Joshua Tree National Park is a curious place. Ryan and I pass signs for it all the time driving to Southern California from our house in Arizona. From the highway the landscape isn’t very exciting, arid desert as far as the eye can see and hazy mountain ranges looming in the distance. But just a short drive from the I-10 is a majestic land of towering boulders, extraordinary trees and interesting people.
We visited Joshua Tree on Christmas Day 2013. I didn’t think that we would find many people camping in the middle of the desert on Christmas Day, but when we arrived at Ryan Campground that night it was already full. We slowly drove through the dark, peering out our windows trying to distinguish an empty campsite among the shadows of tall boulders and sprawling Joshua Trees. The park and campground were quiet and almost spooky. After circling twice we were about to give up and look at another campground. Then as we were passing the last spot a friendly camper waved us down and offered to share his site with us since he was just there by himself on his motorcycle. And that was the beginning of what became known as the Story of Benjamin.
Ryan thankfully accepted Benjamin’s offer to share the site and as Benjamin walked back towards the picnic table we looked at each other with raised eyebrows. Ryan asked if I felt comfortable camping with a stranger and I agreed, I was tired and wanted to get to sleep. As we were unpacking the car with our headlights Benjamin kindly demanded that I only use a red light so as not to tamper his night vision. Well, my head light didn’t have a red light mode, so I just turned it off and tried to continue unpacking in the dark. Then Benjamin offered us some brownies that the previous campsite guests had left him and made a joke about how they might be special brownies. Ryan happily took a brownie, while I cautiously declined. We engaged in small talk, asking one another where the other was from and what each other did for a living. This is when we found out that Benjamin was unemployed and had quit his job as a Software Engineer in Chicago to drive around the country on his motorcycle, cool! Then we found out that Benjamin had just spent the past two days partying really hard in Palm Springs, interesting. All of this was explained to us as he continued drinking whiskey from his flask. Not in the mood to continue small talk with a drunken nomad, who was obsessed with night vision, and potentially trying to drug us with brownies, I decided to retire to our tent. I laid there in my sleeping bag, Ryan and Benjamin’s conversation lulling me to sleep. A few hours later I was awoken by howling coyotes, which in the past would freak me out, but after a few years of living in the desert I guess I was used to it. I didn’t hear Ryan and Benjamin talking anymore and didn’t see Ryan in the tent yet. I was a little worried, but too cold to leave my tent. I zipped my mummy bag completely over my face and tried to get back to sleep.
Then a few minutes or hours later I awoke again to what sounded like someone or something dragging a carcass towards my tent. I unzipped my little window (doggie door), but couldn’t make anything out. As the dragging sound grew louder, I started to hear Benjamin’s voice again. My heart was racing, what was going on. As I became more alert I realized that Ryan was actually helping Benjamin hobble around the campsite on one foot. Then I heard Benjamin utter words that I’ll never forget, “Umm…this is really embarrassing, but I think when I fell…in the rush of it all….I umm shit my pants a little. Can you help me get over to the bathroom man?”
A normal person would laugh; I however, started planning my escape route. I was convinced that Benjamin was dragging Ryan 100 yards away so he could beat him up and lock him in the bathroom. Then he would come back rape me and steal our car, leaving me stranded in the desert and Ryan locked in a public restroom. My heart was beating ferociously as I was clutched the car keys and peered out of my little window watching Ryan and Benjamin hobble across the campground. Finally after what felt like an eternity Ryan unzipped the tent and crawled in for bed. “What happened?” I asked. “Oh, we climbed up on some of the boulders to take pictures of the moon rising. Benjamin got kind of drunk and fell and twisted his ankle as we were climbing down. It’s pretty bad; I had to help him get his shoes off because it’s already swelling. He’s pretty drunk though…” Ryan replied.
The next morning as the sun was rising and we heard Benjamin stop a passerby to ask if he was heading into town, fortunately he was and Benjamin asked for a ride to the closest hospital. Later when we got up we found a note left for us. Benjamin explained that he caught a ride to the hospital and asked if we could pack up his things and pay for another night at the site if we left before he returned. There aren’t many hospitals near Joshua Tree; I kept wondering, “How is Benjamin going to get back here to his motorcycle?” We went about our day and returned to the campsite that evening, but we never saw Benjamin again.
Ryan’s version of the story is probably far less dramatic than mine, but we still both laugh about that night whenever we think about it; my irrational fears and Benjamin’s fondness for unimpaired night vision. We have met a lot of interesting people visiting the National Parks and wilderness areas. Over the years I’ve seen and met several more wanderers and dirtbaggers. Now instead of reacting with fear and judgment my first reaction is usually something more like jealously and fascination. Even though I laugh about the Story of Benjamin I’m sometimes a little ashamed about how judgmental I was. I think most of the judgment was driven by fear, but still I’m not proud of it. Different doesn’t make someone scary. Benjamin even left us his contact information on the note, but I threw it away. Nowadays we often wonder what Benjamin is up to and if he actually made it to Patagonia on his motorcycle. If I wouldn’t have been so pretentious and uptight we might know the exact answers to those questions.
Somewhere along the way I subconsciously started using the excuse of safety to judge others. While I continue to make mistakes, I like to think I’m making progress. Situations like the Christmas that we spent with Benjamin help me to become more aware of my own heart and how I treat others.