I have this thing for deserts. Something to do with the emptiness of them – my life feels so cluttered most of the time, and in the desert I relish the space and clarity. Here, we’re reminded that in the big scheme of things we are a mere speck. You’d think there’s little life in these places, but there is plenty, and it has a greater capacity for survival in this extreme climate than you or I. There is great freedom in realising you are insignificant.
Deserts are also really beautiful. And despite their continuous vastness, no two are the same. Earlier this month, some friends and I spent a day in Joshua Tree National Park, in southern California – a most incredible place. Imagine if Dr Seuss had sketched the backdrop for a Western, and you will get an idea of the landscape. Almost 800,000 acres of hilly desert are peppered with giant grey boulders and those curious-looking yucca trees with their strange, tufty fingers. Mormon settlers thought they resembled Joshua, from the Bible, reaching up to the sky to pray.
“If you don’t die of thirst, there are blessings in the desert. You can be pulled into limitlessness, which we all yearn for, or you can do the beauty of minutiae, the scrimshaw of tiny and precise. The sky is your ocean, and the crystal silence will uplift you like great gospel music, or Neil Young.” – Anne Lamott, American novelist
We drove along the main road through the heart of the park, arms dangling lazily from open windows, Fleetwood Mac playing on the stereo. We had large kegs of water slowly warming up in the back, and sandwiches from the Country Kitchen food shack in town. (NB: The store doesn’t look like much, but photos pinned to the wall, between the knick-knacks, newspaper articles and tat, revealed that Anthony Bourdain had eaten there, pictured with his arm around the wonderfully no-nonsense Cambodian woman who runs the place. Bourdain was clearly onto something: my friends and I agreed they were some of the best sandwiches we’d ever had.)
In this national park the eco-systems of two deserts come together – the low stretch of Colorado and rolling heights of the Mojave. In the 1930s local activist Minerva Hoyt, who adored the place, campaigned to protect the area and its fragile landscape, and in 1936 President Roosevelt gave it official protection. In 1994 it received National Park status, under the California Desert Protection Act. It is still at risk of deterioration, due to the expansion and growth of harmful environments around it. This is precisely why deserts are so special; the last few refuges from modern chaos.
A lot of hearts have been won over and swallowed up by Joshua Tree. Famously, musician Gram Parsons, who was so enamoured with it that he wished for his ashes to be scattered there. When he died in 1973, aged just 26, his body was prepared to be flown for burial in New Orleans (under the instruction of his unrelenting father). But his loyal buddies stole the coffin from the airport, drove it to a boulder stack in Joshua Tree and set it on fire. They got caught before the cremation was finished, so off to New Orleans went what was left of poor old Parsons, although at least part of him – quite literally – got to remain in the desert that he loved so much.
My friends and I tackled a couple of short hikes, including a trail in the Lost Horse Valley, to the remains of the old gold and silver mine. It’s just a run-down wooden structure yet it still seems an intrusive blot on the valley view, almost a surprise to come across – and indeed it was cause for many trees to be cleared and for the ground to be torn and harvested of its precious metals, before the mine shut down its system in 1931. The trail is a good little hike though, and walking up to the mine (sensibly fenced off) will give you a decent vantage point from which to soak up your surroundings.
Joshua Tree National Park is easy to access; just ensure you have maps, plenty of water and adequate sun protection – and do check in with the visitor’s centre about any current issues to be aware of. We were given warning about a couple of places where swarms of bees were troublesome. They tend to hang around look-out points where people and cars bring promise of water – and they’re not afraid. (Keep your water bottles lidded at all times!) We braved one such parking stop and bees quickly began to circle our car. After we jumped out, one landed on my foot and started to crawl between my toes… I could only stuff my hat in my mouth and scream like a child until a friend managed to gently shoo it out. Don’t forget, you are insignificant. If there’s any hierarchy here, nature is definitely boss.
There are several camping spots in the park – I hope to return and spend more time revelling in the vast expanse of space, take in the sunsets and sunrises, and maybe see some of the carefully hidden wildlife come out to play. There’s something about this place… Thankfully, while the bees did not, the desert succeeded at getting under my skin. Joshua Tree, I will be back.