This 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!”
I 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.
I 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.
The 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.
Perspective 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.
So, 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.