisted in the army and was sent to Europe to fight. Two days before the armistice, he was gassed. A pulmonary cripple, he married Elizabeth, whose father then disowned her. 

In 1924, the couple moved to the Oasis of Mara, near Twentynine Palms, on the advice of a doctor who specialized in the care of mustard gas victims. They lived in a tent. William’s breathing improved. Then his $95-a-month disability pension came through.  They built a cabin, put up a windmill, and planted a garden. 

In late 1925, Elizabeth learned that her father, on his deathbed, had restored her to his will. She was beneficiary of a trust worth $6 million. They built a stone house, where they lived for much of their lives. 

Today, the couple greets guests inside the front hall in a half life-size photograph, although their eyes are for each other.  An adoring Elizabeth gazes at her war-damaged William, in uniform and puttees.

Outside, shaggy palms and tamarisks shaded the raked-gravel yard. Chairs and tables sat on islands of fieldstone. Behind the house were cottages and a picket fence. At the edge of the property a wooden water tank stood next to a headless windmill tower. The place was a cross between a Zen temple garden and an abandoned set for “Oklahoma!”

My son and I had the master suite upstairs, whose decor was haute grandmere. 

It featured a large bedroom with a fireplace, a smaller one next to it, and a bathroom in Eisenhower-era blue tile. My bed had 10 pillows. On the bedside table was a tray with two Old Fashioned glasses and a bowl for ice. A mahogany china cabinet– a refugee from downstairs, I guessed– held pitchers and sugar bowls. On the mantel were six volumes of Readers Digest Condensed Books.

A relic from a couple of eras, the Campbell House looked like a great place at which to spend a few days. Too bad we had less than one. 

We slept in the beds, but left long before the breakfast. An afternoon temperature of 101 degrees was predicted and we wanted an early start.

We arrived at the parking area for the Boy Scout Trail at 7:12 a.m. The plan was to get a ride back to the car from the other end. I’d been told that Uber drivers operated inside the park. We’d see if that was true.

There were 18 cars at the trailhead – a surprisingly large number. It seemed unlikely they were all day hikers who’d risen earlier than us. Soon, it was clear who they were.

To our right, a woman with pink hair, carrying a sleeping child, made her way through the spiky scrub, followed by a man clutching sleeping bags to his chest. We stepped aside to let five people pass; they were pulling two blue plastic wagons piled with stuff. Soon after, two more men passed us, hugging a tent and sleeping gear. 

Car camping out of sight of the car – but not so far that a backpack was a worthy investment – appeared to be popular in Joshua Tree.

After that we had the trail to ourselves. This has been my experience in national parks. You don’t have to walk far to get away from people.

The trail was flat for a while, and then climbed gradually. The Joshua trees became bigger and more evenly spaced the deeper we went into the park. They were also more extravagant, as if finally free to do what they wanted. 

“How well do you remember your Dr. Seuss?” Will asked at one point. “These trees remind me of the trees in ‘The Lorax.’ It’s an allegory of environmentalism.”

I’d forgotten, if I ever knew.

Soon, we crossed a ledge. Across it ran a strip of white quartzite, segmented and raised from the surface. It looked like the fossil backbone of a creature from the Seussian Epoch.

For a while the trail was a dry streambed, channeling us between gigantic hills of rock. I suggested we leave it to get a taste of exploration. But I didn’t want to go far.

A couple of weeks earlier, the New York Times Magazine had run a story about a 66-year old man who went backpacking alone in Joshua Tree in 2010. The headline read: “Two hours from Los Angeles, it’s still possible to completely, tragically disappear”. No trace of him was ever found, despite many searches.

Our destination was a high spot about a half-mile up a slope to our left. The land was a boulder garden, every step an invitation to twist an ankle or fall into a crevice (which, of course, is what makes it fun). I looked back toward the trail several times, taking visual bearings in case we needed to retrace our steps. The landmarks disappeared into the geological jumble as I climbed; it wouldn’t have been easy.

Will scrambled straight up. I walked in switchbacks. He stopped before the final pitch and gave serious thought to his route. When he got to the top he spread his arms out, haloed in the sun. “Take a picture of me like the statue in Rio de Janeiro,” he called back. 

I did.

We sat at the top, ate energy bars, and drank from our water bottles. The trail, sandy and serpentine, was in plain view. Beyond another ridge was a basin and, far away, a few hazy buildings. There’d be no getting lost today.

A truth about walks in the wilderness is that they’re not only invitations to silence and contemplation, but also to conversation and self-revelation. Two people walking single-file on a trail have a perfect balance of intimacy and distance. 

They can speak in ordinary tones. They don’t have eye contact. They can stop a conversation because of real or feigned distraction. They can resume it without asking permission. Say what you want about Freud, he was onto something with his rules for the psychoanalytic encounter. And you don’t have to stop after 50 minutes!

In our two walks, my son and I talked about many things. He told me what he wanted to change to get ready for his thirties. I told him things I’d never mentioned before about mistakes and bad decisions I’d made. We talked about money. We talked about generosity. We talked about what was around us. 

“This looks like it could be Tatooine from ‘Star Wars’,” he said, stopping to face a tawny wall of rock with gravel at its foot. “Like you could see droids and Sand People coming around the corner.”

On our hike there was no music, nothing to read, nobody to visit, no shortcut, no responsibilities. (True, he did check his phone a few times.)

But there was an end. 

A long switchback took us down to a plain where the trail was wide and indistinct. We saw a road and estimated how long it’d take us to get there. Soon, we had a cell signal. We called an Uber.

Fifteen minutes later, a man named Greg picked us up. He was my age. He’d grown up in Compton. He’d moved from Los Angeles 18 years before, and had supported himself doing plumbing, electrical, and air conditioning work.

“It’s so quiet,” he said.

Soon, we were back on I-10, one of thousands of cars streaming west.

We got back to Will’s apartment at 4.12 p.m. We’d been gone 29 hours. We took showers.  Will said he wanted some time to himself.

It was time for him to gear up for work.

Searching for Hada

Saturday, October 6, 2018

Mohssine Nachit is a professor of intercultural communication and dialogue at Moulay Ismail University, in Meknes.  The university was founded in 1989, although schools of sciences, arts, and humanities had existed as part of a university in Fez since 1982. His wife runs the riad where I am staying. 

I contacted him by e-mail before the trip, saying that I wanted to learn something about Berber culture and perhaps visit some Berber towns or villages. This was before I realized that such a request was like contacting an American professor and saying that you wanted to learn about white people, or Southerners, or people with European ancestry. People of Berber blood and Berber culture suffuses Morocco; their influence is as ubiquitous as that of Arabs.

But don’t call them Berbers around the professor.  He is one of the people who consider it a disparaging term. The correct one is Amazigh, which he and others here pronounce “Amazeer.” It means “free people” in the Amazigh language. The word “Berber,” however, is universally used in guidebooks and on the web, which suggests to me that Nachit’s view is a minority one.

There are places in the country that are predominantly Berber, the towns of Azrou and Khemisset south of Meknes among them. Many Berbers are farmers and strongly identified with the land. They also have one tradition not shared with Arab Moroccans—dancing in which men and women have physical contact.  The dance is called “ahidousse.” It predates the arrival of Islam and is not frowned upon,” the professor said.

The Berbers were the original inhabitants of Morocco (and much of the Mahgreb), which was later settled by Jews, Romans, Arabs, and Europeans. At various times many Berbers were Jewish or Christian; now all are Muslim.

Weaving of both rugs and cloth is a Berber activity important for both economic and cultural reasons. It is done almost exclusively by women. 

“To be an Amazigh woman is also to be an Amazigh weaver,” Nachit said. “You are valorized by your culture and society when you weave.”

This is changing, however. Today, young Berber women prefer to study or go abroad and not stay home and weave, he said. The weaving tradition has remained more intact in isolated rural villages.

Regions have their own design traditions. Only in Azrou and areas near it is blue used as a dominant color. A group called the Gerwain is among the few that uses pink. One of the more distinctive designs are made by a group of Berbers called the Beni Ouarain, high in the Middle Atlas. 

Beni Ouarain rugs are popular with high-end interior designers in the United States because of their coolness and minimalism. They are almost entirely white and black, which Nachit said references the snowiness of their geographic home. The white wool is often shaggy and the black designs often abstract, like Joan Miro or Paul Klee.

When I told Professor Nachit that I would like to see some Berber weavers and possibly buy a rug, he suggested I go to Khemisset, southwest of Meknes on the way to Rabat.  He said I should try to find a woman named “Hada,” who was the grand-dame of carpet making there and from whom he’d bought some carpets over many years. Unfortunately, he added, he didn’t have Hada’s address, cell phone number, or even last name. But he assured me that if I stopped at the large carpet shop you see right when you enter the town, somebody there could direct us to Hada.

A few days later, I set off to look for Hada.  With me was Sanaa, a 23-year-old woman, just out of film school, who I’d hired as an interpreter for a few days.  

In retrospect, I can’t imagine what Professor Nachit was thinking. I had the impression that Khemisset was going to be a one-stoplight village. It turns out to be a city of 130,000 people. There is no one main road into town that I was able to detect, and there was no carpet store in plain view. 

When Sanaa and I got there we saw no obvious place to stop and inquire as to Hada’s whereabouts—the notion was ridiculous, in fact—so we drove into town hoping to find a souk selling carpets, or a crafts cooperative, or some obvious place to inquire. We found nothing but the usual cubical concrete buildings with steel doors; streets, many torn up, with lots of red dust; and small amount of foot traffic, it being Saturday. 

We took many turns until we couldn’t have found our way back to the road that brought us into town even if we’d wanted to look for Nachit’s carpet store again. I suggested we ask someone on the street about a place we could get rugs.  

We pulled over and Sanaa asked an older man walking by. He was no help.  We drove around and stopped again. While I searched on my phone for a carpet shop Sanaa approached a group of young men behind us. 

To my surprise, she returned to the car with a 36-year-old man named Mohammed. He said he could take us to a man who was a rug dealer.  He had a car (and later told me he buys and sells cars, when I inquired as to his job.)  We followed him. 

In a short time, we pulled over in front of an unfinished house. It had three gray steel doors on the ground level, which appeared to be a garage. Above it was a wall whose lower half was stucco and upper half exposed brick. There were three window openings with no glass. A red and black rug hung out of one window. Rebar rods stuck from the unfinished second floor. It was impossible to tell if the house had a living quarters. There were a few nice houses nearby, but the unbuilt lots were weedy, and the neighborhood was unappealing. 

Mohammed and Sanaa

Mohammed went to a side door and came back and said someone would help us in a minute. Soon, one of the bottom doors opened to reveal a tall man, a white van, and an unfinished room stacked with folded carpets. 

We stepped inside and introduced ourselves and said we were looking for a woman named Hada who was a rug expert.  Did he know such a person?  His name was Kareem and he said he knew two women named Hada who might fit the bill. One of them had two houses, however. 

We waited around downstairs while he talked to someone upstairs. Two small boys appeared when he returned. One of them clung to his leg.  There was a tray with tea glasses on a table, but he didn’t offer us tea. He did, however, say he was willing to take us to the Hadas. 

He put his children in the front seat of his van. The older one, probably eight, sat in the driver’s seat and pretended he was driving.  Kareem got in and pulled the van out. I was already feeling bad that we’d imposed on him, his children, and whomever might be unseen in the house.  I gave a little money to Mohammed, and Sanaa and I took off behind Kareem. 

We drove through a nicer neighborhood that had white stucco walls (stained brown at street level) around the houses, and then into a more modest one. Kareem pulled over, got out of the van and then, halfway across the street, returned to it and grabbed his younger son, who was about three, through the driver’s window. He knocked on a door and spoke with someone, then returned to the van. Whether this was one of the houses of the two-house Hada I never learned.

We followed him into a commercial neighborhood, stopping to let pass a man pulling a cart covered with limes.  A block later we did the same thing for a man with a cart with tomatoes on it. By this time, I’d decided that if the next stop didn’t reveal Hada, we’d call it quits and go to some village out in the countryside. 

We stopped in on a street of new houses. Kareem got out and knocked on a door. Someone answered and they spoke.  Several minutes later, a stout woman in a blue dress with a tightly wrapped head scarf stepped through the door. 

Kareem introduced us to Hada.  I asked if she was the Hada who knew Professor Nachit from Meknes.  She said yes, she had worked with his father, and she knew him.  She invited us in. 

Hada, with her son

I couldn’t quite believe that we’d driven to an obscure city and found ourselves within two degrees of separation—Mohammed and Kareem—from a woman whose last name we didn’t even know. We thanked Kareem effusively.  He refused money until I insisted he take a small amount as a symbol of my gratitude.

We stepped into the house and took off our shoes. A woman about Hada’s age sat at a table in an anteroom. It was separated by a half wall from the living room, which was darker and had built-in seating covered with cushions along the walls. We sat down.

I wanted to give Hada—whose full name was Hada Ourahou—a sense of me and my  purpose before I launched into an interview interpreted by Sanaa.  So, I said, in fractured French, that I had heard of her from Professor Nachit, was interested in Berber carpet-making, would love to hear about her work and life. I said I also hoped she might be able to take us to see someone making a rug at home—something that Professor Nachit said she’d probably be willing to do.  

She watched me while I spoke, occasionally saying a word or two in French, and nodded her assent when I was finished. 

She had an impish smile that was exaggerated by a gray and black scarf that covered her hair and most of her forehead. I sat between her and Sanaa. Partway through our conversation her son appeared with a tray with a teapot and glasses, and she poured all of us the usual sweetened mint tea.

Mint tea, the “Moroccan whiskey”

Hada had stopped making carpets five or six years earlier. Making a carpet sometimes took six months, and she no longer had the energy for it. Now, she’s a carpet dealer. 

I asked her how old she was when she made her first carpet.  She said 21, which surprised me; I would have thought younger. She learned from one of her grandmothers. “It’s like the first day in school,” she said. “It’s hard like that.”   

She brought that first carpet with her when she got married and moved to a house with her husband. It’s gone now.

She said it took her about five years to become good at weaving. She guessed she’d made 500 rugs in her life, selling nearly all of them. I asked where she got the designs, and she tapped her head. She selected colors that went with each other, “like putting on clothes, matching shirt to pants.”  If a client wanted a rug that looked like one she’d made, she was happy to weave a duplicate. 

Only women and girls are still making rugs, she said. It was always women’s work because it could be done in the home and fitted into the tasks of homemaking and childrearing, which were women’s responsibilities. Children also used to make rugs, but no more. 

I asked her how far she went in school.  She said she left at age 19. I asked her how old she was now, and she said 64.  

“Nearly the same,” I said. “I’m 66.”

“And still working!” she said with a laugh, reaching out to shake my hand in solidarity.

Girls who want to go on to higher education have no interest in weaving, she said. Today, only five percent of girls learn to weave, although when she was a child nearly all did, and also learned ancillary skills such as spinning and dyeing. 

“In the villages, people now have cell phones, Facebook, WhatsApp.  The old people have the time, the young people don’t,” she said.  

I asked about her own family. She’s a widow; her husband, a career soldier, died seven years ago. She has three sons and four grandchildren—three boys and one girl. The girl’s mother doesn’t want her daughter to make carpets. “Of course, I’m sad. This will die,” she said.

Partway through our conversation, Hada had gotten up and stepped back from the living room to make a phone call to a woman she knew who might be making a carpet in her home. Sanaa later said that before making the call she’d said to the woman in the anteroom, in Arabic, “It’s not a good plan.”  The woman gave Sanaa an embarrassed look when she realized she’d heard the comment. 

But it turns out the weaver was at home and willing to have us visit. Hada put on a djellaba. Four of us—we were joined by a woman named Taaroucht, Hada’s best friend, who’d appeared at the house at some point—got into the car and drove off.

We arrived at a house in a more modest neighborhood.  Hada knocked on the door and was let in.  We followed.  

Entrance hall at Fatima’s house

The entranceway led to a small living room with a couch and a few low stools. On the wall were five bouquets of artificial flowers. Off the living room and parallel to the entranceway was a room that was both kitchen and workshop. 

Living room wall

The weaver was a woman named Fatima Belaamri. She had a red, blue, and tan headscarf. At one point in the visit I asked her how old she was. She said she didn’t know but would show me a card that might help. She went into one of the two bedrooms and returned with an identity card that had her birth year as 1964.  So, she was 54 or thereabout, although she looked older than me.

She went into the weaving room, sat on the floor, and knotted a few rows of the rug, which was stretched vertically against a wall in front of her. She cut the leftover thread from each knot with knife wielded with lightning speed. 

Fatima knotting a rug

The rug was white with a sparse black design—a sort of Beni Ouarain knockoff. It was for a client in Marrakesh. She’d been working on it intermittently for three months and expected to finish it in a week.  Working fulltime, it would have taken about a month, but she’d had a busy summer with weddings and other activities. She would get 1,300 Dh for it—about $140. I asked her where she got her designs, as I could not see a pattern in front of her. 

“Just always in the head,” she said. 

She asked if we wanted tea. We couldn’t refuse, so she made it and brought it out into the living room, where we talked. 

Fatima and Sanaa

Her parents had lived in a village, but she’d grown up in the city with an uncle. (No reason given, and I didn’t ask.) The uncle, who was in the army, had no children, and she considered him her father. She’d gone to school for only two years and didn’t know how to read or write. She’d learned to knot and weave carpets starting at age 12. She has seven children—five daughters and two sons.  All the daughters make carpets, as do seven granddaughters. 

Her husband, a truck driver, had died a year ago.

Another woman, younger than the weaver, was also there. As we were waiting for the tea to arrive, she went into the second bedroom and brought out four rugs that were rolled up and tied. I always feel bad when someone starts unbundling carpets to show, but there was no stopping her.  

A rug with sequins woven into it

Two of them were black-on-white designs like the one in the works, and two were made from scraps of old carpets. As an example of frugal recycling, like New England oval rag rugs, they were interesting, although they were also pretty ugly.  If I’d had more room in my suitcase I might have bought one as a gesture of thanks.

We had tea and some cookies. After a while, the woman asked us if we wanted to stay for lunch. We thanked her profusely but said absolutely not.

“When you come back to Morocco, this is your home,” she said.

I thanked her for showing us her work, and for answering my questions.  I gave her 100 Dh, but she would have taken nothing.

Leaving Fatima’s house

As I waited to get into the car in the alley out front, a girl in a red dress with beautiful dark hair came by on a scooter.

We returned to Hada’s house and got serious about looking at—and buying—rugs. We stepped into the garage next to the house where they were stored and she began unfolding and shaking ones into full view. There was a lot of conversation, not on price but on what members of the group thought about each of them. I finally bought three: an orange knotted one fron Ait Yadine that was about two years old; a red one from Ait Abbou that was about five years old; and a tan one from Khemisset that was 2 years old.  I did not try to argue down the price on any of them.

Shopping for rugs;  Hada and Taaroucht, and one of Hada’s brothers

We thanked Hada for all she had done, and also thanked her son and Taaroucht. Then we left. 

Driving back to Meknes we passed plowed fields that were dry and devoid of vegetation; a few had also been burned. We passed olive groves, some with netting over the trees. We passed donkeys burdened with goods or riders. We passed a man walking a bicycle up a hill with four sacks of onions, two on the front and rear forks, like makeshift saddlebags. We passed roadside stands with vegetables, bags of nuts, and bottles of yellow olive oil. 

Farm fields, between crops

Sanaa, who doesn’t drive, spent a fair amount of time looking at her Android phone. It had a  dog on the home screen, which seemed unusual for someone in a country whose main religion considers dogs unclean. On the back was a sticker of Jimi Hendrix.

I asked her how my introductory speech in French to Hada had gone.  

“It was full of faults,” she said.

“Did she understand it?”


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