James Barkman’s 1976 Volkswagen Westfalia under the stars in Joshua Tree National Park.
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Sean Collier and his girlfriend, Avrie Meyers, relax on the side of a boulder.
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Leonard Knight’s massive Salvation Mountain, built near the entrance to Slab City in Niland, California.
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Collier climbs among the boulders in Joshua Tree.
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Barkman and Collier's route to Joshua Tree.
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Traveler: James Barkman, van dweller
Vehicle: ’76 Volkswagen Westfalia
Quest: A voyage to the middle of nowhere
Not many people would travel into the desert with a stranger they’d met at a gas station. But when James Barkman, a vagabond photographer who owns a 1976 Volkswagen Westfalia, spotted Sean Collier’s 1995 GMC Vandura during a pit stop at a gas station in central California, a connection was made. “As is the case with van people,” Barkman says, “you start talking about your van and the trips you’ve been on. Then you’re planning trips and saying, ‘Hey, man, let’s cruise somewhere.’”
That somewhere was Southern California’s Joshua Tree National Park, where the ecosystems of the Mojave and Colorado Deserts come together. Barkman, who’d camped in the park before, loves its remoteness and endless opportunities for rock climbing. “It’s pretty amazing how you can drive through the heart of L.A. and along these crazy-busy highways, and all of a sudden you’re in the middle of nowhere,” he says. “It’s a unique experience every time.”
The park has spotty cell reception, so Barkman planned to meet up with Collier and his girlfriend, Avrie Meyers, at Hidden Valley Campground. (Though lots of people opt to stealth-camp in the park, Barkman suggests snagging a $15-a-night campsite instead. He’d made an unsanctioned one in a valley on his first night in the park, when he was still traveling solo, and woke up to a very angry ranger.) But when the new friends reunited, ready to cruise the park’s dirt roads and free-climb boulders, Barkman’s beloved VW refused to start. So he and Collier worked out a fix where Barkman crawled under the van and used a screwdriver to start it while Collier pumped the gas. The ad hoc system worked well enough for them to zip between climbing spots, where Barkman scrambled as high as 20 feet up, sans ropes. “When I get around a bunch of rocks, I just go wild,” he says. “It’s my favorite place to be.”
Toward the end of the day, the trio made the two-and-a-half-hour pilgrimage south to Slab City to see famed Salvation Mountain, a painted adobe structure created and maintained for decades by Leonard Knight. “You’re driving in the desert,” says Barkman, “and there’s nothing, and then all of a sudden there’s this concrete mountain. At sunset, it’s so vibrant and incredible to see.” In the hour and a half of light that remained, they wandered through the mountain’s rooms, taking photographs, meeting fellow travelers, and checking out their campers and vans. When it got dark, they headed back to the campground and told stories around the fire as the desert temperature dropped, before spending the chilly night in their respective vans.
The final day was spent exploring the park, driving and climbing rocks until it was time to head out. Not a bad weekend for strangers who happened to spot each other’s rides in a gas station parking lot. “It’s crazy how you meet people and instantly connect—and just hope that this guy’s not a psychopath, because we agreed to meet in the middle of nowhere,” Barkman says. “But I love that. It never gets old.”
DO THE TRIP
Distance: 1,000 miles
Days on the road: 3
Accommodations: Jumbo Rocks
Campground Provisions: Vegetables from Barkman’s passenger-seat garden plot (yes, that is actually real), soup, beer, and two gallons of water per person per day (none is available at the campsite).
Wi-Fi: Zero. Spotty cell reception, too.
Necessities: Warm clothes for cold nights in the desert, a sleeping bag, a flashlight, hiking shoes, and a screwdriver for fixing the van.
Originally published in the April issue of San Francisco