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Reckonings at Joshua Tree

JoshuaTree-alone-BTThis isn’t a story with a twist. I didn’t come away from Joshua Tree National Park, land of the Serrano, the Chemehuevi, and the Cahuilla, with a new found appreciation for it. I still learned a lesson there, though.

I’ve never understood the magic of this reserve and I still don’t. My L.A. friends swoon about it. They declare it’s a sanctuary of energy, where they can commune with the cosmos. They insist I join them on their weekend visit. “You’ll love it,” they assure me, “once you’re fully there. It’s the best destination…so…freeing! You’ll have the time of your life with us, we promise!”

JoshuaTree-path-BTI wander the monotone brown landscape in search of inspiration. I stare up at the spiky Yucca dotting the desert in hopes of insight. I sit alone on a dumpy boulder watching my friends, feeling like the new kid in school. I’m happy that they’re enjoying themselves so fervently; glad that they have this oasis in which to rejuvenate from the burdens of city dwelling. But, I can’t share in their enthusiasm.  

I was happier in the larger expanse of the Mojave we’d driven through where I’d glimpsed eerie creatures and bizarre features. Joshua Tree seems…soulless…a setting under the human thumb of entertainment. A group of skaters takes possession of my granite neighborhood to perfect their tricks. 

JoshuaTree-shadows-BTI abandon my friends to their sun soaking. I tramp the dusty trails through the parade of Joshua trees. A blond actor comes to moodily smoke under the jagged shrub I’m examining. He tells me the desert is a salve for his nerves. When I question whether cigarettes are a fire hazard inside the park, he gently reminds me it’s the only thing that allays his anxiety.

Traveling farther, I keep interrupting ladies in diaphanous gowns performing for photo shoots. This isn’t my scene at all so I hustle back to my companions hoping to convince them to leave. But they are in their sweet spot, in tune with the vibrations of this desert. I amble along another path; I listen; I observe my surroundings hoping the topography will speak to me, wondering what all the excitement is about, puzzled as to why I’m not feeling the enchantment.

JoshuaTree-line-BTThe malady of hype has a long and troubled history as does our human penchant for turning everything into conspicuous consumption. Whether wrought by our deep need to belong, our selfishness, or our ability to rationalize anything, I don’t know. But, an interest sparks and suddenly it feels as if everyone is over-the-moon for mid-century modern pink or practicing ‘Ayurvedic yoga’ or drinking fermented tea or planning to recuperate at a Mayan sweat lodge. Hidden under the tsunami of adoration is the dark side of privilege, impulse, and information dissemination; there are costs, heavy and unseen. I’ve been guilty of it, wanted to be a part of it, resented being left out of the phenomenon. 

JoshuaTree-scene-BTPerspective shifts for me at Joshua Tree. I have to be okay with not getting it. I don’t begrudge those who claim this as their spiritual haven, but I have to remain content that it isn’t mine and never will be. There are homes, multiple, where we belong. We sense this when our feet first touches the sand, or as we wander the woods, or hear a certain song; maybe we arrive at the knowledge following decades of resistance. Often we only realize it long after our stay has become a faint dream. There are other places, however, where we’re forever strangers — uncomfortable, fearful, intimidated. And that’s not what we choose, what we like, but it is what I have to accept graciously. I can’t belittle the terrain because it doesn’t unfold for me or disparage those who have identified with the heart of this bit of earth.  

JoshuaTree-spikes-BTSo, I return to my friends; I sit in my unease with patience. On the drive home, I listen as they tell me how the trees and the rocks and the light altered them, how they elevated to a higher plane of consciousness. I don’t roll my eyes or snort in derision. Possibly they did achieve nirvana. And when they ask, “Did you feel it too?” I smile and say, “Well…once when I was in.…” Even if our sacred spaces are chasms apart, there are still ways I can try to connect.


Yucca brevifolia (Joshua trees) expanded their southwestern territory during the Pleistocene thanks to the dietary habits of an extinct ground sloth.
A friendly reminder for visitors that taking natural elements as souvenirs not only destroys the local habitat but also potentially introduces non-native species to the home.

I would love to hear about your sacred places and travel destinations that have become beloved homes in the comments below.


99 replies »

  1. After reading your words I could feel your sense of disconnect as if I was experiencing it for myself.

    I went to a conference last week and during the presentation, there was a specific statistic that I found interesting. The presenter explained that our generation has the highest levels of anxiety, depression and recorded feelings of “loneliness” than any other.

    I think the reason why so many people are reaching out and grappling with the concept of spirituality, ayurvedic alternative, yoga etc. demonstrates that there is a general disconnect between individuals. They want to feel grounded. Unfortunately, it’s not going to be found under a tree as part of a photo shoot.

    Looking forward to your future posts! xx

    • What a very interesting statistic from your conference! Thanks for sharing this with me. I am finding it increasingly fascinating and troubling that our digitally interconnected world is leaving us with grave problems regarding oppression, isolation, distorted reality, and an inability to connect with our lived environments. It is going to be a challenge to manage these issues as we keep whizzing into a future inundated with data and the Internet of Things….I so appreciate our thoughtful chats and your ever-present support! XX

  2. “But I still haven’t found what I’m looking for…” It seems like you are not alone with your lack of connection with this place. It sounds like there are quite a bit of distractions there…how does anyone get in touch with the terrain…and smokers too??? what are they thinking?

  3. It’s interesting the way one place speaks to us and another doesn’t. I suspect the hype would make my feelings rebel and I wouldn’t feel anything at all, but you can never tell until you’re in a place how it will speak to you or not.

    • So true. Many places have spoken to me despite their fame — Machu Picchu and Venice come to mind as locations I have fallen in love with as have so many others. Thanks so much for understanding, Andrea.

  4. I enjoyed your photos but I believe that the park would be lost on me as well. I tend to enjoy the spots where I feel like I’m the first person to have just discovered them. Beauty and the sounds of nature…not where there are lots of people with cameras and iPhones taking selfies.

    • Isn’t it funny how so many of us are looking to get away from other people? You pinpointed something that went a long way towards my feeling uncomfortable at Joshua Tree and being able to connect with it: the sense I had that other people were putting on a show there. Thanks so much for your eloquent reflections.

  5. Still haven’t found what I’m looking for made me smile. I’d been humming U2 most of my way through this post. 🙂 🙂 Which I knew of in the roundabout sort of telegraphing each other that we do in the blog world (comments over at Julie and Lisa’s). You make it sound like there’s a photo shoot or hippie chick under every tree… I suppose people who work in a city like LA need their escape or they’d go barmy. I know I’d rather mooch around the coast till I found a sweet spot, but I’d probably take a look, if only for the song title 🙂

    • When I was there it really did feel as if there was a photo shoot under every tree! Rather surreal experience for me while I was on some of the trails. Turns out it’s a very popular place for fashion brands to execute their advertisements and catalogue campaigns (something about the clothing colors popping in that landscape and light). It is interesting that with so many beautiful beaches in Southern California, Angelenos look to the desert for their retreat. It always makes me smile when you stop by for a chat. 🙂

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