What happened to my sister?
That thought crossed my mind as I shot a photo on a recent chilly morning at Joshua Tree National Park. In it, my 58-year-old sister Cindy and brother-in-law Chris stood atop a rock pile overlooking a valley far below — and her swagger was unmistakable:
Confident, at ease, experienced, an outdoor athlete at one with nature, barely breaking a sweat on the Lost Horse Mine Trail, the most popular route at Joshua Tree.
I was taken aback. It was quite a contrast to the non-exercising, unathletic, I'd-rather-be-shopping hike-hater I'd known my whole life.
When did she change?
"For our 30th wedding anniversary in August 2014, I wanted to take a Mediterranean cruise to Italy," she explained as we started off on the snow-spotted trail, a loop featuring the iconic Lost Horse Mine, a rich vein of gold and silver that was exhausted 80 years ago. "Chris said OK, but I knew he really wanted to go to Peru to hike the famous Inca Trail to Machu Picchu.
"I thought, 'No way. I hate hiking.' And I can't handle elevation. The Inca Trail is 27 miles over three days, super-steep, and tops out at 14,000 feet."
Elevation isn't a major issue on the Lost Horse Mine Trail.
The 6.2-mile hike rises a moderately strenuous 1,215 feet to 5,278 feet at the mine.
Keeping you company along the way: the strange, twisted, spiky-leafed, Dr. Seuss-ian yucca cacti known as Joshua trees, which stud the landscape and only grow in the Mojave Desert of southwest California, Nevada, Utah and Arizona at elevations from 2,000 to 6,000 feet. They were named so by Mormon pioneers because it reminded them of the biblical figure Joshua, with their tree limbs outstretched in supplication, guiding the sojourners westward.
"Although Chris never said anything, I felt I was letting him down on Machu Picchu," she continued as we traveled counter-clockwise on the trail loop, which makes a slight rise over the first easy, uneventful three miles, distinguished only by an odd, free-standing 10-foot tall stone chimney, apparently where a home used to be. "Growing up, Chris was a Boy Scout whose whole life was hiking and backpacking, but he had no one to do it with after the kids went off to college."
That changed after she got a new perspective.
Pausing on a rock pile that marks the loop's halfway point and overlooks the Mojave Desert floor 2,000 feet below, she told me about her "wake-up call" — an out-of-the-blue request one day by a neighbor to join her for some exercise in Peter's Canyon, just around the corner from her home in Orange County.
"I was amazed to see women of all ages — teenagers to 70- and 80-year-olds — hiking up the steepest trails at Peter's, gabbing away the whole time," she said. "And I realized that talking makes hiking more fun than hard. I could do this!"
Cindy is a talker. The only time she did not talk all day was when we arrived at the Lost Horse Mine Trail's hardest part, an abrupt 100-yard climb that deposits you breathless at a stunning vista.
About a mile ahead, halfway up a mountainside to the right, was our goal: the small wooden mill of the Lost Horse Mine. According to legend, the mine was opened in 1893 by cowboy Johnny Lang, who discovered gold nuggets while out searching for his lost horse.
Off to the left, after having seen less than a dozen people so far, we gazed in awe at hundreds of people in the vast canyon far below who were crawling uphill toward the mine like a tiny conga line of ants. Mainly couples and families with lots of kids, they'd skipped the back side of the Lost Horse Mine Trail loop to do a shorter, four-mile up-and-back from the parking lot direct to the mine. That was the original mining road.
"So I told Chris that I'd do Machu Picchu for our anniversary," she said as we descended toward the mine. "He couldn't believe it — and warned that we had to really train. We bought the mandatory nonrefundable permits and spent the next six months hiking all the trails in L.A. and Orange Counties. I hated it, and was really slow, but got stronger and stronger."
At Mile 4, we reached the Lost Horse Mine, sat down on a concrete retaining wall, ate lunch, and read the historical sign on the fence. As the gold and silver haul fell off, Johnny Lang's partners left in 1908, but he stayed. In 1925, his body was found in the shaft. He was buried along the road to Key's View, a nearby lookout point located a couple of thousand feet above Joshua Tree (which we drove up to later; it has great views of the San Andreas fault, Coachella Valley and Salton Sea).
"Machu Picchu was the hardest thing I've ever done," she said. "We were the oldest people on the three-day trip -- most by 20 or 30 years. I was one of the slowest, but at least didn't drop out, like a couple in their early 40s did. Chris was so happy. And I ended up loving it."
After lunch, we climbed up the steep side of the mountain above the mine, checked out the massive spool that once pulled the metal cables and ore wagons, and headed back to the car. At the finish, we congratulated ourselves for choosing the loop trail, which rewards you with a dramatic buildup to the mine and an energizing two-mile descent to the finish.
"I love telling people at work [she's a flight attendant] that I hiked to Machu Picchu — and I'll tell them I did this," she said on the drive home. "I noticed that the pilots who stay happily married have wives who do adventures with them. I get it now. Hiking is great for couples."
Back in Orange County, over tacos, Chris couldn't stop bragging about her improving fitness.
"She'll get in a groove," he said. "She mowed down a group of Boy Scouts in the Angeles National Forest last fall, knocking em' down one by one. Not one person passed us."
Since the Inca Trail, they have done two big backpacking trips and do all-day drive-and-hikes almost every weekend. Last year, they conquered four of the Six Sisters, the highest local peaks including Mt. Baldy and Mt. Jacinto. Their summer plans include a hut-to-hut backpacking adventure across the Alps.
Hiking the Lost Horse Mine Trail was actually her idea; Chris had camped in the park many times, but didn't know about this trail.
"Joshua Tree is so close by — but I'd never had the desire to see it," she said. "Now, I want to see everything — and hike it. Maybe we'll go to Anza-Borrego."