I’d never been to Joshua Tree National Park before. I’d heard about it from friends, and often said to myself I should go there, but I never got around to it. Like a lot of things in California, it was so close that it was easy to forget it was there. California is like that, so full of things to see and experience your choices become as congested and difficult to maneuver as the freeways of Los Angeles. A friend of mine, back from teaching kids in Korea for the winter, asked me to join him on a day long excursion to this special place, and not having seen him in almost two years I could not refuse. Besides, it would be good to get away after a truly awful divorce from someone I thought I could trust. This is also a common thing in California.
Like most people, in my youth I thought of a desert as a barren, boiling wasteland choked with sand. I thought of Lawrence of Arabia leading a charging army of fierce desert nomads. Deserts were places for the lost and the damned, filled with shallow graves just off the road and swarmed by nefarious hitchhikers and shady characters. Giant worms ridden by noble Fremen charged across endless dunes. It was easy to believe the Hollywood vision. And nothing could be further from the truth (except when it is). Deserts (yes there are different kinds), as varied as any other environment you’ll pass through, team with survivors, creatures so well adapted they thrive in places that can suck the life out of a person in a few hours.
Joshua Tree National Park is a place of subtle and stark wonder. It snuck up on me, refusing to compromise its existence just because I happened to be there. I became bound to it, not the other way around. As I drove along its lonely road (however many other drivers there may be), I couldn’t help but wonder what mysteries existed unseen in the natural cracks of its distinctive purple-brown, crumbling hills. This place came to be because of a very specific set of conditions, including, but not limited to, elevation, soil composition, and the climate created by the mountains around it. It is a place that sits in a fragile equilibrium, which is now threatened by climate change, yet it persists.
Joshua Tree is home to its namesake, a strange Frankenstein tree that looks like a cross between a cactus and an oak tree. Before the pioneers came and cut down the old growth, these wondrous inhabitants of the desert grew massive, but slowly, beholden by the trickle of precious water they receive each year, only able to grow a few inches or less each wet season. The Joshua trees now struggle to become the heirs of their pre-Colonial ancestors, but what they have achieved is still impressive, slowly remaking a desert forest. Out of this persistence in such harsh environments, I gained a better understanding of what I can endure, and how I can thrive in the hardest times. The desert’s heat and silence burn away all but the essential pieces of you, leaving behind something stronger and clearer than the person who first entered its mysteries.
Xplorer Journal written by Garrick Thomsen; photos courtesy of Patrick MacKay. Great work!