“C’est mieux de n’en pas parler,” I said to myself the first time I sat on top of Ryan Mountain and tried to put my finger on the exact shade of goodness the Joshua Tree National Park radiates. The expression I came up with – “everything in its place” – was the reason I quickly urged myself (in French, which is naturally the language I use to admonish myself) not to speak those feelings aloud.
In the times I’ve returned since, I’ve come up with numerous other inadequate expressions for the general alright-ness the Joshua Tree desert offers, all of which fall flat when laid side by side with the experience of sitting atop a boulder in the desert, looking out at giant rocks and gnarled trees stretching as far as the eye can see. But I’m not alone in attempting to give concrete form to the power of Joshua Tree. The park offers a popular artist-in-residence program, hosts an annual music festival and numerous writing workshops, and of course was Bono’s most famous muse. The very name of the park is a tribute to the landscape’s magic, as legend has it that the gnarled branches of the trees there reminded early Mormon settlers of the prophet Joshua pointing the way to the Promised Land.
What is most striking about Joshua Tree is the absurdity of the fact that it exists at all: 800,000 acres of giant sandy-colored boulders painted with zigzagging lines of white stones and surrounded by bulbous cacti and prickly trees straight out of a Dr. Seuss book. This 100-million-year-old geologic landscape was created by molten liquid that oozed from the earth’s core and then hardened just below the surface. Over time, flash floods washed away the earth, exposing rock formations that look like the work of a giant with an advanced degree in Jenga, some piled atop others so precariously it seems a big gust of wind could blow them down. All of this is rendered all the more mind-blowing by the fact that the drive into the park brings one past endless motor homes, strip malls, Starbucks, and McDonald’s, starkly placing what we have done with our world side by side with what we were given.
On my first trip to Joshua Tree, I didn’t expect to do any rock climbing, as I’ve always been wary even of hiking that requires scaling boulder faces. But the way the light falls on the rocks is so inviting that I soon found myself standing atop formations that had once seemed impossibly large, the pockets of my jeans worn completely through and my palms covered in tiny red welts. Still, I’m content to simply watch the real climbers at work, if for no other reason than to be reminded that there are people out there who do stupider things than I do.
My most recent Joshua Tree trip was in mid-February, which fortunately proved much warmer than I had feared. “Want to go to Joshua Tree this weekend?” my friend Christine called to ask me one day. “I hear it’s like a giant natural playground for grown-ups.” With 191 miles of trails and five fan-palm oases left to explore, I had little reason to argue for a place I’d never been before. A few days later, Christine and I were waiting in line at a small produce stand in Twenty-Nine Palms, our arms full of provisions for the days ahead. Although I was dying to get into the park and abandon my car for the long weekend, I couldn’t resist a stop at Crossroads Cafe and Tavern, which is just before the west entrance to the park. Directly across the street from a library the size of a living room, Crossroads is the kind of place that makes you seriously consider asking for a job as a dishwasher, spending your days drinking coffee and playing on rocks with the locals and your nights drinking beer and trading travel stories with the visitors passing through. So far, I’ve managed to contain myself to buying coffee and veggie burgers there.
At sunset that night, Christine and I found a seat high enough to see the sky changing colors in a 360-degree spectrum. “It’s like some giant three-year-old forgot to pick up his toys,” Christine said in between bites of her granola bar. Around the campfire later, we spontaneously broke out into a tone deaf, lyrically damaged rendition of the Flaming Lips’ “Do You Realize?” Then we took a slow walk to Skull Rock, where we lay on our backs under stars so bright I finally knew what people meant when they referred to Orion’s Belt and the Seven Sisters. We slept outside, our sleeping bags pulled tight about our faces. I lay on my back with my glasses on so I could see the bowl of stars overhead every time I was awoken by the coyotes yipping and howling.
Somehow, no matter how much beer we drank at night, we awoke each morning in time to scramble to the highest point of the giant boulder in our camp and watch the sunrise transform the rocks one by one. I thought of it as cream being added to black coffee, an apt analogy considering I’d recently given in to my caffeine addiction and decided a percolator and a thermos full of half-and-half were a necessary camping provision. After the sun was high in the sky, we found isolated spots to do yoga individually before meeting back at our camp for breakfast. This routine developed naturally, much the way conversation gave way to silence during our campfires or hikes.
I stayed for an extra day after Christine embarked on the long drive back to San Francisco. Hiking and scrambling up rocks alone, I noticed how easy it is to be close to Rainer Maria Rilke’s capital T Things in the desert. “If there is nothing in common between you and other people, try being close to Things;” Rilke famously wrote in Letters to a Young Poet, “they will not desert you; there are the nights still and the winds that go through the trees and across many lands.” Although I’d like to flatter myself that I have a few traits in common with other people, there is no denying the liberating effect of feeling connected to things that are eternal and ubiquitous. I decided to leave my cell phone off for the four-hour drive back to Santa Barbara, which is sadly the longest I’d voluntarily gone without using it in several years.
With an annual pass to Joshua Tree available for only $30 and carrying no restrictions on the amount of time one can spend there, there is always a moment during my Joshua Tree trips when it crosses my mind that I could simply stay: set up an outdoor kitchen, spend my days reading books in the sun and climbing on rocks. But away from the desert, down off the euphoric nature high, I’m forced to accept that I want other things in life besides hammocks and rocks; if I lived in the desert, the most I could hope to accomplish on a given day would be to scribble variations of the phrase “everything in its place” on the bottoms of matchboxes. Knowing Joshua Tree is there, however, makes the nagging urge to someday “make something of myself” entirely manageable.
The last morning we were there, Christine and I lay down in the sun after breakfast. I was leaning with my back against a rock, my eyes half-open to let in the changing morning colors. “Being here makes you realize that all the bullshit going turbo in your head when you’re in the city-” Christine began.
“-is just bullshit going turbo in your head,” I finished. Perhaps that’s the best way to describe the Joshua Tree transformation, for which thousands make the trek out to the Mojave Desert each year. Still, I think I was right to admonish myself on top of Ryan Mountain that first trip: better not to analyze what happens out there, best just to go.
For weather updates and trip planners, visit http://www.nps.gov/jotr.