At 7:00 each morning my alarm goes off.
‘World Spins Madly On’ by The Weepies plays through the blown out speakers on my iPhone. The accompanying rattle and buzz of the vibrating phone alarm against my wooden countertop can be felt more so than heard through my pillow.
I roll over and flap my hand in the direction of the sound until the alarm stops. Mike makes sleepy puppy noises next to me as I slowly sit up and get ready to make coffee.
Today is very like any other day.
I slide my legs out of bed and hop down to the floor, my bare feet reacting slightly to the cold laminate.
The routine is the same. I throw on a robe, fuss about in my little kitchen until there’s ground coffee in a French press and boiling water on the stove. Eventually we get up, clothes come on, slide open the side door to my van and wave hello to our neighbors.
The day goes by very much the same, except something is very different, something is off.
Specifically, the government.
The government is shut down, it has been for about a week now while I’ve been living in Joshua Tree National Park.
My boyfriend has a job with the JTNP as one of their residential climber stewards. The program is designed to be a friendly arm of the parks service that helps visiting rock climbers become more oriented to Joshua Tree. Mike spends most of his days patrolling the crags, talking to boulderers about keeping their dogs on leashes, assisting with bolt replacement and occasionally helping Joshua Tree Search and Rescue. He doesn’t get paid, but he does get a free campsite for the season. As his significant other I am entitled to all of his privileges with none of the responsibilities. Sick.
When we first got the news of the government shutting down we figured it would only be for a few days. We’d been in the park last year when the government shut down previously, and it had only lasted a few days, maybe a week. We couldn’t have seen it going on as long as it did.
The next day all of the rangers were gone. There was no one at the front entrance taking payments or giving people maps, the metal receptacle for depositing camping fees had been removed from the campground, trash was no longer being removed from the park and—most importantly, there was no one coming by to clean the bathrooms.
Our first instinct was to preserve the toilet paper.
As the climber steward, Mike was technically the only ‘park official’ still on site. The law enforcement officers were working with a skeleton crew to attend to only the most grievous offenses, but all other park employees couldn’t even access their emails much less step foot on park soil.
Having coffee with our campmates that morning, everyone is asking the same question.
“What’s going to happen now?”
“Well we can stay here for free now, which is cool.” Someone points out.
“Yeah, but there won’t be any TP, the bathrooms are going to be disgusting.”
“We have to remember there won’t be any trash pick up, we gotta pack out our trash.”
“Whelp. Anarchy rules so I’m getting high.”
There is a feeling of ‘the parents are out of town’ about the campsite that day.
We see two people soloing intersection rock in the distance, one is possibly naked and the other is wearing a pair of hot pink booty shorts.
Mike grabs the binoculars, “Yep. He’s definitely naked.”
5 minutes later the naked guy rides by on a bike. There’s a chalk bag clipped to his waist that is almost covering his junk, and he hollers loudly as he wizzes past. “ANARCHY!”
“Well,” Mike puts his hands on his hips, “that happened quickly.”
Mike and I are slightly more concerned about the government shutdown than the average park visitor. Specifically, we are worried about how the rock climbing community will react to the park shut down. As people who live nearly full time in the national parks, we toe the line between being an asset to the national parks and being a detriment.
Rock climbers have historically held a controversial spot in national parks. They are usually smelly and dirty, and way overstaying their welcome. The parks are invested in keeping the unsightly climbers out of the way of the park visitors who actually pay. On the other hand, the rock climbers serve as a captivating source of tourism. People visit the parks just to watch the climbers scramble around on rocks. More than once I’ve been a guest star in someones vacation photos as that ‘crazy rock climber’ they saw high up on a wall.
However, as the rock climbing community continues to grow, its impact on the national parks becomes more severe. The parks respond to overcrowded campgrounds by raising camp fees, enforcing stricter curfew rules, and even targeting rock climbers vehicles for tickets and towing.
With the government shut down, Mike and I are both worried the parks service could use the inevitable trashing of the park as a way to blame climbers for the state of the place, and justify a ‘reservation only’ campsite. This tactic has been used in other campgrounds and makes it impossible for the climbing community to congregate.
With this on our minds we went into the week with slight trepidation. Other than the absent park staff, and the lack of TP there isn’t much else different about Joshua Tree. And there isn’t much we can do…
Today is very like any other day.
I can’t speak for other national parks, I’ve heard Yosemite is a literal shit show, but I can speak for Joshua Tree.
And what I saw was better than I could have hoped for.
After a few days, the owner of Cliffhanger guides came by to restock toilet paper in the bathrooms. The president of Friends of Joshua Tree started trucking in trash bags, locals met at Nomad Ventures to drive in and pick up trash, and someone (still not sure who but thank you) made signs that were outlining how park visitors can help protect the park while the rangers were off duty.
This is not to say everything was perfect with the climbing community. I saw more than my fair share of dirtbags with dogs off leash, and people double parking in the campgrounds, but there was a general sense of ‘We have one chance, don’t fuck it up.’
Each morning, Mike or Sunny (the other climber steward) would walk around to all of the bathrooms in Hidden Valley Campground with an armful of toilet paper and make sure there were at least 6 rolls in each one. One chilly afternoon Mike and I walked around to each bathroom and trashcan to put up ‘How you can help’ signs.
In general, I saw the climbing community rally to protect the parks.
Unfortunately, anyone who really knows the national parks knows that it isn’t the rock climbers who do the most damage, it’s the visitors who just don’t know how to act in nature.
Each morning and evening an endless steam of LA traffic flowed in and out of the park. With not near enough parking spots and no park maps to act as guides, we saw the Mercedes Benz begin the pile up on the side of the roads. Shiny new vehicles pulled up on the curbs, onto the sensitive desert soil. There were attempts to tell people, ‘Hey, this isn’t a parking spot.’ Only to receive a ‘Yeah I know, but the governments shut down so who cares?’
The parking lots became gridlocked, the roads through the campgrounds were choked with cars and visitors wandering around aimlessly, trying to find a trailhead they had no idea they were miles away from.
I heard stories of people finding human feces on trail heads, and as the week went on, trash began to overflow from the dumpsters. Coyotes could begin to get into the bins and scatter trash around the desert, destroying their natural instincts to hunt and spreading garbage throughout the park.
As a climber, it was frustrating to watch. The park was completely over capacity and still more cars were arriving every day.
11 days into the shut down, the parks service declared they would be closing the campgrounds. They stated this had nothing to do with the efforts of the locals, but that the toilets were becoming too overfilled to be safe. I can’t argue with that, but I have to wonder if the parks service is using the people at the campgrounds as a scapegoat for the damages being done by the daily visitors.
Closing the campgrounds doesn’t keep the LA locals from parking all over the desert, closing the campgrounds doesn’t filter out the endless stream of people coming into the park each day and each night. It does keep the bathrooms clean, and it does keep the people who live in and care for this space, out of the parks.
As of this writing, the government is still shut down, the campgrounds in Joshua Tree are still closed.
The natural spaces in our country need protecting, and not just from companies who would rather drill for oil or log the forests. Our natural spaces need protecting from the very people they are put there to be enjoyed by.
We live in a society which does not have a good understanding of how to act in nature, and our national parks employees are there to guide and inspire people to take care of and love these places.
So if you are planning on visiting a national park during this shutdown, please respect the rules laid down by the parks service. Keep pets on a leash, pack out your trash, use restrooms or wag bags, and please don’t park your sports car off the road.
In the end, we are the only ones who can protect our parks.