Joshua Tree National Park’s wilderness encompasses 429,690 acres in southern California, northeast of San Diego. The Colorado River rushes along the Arizona border 100 miles past its eastern edge. The park, and the Mojave Desert it occupies, is unforgiving—an ethereal landscape of rusty yellow sand, cartoonish boulders, distant snow-capped mountains, and valleys speckled with Joshua trees.
Outside the park, local one-lane highways give way to nameless sand roads where locals drift their pickups sideways. Ten miles from the park entrance is the six-acre homestead I’m calling home for three days. Inside of a 120-square-foot cabin is an L-shaped bunk, a wooden table with two plastic chairs, and two AC/DC adapters run by a solar panel on the roof—powerful enough to charge a couple of cell phones. There’s an outdoor kitchen, and a third structure with a flush toilet, sink, and shower head. The weekend wind blows out the butane ignition that heats the water, and so I don’t shower. It’s late March, 30 degrees overnight, and my girlfriend and I keep close under three blankets.
An environment that appears desolate is merely subtle. A desert mouse scurries between fauna and moon shade, visiting the outdoor kitchen while popcorn burns and pops in a stewpot. A tick hides on a roll of toilet paper next to the toilet with the star-filled Milky Way above like lingering cigarette smoke and glitter.
We drove from San Diego to get away for three days, wanting to get closer to beautiful nowhere. I yearn for the remote: the deserts, the lakes, the mountains. I crave the white noise of nature. Mostly, I just want to reset and escape. At 31-years-old, I’m fortunate to have found a woman who wants to share that with me.
The Joshua tree likely received its name from mid-nineteenth century Mormon pioneers who named it after the Biblical figure, Joshua: the story goes that they saw the limbs of the tree as guiding them westward, like Joshua reaching his hands towards the sky in prayer. It seems reasonable enough, but no one really knows if it’s true.
Although I often yearn to withdraw entirely from conventional life—from modern expectations—ultimately I’m too scared to do it: I still demand social validation. And chocolate ice cream. So I take weekend trips or day trips or week-long trips to immerse myself in the places that will have me: national parks, remote beaches, unassuming mountain peaks, and towns like Nebraska City, Nebraska, or Waynesboro, Tennessee. I feel in myself what Jon Krakauer describes in Into the Wild as “a superabundance of energy which found no outlet in our quiet life.”
The Joshua tree is inconceivable in a place that receives 5.12 inches of rain per year. “Its life cycle,” writes Vegetation Specialist Jane Rodgers, “begins with the rare germination of a seed, its survival dependent upon well-timed rains…Judging the age of a Joshua tree is challenging: these “trees” do not have growth rings like you would find in an oak or pine. You can make a rough estimate based on height, as Joshua trees grow at rates of one-half inch to three inches per year. Some researchers think an average lifespan for a Joshua tree is about 150 years, but some of our largest trees may be much older than that.” Age is theoretical in the desert; what matters is not how old or how young, but just simply how.
As with the existence and perpetuation of life in general, the Joshua tree relies upon synchronicity: well-timed rains, a winter freeze that damages the end of a branch but stimulates flowering; pollination is dependent upon the yucca moth that, as Rodgers writes, “collects pollen while laying her eggs inside the flower ovary…The tree relies on the moth for pollination and the moth relies on the tree for a few seeds for her young—a happy symbiosis. The Joshua tree is also capable of sprouting from roots and branches. Being able to reproduce vegetatively allows a much quicker recovery after damaging floods or fires, which may kill the main tree.” There are trees that never bloom—that remain branchless. Indigenous populations transformed the tree’s tough leaves into baskets and sandals; flower buds and seeds were included in their diet.
Krakauer writes that “The desert sharpened the sweet ache of his longing, amplified it, gave shape to it in sere geology and clean slant of light.” Maybe it’s the sharp recognition of a place that has crumbled into sand and rock from something that used to be so full of life that forces upon me some semblance of spirituality. The desert is one of the great physical manifestations of my existential ponderings. Where did I come from? Who am I? Where do I go from here? And what does it mean? And the desert whispers the answers: You are here. And the meaning is here, too. Just listen.
Geoff Watkinson has contributed to Guernica, storySouth, The Humanist, The San Diego-Tribune, The Virginian-Pilot, and Switchback, among others. His first nonfiction collection, Have Some Faith in Loneliness & Other Essays, is forthcoming in 2019 (Dreaming Big Publications). He is a lecturer in the English Department at Seton Hall University and the founder/managing editor of Green Briar Review. Read more of his work at his website, or find him on Twitter @GeoffWatkinson.
Cagibi Issue 5