Updated: Jul 10, 2020
My ears popped as I stormed up the 62 from Palm Springs towards the little town of Joshua Tree. The road took not a turn and the desert around me was rapidly changing color -- the warm glow of dawn washed away by stark white light. There it was, beyond an old, beat-up shotgun shack to the East, that grotesquely picturesque icon of the high desert. Spiny and contorted, it struck me not as the beckoning biblical prophet that the Mormons saw, but more-so recalled an image from the creative imagination of Dr. Seuss, such as in his classic "The Lorax."
The reference I give this picture highlights the great heights the Joshua Tree (Yucca brevifolia) can reach. Not a tree at all, this plant is a member of the Agave family and is a monocot like lilies and grasses
Phantasmagoric. This was the word. This was what summed it all up. A shifting series of phantasms, illusions, or deceptive appearances, as in a dream or as created by the imagination. Yes, that is the definition straight out of Webster's. And it fits perfectly! By the time I had reached the dilapidated town of Joshua Tree, I had been swallowed by a forest of the glorious yuccas and was astonished at their grotesque beauty. I drove past a saloon with broken windows and felt a whim to park the car, adorn a cowboy hat, secure my holster and load my revolver. I would then walk into this old wreck of a place, nod my head to the mustached man behind the bar, and knock off a bottle of whiskey. I let my imagination ramble. I had more important things to see, I thought, as I banked a hard right onto Park Drive and pulled into the West Entrance Visitor Center. I had made it my goal to hike to all 5 desert oases that can be found throughout the park. The ranger who supplied me with maps and suggestions about the area had confirmed this idea with a subtle warning about the lurking dangers of the desert. As I headed back towards the door, I caught a glimpse of a book on a nearby shelf. The title read something like "Water: Its Life-Taking and Life-Saving Potential in the Desert." What a paradox! How treacherous in the form of an inundating flash flood, all the while God-sent as it trickles from the rim of a canteen, quenching an unyielding thirst. Back at the car, I grabbed my Nalgene and threw back half the bottle; I wasn't about to succumb to an insufferable desert death.
Oasis of Mara, one of the five oases that can be found in Joshua Tree National Park. These desert fan palms (Washingtonia filifera) are native to California and are one of North America's tallest native palms
Bladderpod (Peritoma arborea) flowers throughout the year in southern California. It has a foul-smelling odor from chemicals it produces to discourage insects from eating it
A California barrel cactus (Ferocactus cylindraceus) adds a splash of color to the monotonous desert landscape. This species was first described by George Engelmann in 1853
Joshua Tree National Park opened up in front of me: boulders of impermanence, endless basins and their bone-dry associations, a western sky so impenetrably blue, the white popcorn blossoms of the Joshua Tree. Each unit of the desert seemed to speak for itself, and all could be heard clearly; nothing was cluttered. Rock climbers scaled the walls of 700-foot tall monoliths, birds like the western scrub jay (Aphelocoma californica) and the cactus wren (Campylorhynchus brunneicapillus) buzzed about, and the sun glared ferociously, sucking every ounce of water from the breaking soil. In my mind's eye, I could see the trap-door spiders () lurking vigilantly in their lairs, and tiny brine shrimp (), yet to be born, awaiting the far-off rains in some dried-up pothole. What an amazing world!
The popcorn-like flowers of the Joshua Tree's inflorescence
I stopped to claim a site at Ryan Campground, a fitting resting spot with magnificent boulders strewn about and hardly an RV in site. It was an act of spontaneity -- good tidings beckoned -- and I erected my tent in a copse a Mojave yuccas (Yucca schidigera). I was by myself and had planned on a long weekend of reflection and soul-searching, but it didn't exactly end up that way. At the site next to mine, a hefty fellow with a goatee was putting up his tent. I offered him a hand and in turn, he offered me great company and ceaseless outdoor "hacks" such as how to tie a better double knot, how to more efficiently pour a jug of water ('put a friggin' hole in it') and how to use a folded map to pick up a hot mug of coffee. Kolby as he was called, also had an endless supply of photography advice.
My campsite by the rocks in Ryan Campground
Thus, my intended weekend of solitude became something much different from that. The first day I was able to hike to two oases on my own, but that night I became so intellectually hooked - so curious, so perplexed - as to the makings and the workings of this soft spoken character Kolby. Kolby had with him three friends: Chris, Alex, and Stephanie. That night we stared in awe at the rings of Saturn -- almost moving through the high-powered magnification of a telescope -- and watched Jupiter rise over the mountains. At this moment, Joshua Tree National Park smiled upon me. I realized that a new face is revealed here at night; the sky, with a billion stars scintillating, is vast and unfathomable.
At 2am we walked out into the desert, where away from the warmth of our blazing fire, I needed 3 layers to keep warm. Kolby set up his camera, opened up the aperture for a 45 minute exposure, and talked about the art of photography. He told us about his travels around the world, the many faces of life he has seen, and his inspiration to turn his art into something with the capacity to provoke change. Meanwhile, he "painted" the Joshua Tree in the foreground with a flashlight -- in order to bring it forward in the picture -- laughed at something, then quieted his voice in response to the howls and barks of a chorus of coyotes in the distance. "This place is spectacular," I remarked. Indeed, they agreed.
A solitary coyote (Canis latrans) keenly finds its way across the Mojave desert
I spent the next few days exploring slot canyons, bouldering along the monzogranite slabs, searching adobe relics, shooting photographs of the bizarre world around me. I did end up hiking to one more oasis and I substituted hikes of two nearby mountains in lieu of the fourth and fifth oases I had missed, So no, I didn't meet the goal I had set out to achieve, but such is life. It's really a beautiful thing. Why is it always presumed a negative thing to not necessarily meet our goals. Goals change as life unfolds. Each instance has the capacity of completely changing our future; completely changing our minds or pushing us in different directions. Nothing is permanent or set in stone. As long as goals exist within us, we will all be okay, regardless if they are changing.
Joshua Tree National Park is a landscape of erratic rocks, spiny cacti, and yuccas that reminded early Mormon settlers of the biblical prophet Joshua with his arms spread above his head, pleading them to continue their immigration west
The common chuckwalla (Sauromalus ater) is a lizard in the iguana family that is harmless to humans. When they are threatened, the chuckwalla will run into a tight crevice, inflate its lungs using a gular pump which distends its body and wedges it tightly in place between the rocks
A flowering ocotillo (Fouquieria splendens) reminds us that it is a living plant. The rest of the year the plant looks like a bundle of dead sticks
Teddy bear cholla (Cylindropuntia bigolovii) only grow to about 5 feet tall. They have frontwards and backwards-facing barbs on each spine, making them incredibly painful and difficult to remove from skin
I left Joshua Tree with a new appreciation for life. I've heard that one thing leads to another, and I don't deny it. I'm not a believer in fate or destiny, but I do have an inclination towards a spirited working in the world. A garden of teddy bear cholla (Cylindropuntia bigolovii) hung in the fields before me as I crossed through the Colorado Desert in the southeastern corner of the park. The sun fell fast behind me, as if it carried the weight of the world, and it mixed with LA's impending smog to give off a radiant glow of violet. I thought of the time I had spent with these new-found friends of mine and all that I had learned. What forces helped me decide to come here, right at this time, and in this very moment revel in the beauty of it all? Maybe none at all. But maybe I'm happy just thinking about it.
Standing on top of Ryan Mountain with several Mojave yuccas (Yucca schidigera) behind me in Joshua Tree National Park