Chasing the Light in Joshua Tree National Park


Above photo: Helen Baik runs through Joshua Tree National Park.

Story and photos by Christine Yoo

Christine is a travel writer and photographer based in Seattle. You can find more of her work on Instagram.

College friends reunite in a desert wonderland with a deepened appreciation for each other.

We’ve been on a journey, to say the least.

Reality sinks in, senior year of college. It’s been a remarkable four years or so, with life-changing experiences and beloved memories, but now, it’s time to be an adult.

Exit the college bubble. Enter the world of uncertainty.

Even for those who have a guaranteed job lined up, the real world outside of college remains a mystery — a daunting future with no road map to follow.

Three years have already passed since my friends and I walked various assembly lines at the University of Southern California with a cap on our heads and a gown over our shoulders, our cheeks hurting from endless rounds of smiling for the camera.

Though our first trip to Joshua Tree National Park wasn’t until December of our senior year, the unique landscape would draw us back time and again. Road-tripping to Joshua Tree when possible became a tradition. Different groups of us would drive the three and half hours from Los Angeles to the park, sometimes spontaneously, sometimes planned in advance, and frequently at random hours of the night just to stargaze.

We would arrive in a desert wonderland, tired but happy to behold a million shiny dots we couldn’t normally see from home base. Ironically, celestial bodies in the sky (besides the moon) were a rare sight in the star-studded city of Los Angeles.

College was a special time when we could do as we pleased without worrying about the consequences. Roam about, pitch a tent and hit the sack. Or, drive straight back, arrive at the apartments by the crack of dawn and sleep through the morning. Nothing really mattered in the season of last-minute getaways.

Fast-forward three years, to present day: Joshua Tree is now a reunion venue, gathering friends from different parts of the country and mostly planned ahead of time.

On one particular trip, Helen Baik, Trevor Wong and I hit the road.

We were the same, but different.

While our appreciation for each other had only deepened, our latest life stage came with new titles, and with them, a whole new level of responsibilities.

Trevor — a full-time banker working in the corporate world in downtown Los Angeles.

Helen — a graduate student preparing to become an occupational therapist, residing farther south in Orange County.

Me — a freelance photographer and marketing specialist based in Seattle.

As we no longer reside within a minute’s walk of each other’s apartments, visiting Joshua Tree now requires a concerted effort.

For the first time, Trevor suited up in a uniform. After many a trip to this beloved park, he decided to volunteer on weekends with the National Park Service. The long weekly commute didn’t scare him, and that didn’t surprise us; Trevor’s giving heart had only grown larger and stronger through the years. We dropped him off for an orientation with the park rangers and drove farther into the park, enjoying the colors and stopping for frequent strolls in the wilderness. Like back in the day, we had no agenda, no program to follow; just an impromptu exploration of the park.

We grabbed Trevor later and continued to chase the light.

The golden hour was upon us, as the sun prepared to go to bed. Soon, pink hues burst in the blue sky, as clouds lit up, celebrating the end of another day.

After yet another awe-inducing light show from the desert, we did something unprecedented, and embarked on a hike on an actual trail, unlike our normal free roaming and casual climbing. After spending the afternoon with park rangers, Trevor wanted to take their recommendation and try out the highly-reviewed hike up to Ryan Mountain.

With no one else in sight, the trail left us in the same space as usual — talking about whatever we wanted out in the open yet still in complete privacy. This was another perk of Joshua Tree National Park we valued: stretches of nothingness that somehow left us feeling small, but safe to commune with honesty and vulnerability, delighting in each other’s quirks.

In stark contrast to our humble beginnings and carefree days, our conversations shifted to the ups and downs of the working world and to friends getting married.

We lost track of mileage as good conversation once again shrank time. After a decent ways uphill, we reached one of the summits and turned back. It was getting cold and supper called our names.

In the past, our meals varied depending on the trip. Sometimes we threw a Korean barbecue party, feasting on sliced pork belly, garlic, and onion wrapped in perilla leaf and ssamjang. On spontaneous trips, we’d grab fast food at a drive-through, snack on junk food, or bring in pre-packed grocery store salads. This time around, dinner consisted of takeout picnic items in the form of kimbap and cup ramen.

Unfortunately, no stars panned out for us that evening. That was OK, though; we were used to unpredictable weather conditions. Whether it was a surprise party of clouds or a full moon lighting up the skies, the star chase was never within our control. If anything, it was perfect training for the uncertainties of post-grad life. Each letdown taught us how to enjoy what we had even when things did not go as planned. Who would’ve thought a desert would lend such wisdom?

Thanks for the lesson, and more importantly, for all of the memories, Joshua Tree. We’ll continue chasing what makes us come alive.

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