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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.

115 replies »

  1. 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.


    • 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.

  2. 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 🙂

  3. 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. 🙂

  4. 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.

  5. 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 😉

  6. 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.”

  7. 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.

  8. 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.

  9. 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.

  10. Well, to be honest it’s true we all may feel different, in our search for Sacred space, can be very subjective, and particular, related to our own feelings.

    I shy away of places that are easily available to anyone to roam, I have been in Joshua Tree numerous times, passing through mainly, but I remember my first time, as a destination, during a company group outing, as some sort of prize reward for teamwork and sales, with over 100 people, it was very hot, but the whole thing was like a party, soon we all look for refuge at the shade of a resort in the area, and quickly forgot about the wonders of the desert, instead for the convenience of the pool, shade, and cold drinks, couldn’t wait to leave the place, to do what we ended doing, we didn’t need to come that far, staying in LA would have been better.

    Your encounters with so many distractions, and weird people, may have to do with it, last time I passed through, after long absence from freeway 10, I was surprised to see so many new developments, and casinos by the road new to me, I used to travel frequently through that road in the early nineties, on my way to Mexico, and back from, and couldn’t believe it.

    I may be wrong, but when the desert resembles a Khumba Mela of people, in pilgrimage, well, it will be hard to feel it’s a special place.

    I cannot but remember shaman Igjugarjuk saying:

    ” True wisdom,
    is only to be found
    far away from people,
    out in the great solitude. “

    Not only wisdom, I should add, but what about some peace, and quietness?
    Maybe the reason I never been at the Burning Man festival either. 🙂

    • 😁 My time at Joshua Tree did rather resemble a Khumba Mela and your retelling of your first time there is hilarious! Some people definitely need that sort of gathering energy to have an experience, but I’m far more attuned to a place away from the crowds. Thanks for sharing your wisdom with me.

  11. I’ve been to Joshua Tree NP twice (how can we drive by and not stop?), and while I enjoyed hiking around and photographing the “trees” and old cars under a blue sky, it is certainly a park that didn’t wow me either. I had no idea it was a “sacred” place to so many, so I appreciate that insight and your insight.

    I think one of the “issues” seems to be the crowdedness of the place… Of course, having been immersed into the grandiose scenery and wide expanses of Arizona and Utah, I certainly “feel” the difference in your emotional state when it comes to Joshua Tree.

    I think my most reverent experiences include watching the night sky when anchored on my sailboat in the tropics and being in the outback of Australia. It would have to be a place without anyone else around. 🙂

    • I agree with you Liesbet, I think I too am a creature who has my most intimate experiences with topography away from the madding crowds. Thank you for sharing yours here — watching the tropical night sky from a sailboat sounds like a divine way to spend time.

  12. Good for you for being so honest. I used to live in Palm Springs and only made it up to Joshua Tree once…driving the creepy back way from Thousand Palms with a bunch of my redneck friends. What a weird night that was. Anyway, I was never particularly drawn to visit there. And now the fact that the trendies have invaded it turns me off even more. Lots of parallels with Bali – the photos shoots and diaphanous dresses. That aspect of Bali totally grossed me out. The energy I felt there came as a total surprise. I was determined to NOT feel anything precisely because I didn’t want to be part of that crowd. But feel it I did, and I’m kind of embarassed to admit it. Haha. Thought-provoking, beautiful words and photos, as usual.

    • Palm Springs huh? Would you be surprised that this area is now a posh, sprawling oasis of green grass, large mansions, and golf courses? There’s a lot of the same trendy vibe carried over from Joshua Tree (or is it L.A.?): walls painted pink with green cactus planted out front for IG photo shoots. I’m glad that Bali spoke to you and that you had such a powerful experience there that was genuine and deeply relevant to your life cycle. No reason to be embarrassed since you didn’t want that to happen because it ‘should’ and it happened naturally through personal reflection and circumstance. Funny how our journeys in these places began the same way and ended so differently. Thanks as ever for your generous sincerity.

  13. It would have been much easier to simply not write a post about Joshua Tree (or any place that doesn’t “speak to you”), but you have taken a refreshing and honest approach. It’s a good thing we don’t all get inspired by the same things.

    • “It’s a good thing we don’t all get inspired by the same things.” Indeed. It’s still a long road for me as I go from knowing this and dismissing it to knowing this and finding ways to connect because of it.

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