LA, Death Valley and Joshua Tree

So this Christmas and New Year we decided to get away from all the hustle and bustle of the usual holidays. And it was one of those awesome kick-ass decisions we tend to make lately :) 

We rented a car and went South. 

First, we visited our friend Kristina who we met 1.5 years ago in Kuala Lumpur and there you go - we meet again in LA! Kristina is a great, open minded, fun and kind person and those who want to do good - consider donating to Kristina's Non-Profit: http://www.speak4silentvoices.com/

We stayed with Kristina in her nice little house where we first tried out our new sleeping bags and also discovered that our air mattress is caput. 

We intentionally avoided too touristy areas of LA, posh dining and clubbing, we did drive through Hollywood, but it just seemed too much with all the loud tourists, fake Johnny Depps, sighseeing buses, etc. so we didnt stop and now we don't even have a single picture with celebrities hands or stars on the pavement :) 

LA is a strange city, there are a lot of highways and not many big connected cool areas. There are only patches of coolness here and there across the city, so you drive everywhere.

First evening Kristina took us to a local "hole in the wall" dive bar in Wynnetka where we had a lot of fun (LA neighborhood established in 1920' and first populated mostly by chickens as the founder brought chicken farm there from East Palo Alto - we felt home :)

Second day we drove to the Venice beach. We liked the vibe, street performances, artsy scene, liveliness and of course the beach itself. In Venice beach, it would feel right to park your minivan on one of the backstreets in summer and just go with the flow on the beach for a week - sun bathing, watching surfers, skaters and crazy people, listening to live performances and just chilling. 

We tried to figure out what are LA's funky neighborhoods, and I think we did well discovering at least one of them - Silver Lake (Echo Park is something to explore too) It's a relatively small strip of Sunset Blvd, but recently it has become the hub for the hip, funky and artsy crowd. We went to the Thirsty Crow bar, found live band playing there, tons of nice interior details and the feeling of Mission district in SF. We also visited Chinatown and Tokyo town in LA - neither stroke us as something worth seeing, I guess there's not much soul left in cultural areas like that if they are built around huge roads, huge spaces and everyone driving. We like yellow metro line though as it goes above the ground and it's a pretty good option to see the city. 

Christmas day was the day when I, Marina, tried eating at iHop for the first time in my life and oh man, that was also the last one - it's a pretty crazy place for someone who doesn't eat at fast food chains, especially on Christmas morning when flocks of people in pajamas get summoned to iHop by some evil force for a ceremonial devouring of unlimited stacks of pancakes sinking in diabetes. Wow.

Our next destination, Death Valley, is about 4-5hrs drive from LA, and if you take highway 395 and then 190 - it will make your trip there even more exciting as the landscapes on the way are just beautiful and most of the time you're driving through wide desert plains.

Death Valley National Park has the main visitor hub - Furnace Creek where you can get gas, food, groceries ad also stay/camp. But don't do it. Unless you're not after experiencing the real Death Valley living. Furnace Creek has shops, 5 star hotels and even a golf course (why, oh why) and it's surrounded by major tourist attractions and main roads. I really don't understand people staying there, closer to the majestic nature and peace is what Death Valley stay is supposed to be. So we stayed atPanamint Springs resort about 60 miles from Furnace Creek. It has some cabins, but mostly RV, tent and tent cabin campgrounds. It also has a small restaurant and a bar with very nice selection of draft and bottled beers. Oleg's favorite was Lagunitas Brown Shugga on draft, and mine -Deschutes Butte Porter on draft from Oregon. 

Our accommodation was a simple not-heated tent cabin with 2 foldable beds inside, table and firepit outside, and this simplicity came with amazing views all around, quietness and the beauty of full moon and millions of stars illuminating the desert with silvery light.

We spent one full day driving around the park, hiking and mumbling non-stop "so beautiful". In the evenings we had some beers in the bar, made fire, had some food we brought we us and watched full moon. We also talked to some interesting people who all swear there is no better place to experience Death Valley than this campground. Talking to people in Panamint Springs is the second best thing to do after enjoying the views - you'll meet travelers, locals and travelers who become locals for a couple of months in a year.

You'll meet people who can tell you how it feels to stand waist high in snow on Mount Whitney (highest in the US except Alaska, and seen from Panamint Springs), who will tell you all about coyotes and bob cats behavior, about mammoth foot prints still preserved in a secret spot in the valley, about Death Valley lifestyle 50 years ago, about wild coast hikes in Northern California and about flea market town in Arizona that once a year hosts 1 million vans/RVs that will sell you anything from Burning Man costumes to real dinosaur bones. So incredible! And the resort is so simple and non-pretentious that everyone is treated like a good old friend there.

Here is the all handmade castle of our neighbors in the campground - the owners Michael and Christy travel, camp, do shows at country fairs (http://www.gypsytimetravelers.com/) and share amazing stories from their front porch.

Death Valley is amazing at its every corner, so here are only some of our most favorite spots: Father Crowley Vista, Panamint Springs resort area and the road to Stovepipe Wells, Badwater lake, Dantes view (see on the pic below) Location of all these and other spots can be found in the current season guide linked on this page: http://www.nps.gov/deva/index.htm

Panamint Springs resort area is also where you can sometimes meet coyotes up close (do not feed them though), roadrunners and burros. Here is a coyote that they say likes to "make a sorry face", walk along the road hoping people will stop to feed him.

Coyotes as it appears are very smart manipulators and not only with humans, they say that sometimes alpha dogs will send their lower rank dogs to towns to sniff around - what they will do is earn trust with smaller dogs in the suburban areas, lure them out of their yards and steal them for food. 

So we spent 6 days doing a lot of sighseeing and driving, now was the time to chill and do nothing somewhere fantastic! For us it was Joshua Tree and it was everything and beyond expectations. Joshua Tree is a small town on 29 Palms highway located near Yucca Valley and Palm Springs. Even though nearby Palm Springs is a famous summer house & retreat place for LA celebrities, Joshua Tree has a completely different vibe - small, simple, artsy, hippie, spiritual, surrounded by mountains, boulders and Joshua trees. Some of the areas look even abandoned, filled with garbage and old things, and some of the properties/houses look mostly handmade and devoted to creativity.

The homestead where we stayed is one of those places that breathes creativity, nature loving and open mindedness. Home of the Heart is located on a sandy hill among huge boulders and occassional shrubs/bushes, it is accessible only by a very very bad road about 1 mile from the main road. There is nothing around except the desert and the closest neighbors are not even visible with all the rock formations. The place is made for chilling out - there are handmade domes, terraces, tipis, cushions and pillows on the sand, old sofas, firepits, so if you visit - you can find a place for solitude to be with yourself and you can also join the evening fire with other guests. You can camp out, stay in the domes, tipis, sleep in one of the open sky beds when its warmer, or stay in one of the rooms inside the house with Valerie, our amazing, most kind and fun host.

Some things to do in Joshua Tree is to also visit Joshua Tree National Park, hot springs and a sound bath (some guests did this and they told it's really cool: http://www.integratron.com/) Our plan was just to relax and do nothing, so we aimed for that. Most days we just took our sleeping bags outside to a sofa, got ourselves comfy and just read all day. If there are more guests, you can co-create meals which is really fun, we did that as a potluck on New Years Eve and Day. Most evenings we just made fire and hanged out with Valerie and other guests with some beers and cooking over fire. This place is also amazing because it brings together so many interesting people - travelers, green/organic entrepreneurs, nature lovers, people who just want to escape the cities, people who want to dance and trip on shrooms, spritual healers, people with tons of stories to tell, and every evening there is different simply because of the people you meet and the vibe they bring. 

While most of the days we were about 10 people staying at Home of the Heart, on New Year's Eve we were about 40 in total. People brought food and drinks, we made buckets of Olivie and Mimosa (famous Russian salads) and hot dogs, outside clay oven for focaccia and pizza was started, BBQ started for some potatoes, veggies and elk (yes, we tried freshly hunted elk, clean kill/no suffering/not endangered or anything, so as good as it can get to having meat) Several fires started for everyone to get together, sing some songs and have a laugh. Beautiful time! And not much of a hustle and bustle about the clock striking midnight, we just checked the time, popped some sparkling wine, congratulated each other and kept enjoying the fire and watching the moon. 

New Year's Day had a bit of cleaning up, some relaxation, some learning about native american culture and a nice potluck again. Absolutely amazing time, looking forward to visiting Joshua Tree again in the summer.

Happy New Year!