Although my time in Las Vegas left much to be desired, there was still one stop that needed to be made before dipping my toes in the Pacific for the first time. I decided to cut west and head to Joshua Tree National Park in Eastern California. As an avid climber and boulderer, JTree has always been on my mind as a place to explore.
Driving through the desert, I couldn’t ignore the thoughts of pioneers that came before me. They navigated the high peaks and the barren desert with all of their earthly belongings in tow. Here I was, hundreds of years later, tearing across the paved highways in a 97 Jeep, all of my earthly belongings in tow. Something in that resonated with me as I pulled into the town Joshua Tree. The town itself is exactly what I’d seen with most desert towns: a sweet shell of southwestern architecture on the outskirts of town, filled with a creamy center of fast food joints, car washes, and strip malls. I hung around near the edge of the city, stopping briefly at an outdoor shop about five minutes from the entrance to the park before making my way to the land of the boulders.
Joshua Tree National Park was beautiful. The scattered boulders, some bigger than houses, were like an unexplored playground. The experiences of the early American climbers of the 70’s and 80’s ran through my head. I pictured John Bachar and John Long investigating the secrets of these rocks for weeks on end before taking their skills to Yosemite. As I approached a boulder for my first session, I noticed a climber racking up his gear to get out on another wall. I approached, asking if he needed a partner to climb with, and he happily obliged. His name was John, and was a 23-year-old marine from a nearby military base. We climbed for a few hours that afternoon, and all felt good. It was a breath of fresh air to take a few days away from BJJ. I’m finding on this trip that supplemental training is just as important as days in the gym; it keeps things fresh and interesting.
John and I parted ways and I went to the nearest Walmart to sleep for the evening. Following a quick oil change in the parking lot, I spent the next day exploring the park, too tired to climb from the day before. As I drove through the valley, and the dust kicked up in the wind behind my Jeep, I listened to my stereo. About 25 years earlier, my father had been doing the same. He’d been in the valley with a friend of his, and while there, wrote a song, Desert Wind. I played the song through my stereo as I navigated the dirt roads, and I’d be lying if I said I didn’t get a little emotional. I left Joshua Tree that afternoon, happy with my time there. It was the type of beautiful a special type of person could only appreciate. I’d recommend anyone spend time there if given the chance. The mountains whisper, and the valley itself speaks volumes.
From Joshua Tree, I hoofed it to the coast with a vigor. I needed to feel the ocean. Around 9:30pm on June 7th, I dipped my toes in the Pacific for the first time. It was cold, I was tired, and I was done driving for the day, but I cried as I realized that I’d achieved a dream. I’d driven from coast to coast. I made it. I realized that, without BJJ, I probably wouldn’t have. When planning this trip, before joining Globetrotters, I’d only planned on going as far as Yosemite National Park. When I started thinking of places to train after being blessed with this blogger gig, San Diego and the coast was an obvious option.
I slept in my car about 150 yards from the ocean that night before waking up to train the next morning. I’d always wanted to train with Xande and Saulo Ribero, and I was excited to make this desire a reality. I sent a quick Facebook message to the team over at the academy, and they were happy to oblige my drop in. I arrived at the academy for noon gi class, which was taught by Xande himself. I’ll admit I was a little starstruck. After seeing him at NoGi Pan Ams back in 2015, I thought those feelings would’ve gone away. I was wrong. I payed my mat fee, got changed, and got to work!
The academy, tucked away in the corner of a small strip mall in San Diego, was the cleanest, most beautiful school I’ve visited to this point. Amongst the framed portraits of the University of Jiu Jitsu lineage were also medals from Xande and Saulo, the gi Xande wore when he beat Roger in absolute, and the like. The mat areas (there were two of them) were clean as a whistle, and followed the yellow, black, and white color scheme of the Ribeiro brothers.
Class went very well. Xande introduced me to the class before beginning warm ups, and everyone at the academy was very welcoming and were happy to have an outsider to train with. I partnered up for drills with one of the brown belts. After warm ups and some short drilling rounds, it was time to roll. Their rolling was very structured; everyone lined up, and the highest rank picked their partner. This was repeated with the next highest rank until everyone was partnered up. We kneeled in front of our partner, bowed, and got to work. I was glad to see that I was able to hold my own against the students of a legend. The brown belts and black belts throttled me, but I an even match against the blue belts and purple belts. This might sound cheesy, but training here reaffirmed the fact that BJJ is a universal language. Many of the students in this early class spoke little to no english; only Portuguese. Despite that, the jiu jitsu was the lingua franca in this school. After class, I asked Xande for a photo, and he was more than happy to take one. He asked about my Globetrotters blog, and seemed interested enough. He asked if I’d be back for the night class, which was apparently the advanced class. I quickly said I would be.
A quick note on the ranking system: I was surprised to find a wealth of green belts at the academy. From what I was told, the green adult belt is a carryover from the Judo background of both Saulo and Xande. I found the judo hommage very inspiring! It’s clear that the Ribeiro brothers are serious about emphasizing the importance of jiu jitsu stand-up in competition. VERY inspiring!
I spent the day exploring San Diego; walking on the beach, seeing the city, and so forth. The city was quite nice; a scene from “Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy” played through my mind as I traversed the streets. I ate a hearty late lunch of cold Chef Boyardee ravioli on the beach and relaxed before the night class. I arrived at the academy just in time for class. I was introduced to the class by the instructor, a black belt named Jeremy. Class was structured very similar to the morning’s class: quick warm up, drilling, then rolling. I found the sessions of each to be considerably longer than noon class, but that was fine; there was cute a bit of In-N-Out burger that needed to be worked off that class. Jeremy taught some slick RDLR attacks, and even a transition into X-Guard. I found this useful as I’ve always hated RDLR as a position, but I’ve been seeing it used much more often on this trip. Plus, the X-Guard transition fit right with my game. I drilled with one of the blue belts, Todd, and he was very interested in my journey in general. After drilling for a half hour or so, it was time to roll. We rolled five six-minute rounds, and boy was I put into the ringer. I don’t think I rolled with anyone lower than a purple belt that class. I held my ground, even sweeping one of the brown belts, but overall it was like being tossed in a washing machine. They shut down most of my defenses until I was able to sneak under to full X or overlook X. Jeremy called me over for my third roll and swept me with the same RDLR series we’d worked in class. I loved seeing the difference between belt levels. Every black belt was simply more versed than the brown belts, and every brown belt was more versed than the purple belt.
My time at University of Jiu Jitsu is time that I won’t forget. DEFINITELY worth a drop in if you’re in San Diego. I’d hate to end this blog post on a bad note, but the one thing that I struggled the most with in San Diego was drop-in fees. I understand that owning gyms are a business, but charging a $30, $40, $50 for a drop-in mat fee seems unreasonable. I spent two days in a jiu jitsu “mecca” of the world, and could only afford a trip to one gym while there. I suppose it’s just a part of the culture nowadays.