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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. “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?

  2. 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.

  3. 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.

  4. 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. 🙂

  5. 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.

  6. 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.

  7. 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.

  8. 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. 🙂

  9. 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….

  10. 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.

  11. 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.

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