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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.


TRAVEL NOTE: 

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.

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112 replies »

  1. I often find the sacred in the mundane. Almost never where I thought I would, or where others tend to point. Walking alone through a rice paddy on my way from dinner surrounded by fireflies is a good example of such an experience, instead of watching the day break from the top of Borobudur temple, a place I always thought would stir me deeply.

    • Beautiful. Perhaps a lot of it has to do, again, with expectations and time as much as geography. Thank you for the marvelous imagery you present of one of your most sacred moments.

  2. I enjoyed reading your article. You raised a very interesting question about the places where you feel at home. Well, if the place is too crowded to enjoy nature, you can do people watching. It can be intersting too. As for me, the Arizona Nordic Village captured my heart. Cross country skiing in a snowy pine forrest reminded me of my childhood. I also love strolling along a river because it also reminds me about the river in my home town. The Tiber River in Rome and the Arno River in Florence were one of my favorite places to walk by. I love places which have a character, or a rich history such as the small town Portrush, the Giant Causeway, and old Dunluce castle in Northern Ireland or Canyon de Chelly in Arizona. I don’t understand people, who use nature to scream their lungs out to release their negative energy. Unfortunately, I met them on a trail. They don’t think that others came to listen to birds chirping, the wind wistling a song, or watching a buzzing bee inside of a flower, savoring nector. Maybe we will visit Joshua Tree NP, but only if we drive by. The Giant Sequoia and the Yosemite NP look more enticing to me.

    • I appreciate your revelations about the places sacred to you. I hadn’t thought about how often these locations invoke happy childhood memories. I’m sorry that your tranquil hike was interrupted so harshly, but fortunately there are still so many places where one can get immersed in the sounds of nature and Yosemite (despite its crowds) is still one of them. May we continue to discover trails where the birds still chirp, the wind sings, and the bees return to buzz.

  3. I must say, given how spectacular the photos look, I wouldn’t have guessed you didn’t feel inspired by the place. It takes lots of courage to even admit that to yourself, let alone to others. I get that with art, too. But I also like how we’re not fixed in our views and sentiments. There’s always room to change our minds and hearts, if we’re open to it. Nothing is definitive.

    • Thank you for your kind words. I had a really tough time taking photographs at Joshua Tree and I’m happy to hear that the ones I took still speak to readers. Yes, art is very much in that same vein. Art by famous artists is especially hard for me to have a personal connection with. The waters get muddied as to why I should be inspired by it and why it’s important from society’s point of view.

  4. I didn’t know this park was a place where people communed with nature and the cosmos on that level. I’ve never been there, and I suspect that kind of communing visit would be lost on me.

    I know exactly what you mean when others are enjoying this kind of experience and you don’t get it at all. But I really enjoyed your photos, and your account. Both are beautifully done, as always. 🙂

  5. I enjoy your writing, your musings and your photos so very much…thank you!
    I have not been to Joshua Tree, but my daughter lives in LA and she felt a connection to the land when she was there.
    Your question made me really ponder where “that” place is for me and if there even is one place for me. I think I will need to sit with this question for now and not be bothered by the fact that I can’t immediately say where that place is. I have a feeling it might be quite close to home, Avalon Beach in Sydney or perhaps the Barossa Valley….

  6. I haven’t ever been to Joshua Tree National Park but I must say that I love the Joshua tree. It never crossed my mind, though, that the park would be used as a spot for photo shoots, but I never considered its distance to LA. I think in terms of its distance from Las Vegas. We have a Wetlands Park here that I like taking walks in. It used to be empty until they built a visitor’s center. Now, I’m in disbelief at all the couples taking wedding photos and family groups taking their Christmas card pictures and young people dancing in front of a video camera, not to mention all the people walking their dogs past the sign that clearly states No Dogs as they interfere with the wildlife.

    • Yes, your experience at the Wetlands Park exactly mirrors mine at JT and probably is reflective of many shared spaces. Putting up signs about not allowing things seems to me a pure waste of energy. No one pays attention to them. Thanks for sharing your observations with me.

  7. I haven’t been to Joshua Tree NP, but I’ve been to similar areas further north. I can’t say they really woke that “one with nature” sense of elation to a significant level, but on the other hand getting out in nature always seems to have some level of oneness. Maybe your LA friends are just experiencing an unusual escape from endless rows of houses, of highways, of malls, of suburbs abutting suburbs, of the concrete jungle, and feeling the freedom that escape suggests.

    There are places I’m more likely to feel that spirit. Not necessarily specific places, but a forest trail on a beautiful day, a mountaintop view, feeling the wind give you a free ride in a sailboat; even a recent view, underwater, approaching the drop off of the wall of a fringing reef, with a white sand foreground and a deep electric blue sea in the background. Ofttimes these places are more serendipity than planned. There’s never a crowd, or if there is it’s a big enough place to block them out.

    But maybe it’s attitude as much as anything. If your thing is a mob of people at a disco, maybe that’s your sacred place. Maybe you come to the same place on different occasions and your head and heart are more open to it on one day more than the other. Ultimately it’s a personal journey more than a physical one, finding that thing that resonates.

    • Thanks Dave for your detailed discussion about this. I am going to reflect more upon how time has a part to play in that connection between a place and myself as much as my own preferences or prejudices about the physical attributes of a sacred space.

    • Thank you! It is difficult to take photos of places that don’t speak to us isn’t it? I found it really hard to try and capture Joshua Tree and do it any sort of justice.

  8. Hi BT, I admire your candour. We all have our magic places. It may not be where we ascend to nirvana, as much as where we feel ‘home.’

    Regardless, I don’t believe places connect people … we connect with others based on other levels — a love for art, a dislike for a particular world view, admiration for a specific person or each other, and so on. If these are true connections, we don’t need to be anywhere special; we could be sitting in my kitchen with a nice glass of bubbly and having the most intense conversation about travel. You have a standing invitation! 🙂

    That we must go somewhere ‘special’ to connect ourselves to whatever we are seeking is not for everyone. In many ways, it rings hollow for me, a subtle pressure to feel as if you must ‘get it’ because everyone else does. Obviously, some of these places that touch others will not touch you. It’s not a dilemma or anything lacking on your part.

    It’s the difference between loving jazz or not. You simply feel it or you don’t.

    🙂
    e

    • Thanks for your lovely acumen and for the invite, e. ☺️ I’m touched. That pressure to ‘get it’ because everyone else does is so prevalent beyond even the travel world. I feel it all the time, and as you say, I think it important for me to remember that not everything that becomes a phenomenon has to also be my phenomenon.

  9. Bonjour Bespoke, c’est un beau billet. J’apprécie ta sincérité sur ce lieu. Il est vrai, dans certains endroits, on ne se sent pas très à l’aise. Chacun réagit différemment et c’est bien de l’avoir dit.
    Bien amicalement 🙂

  10. I’ve never felt the need to conform in life or travel and my introversion forces me to walk away from the flock. 🙂 I’ve missed out on some good places (or experiences) because I thought they were too trendy or hyped. I haven’t travelled in a group for ages. I’m glad you survived your trip. I doubt I’d be that patient. 🙂 Joshua Tree reminded me of U2’s album and for some reason I thought you were going to talk about it. Your post took be by surprise. 🙂

  11. I popped over from Lisa Dorenfest’s site… I had to when I saw the link. I visited Joshua Tree last fall (maybe for the first time, but I’m not sure that I didn’t visit with my folks when I was young) and came away with a similar impression. I’m thrilled that it’s a national park – we need more unspoiled land set aside – but I just didn’t get the hype. I was visiting friends in Palm Desert and, when I sounded less than enthralled with my experience, they seemed surprised (and I felt a bit guilty). I was just thinking the other day that maybe I should go back and see if I missed something, but now, after reading your post, maybe it’s OK that JT didn’t feel as special to me as it does for others.

    • Thank you for stopping by from Lisa’s blog. I appreciate your sharing a similar experience. I imagine those who don’t find Paris romantic or the beach a calm place also get similar reactions we got from our Southern Californian friends. I too am very happy that JT exists. We need all sorts of safe havens both for ourselves and for nonhumans of this planet.

  12. What an amazing looking tree! It is funny where and how people find inner peace: some do Yoga or some other kind of meditation, some go to church… I like walking my dog in the nearby forest, full of beautiful and gloriously scented bluebells now. Whatever works for you is fine: we are meant to be different 😉

  13. brilliant writing … there are many times when I feel the same way … maybe a feeling of having been here before …
    It seems everyone is “looking” for the secret, the key, the sweet spot in life …
    Hark, do I hear echoes of Don Juan?
    Are we travellers in a world always seeking the next big thing … the best beach, the most remote mountain escape, the most crystal-clear lake …
    Love your comment .. “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.”
    That’s it. As humans we try to rationalise everything, quantify, explain … when the world should be just appreciated for what it is. There is nothing else like it … yet we continue to endanger its very existence.
    And when you mention privilege … exactly … we are privileged to be able to experience such places. So many do not get that chance.
    Appreciate these places, these special places … for they may not be here tomorrow.
    Look in the mirror to see the world as it really is … but remember to dust it off first so we get a clearer picture …

    • Thank you for your thoughtful rumination regarding hype and being able to appreciate the world as it is. I love your last line: “Look in the mirror to see the world as it really is … but remember to dust it off first so we get a clearer picture.”

  14. You know, when I would go to Joshua Tree as a kid it seemed a lot more chill? Like, just families on vacation and not so many aspiring actors taking their headshots or people who work in PR doing drugs and trying to “reconnect”. I dunno. I guess a lot has changed in the past 20 years.

    • How very interesting to see Joshua Tree NP through your eyes over the last two decades. I fear many places have changed in how we view them, in how they are used and abused (and you are spot on about the people I bumped into at the park 😁). Thank you so much for sharing with me what it used to be like.

  15. One of the more insightful posts I’ve read in quite a while, beautifully written and photographed ~ but most importantly to me was what it had to say. I’ve always felt a little strange around places where the build up is so big that when I arrive, I am mildly disappointed. Thoughts that make me wonder how a ‘superstar’ attraction pales when compared to a no-name area I can easily get lost in wonderment.

    There is great honesty in your writing here, and I think all the Joshua Tree crazies will soon bombard your site in disbelief 🙂 Your post made me realize, though, at the many moments that I felt emotionally high at just being at a place because it is the thing to do… “Hidden under the tsunami of adoration is the dark side of privilege, impulse, and information dissemination…” but the beauty is you also understand everyone has their own “place” where they feel at home or special, and you let them enjoy. All the time you soak it in and learn more about this crazy/beautiful world we live in.

    • I am very grateful for your wonderful comment. I’ve had trouble for awhile focusing on how and why the places I am exploring speak to me. As I become more reflective about this, hopefully I can continue to explore more personal issues about my interactions with our marvelous world.

  16. I like your acceptance of the fact that this wasn’t your place – and that it could be something else to others. And I think you write about it very well. Thought provoking.

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