Fun fact – The cover of U2’s Joshua Tree was taken in Death Valley National Park, not in Joshua Tree. I learned this in none other than Joshua Tree National Park itself, and I mention it now because I knew so little about this place going into it, still know so little, even though it’s absolutely beloved to me.
I’m fascinated by deserts. Be it a desert filled with red rocks and cacti, or full of sand and nothing else. Particularly by the deserts of the American Southwest. Because so few actually inhabit the desert, the true desert, the land can seem unbearably lonesome, but there’s a peace that the land brings as well.
As a city dweller, the desert is a reminder that the stars really do come out at night. That flowers still bloom where there’s no rain. That the wind can howl and rattle and yet leave the landscape completely unaffected. A few gusts are no match for what’s been here for thousands of years.
A cactus standing no taller than my knee can have more personality in it than a 100-foot pine; as the land develops quirks in character, so do its inhabitants. Stopping into the Joshua Tree Saloon at 7:30am to grab a coffee (coffee being advertised outside), the bartender gave Carl quite the hard time, playing a classic “opposite” game. It went something along the lines of:
Do you want vanilla or caramel syrup in that?
Cream or sugar?
Ah, so a yes on which one?
When we asked how much he said it was on the house and that he was trying to give the stuff away, then actually refused payment. The only other patron was sitting at the bar with a beer and a shot. It can get real desert-y in the desert.
Surly caffeine in our veins, we hop across the street to the visitor center for the park map and the necessary questions for a ranger: What’s your personal favorite hike in the park? Any plants or wildlife we should be on the lookout for this time of year? Interactions with rangers can enhance a visit dramatically — These are the gatekeepers of knowledge of the land. They know when the yuccas bloom, where the tourists throng, and when given a small set of parameters (3-6 miles, 1000-2000 feet of elevation gain, plenty of joshuas and wildflowers, etc.) can circle a trail on the map without hesitation.
With our afternoon planned out we’re finally ready to journey into the heart of Joshua Tree National Park. It’s mid-may. The sun is warm and Manu Chao’s Clandestino plays as we pass our one hundredth Joshua. Beyond the road the desert plain stretches for miles. There is no gentle rolling, just a flatness broken with boulders and sharp, steep hills of rocks. It looks truly prehistoric, and I imagine the ground being torn as what lies below rises above, splitting the earth as if it were made of paper.
Coming into the park from the north entrance on Twentynine Palms Highway we take the long route south to the Cholla Cactus Garden and Ocotillo Patch — Two desert plants that grow in dense patches less than a mile away from one another, yet are completely different. Chollas are stubby, ombre from a deep chocolate brown to a rich amber, finally capping at a silver jade where yellow flowers sprout on its wide head. Most stand no taller than my waist, and the overall impression I have of these cactuses is “awwww, how cute!”
The ocotillos dwarf me. They’re over ten feet tall, with branches that spread out from the base to form a V-shaped web of prickly tentacles. Just beginning to bloom, scarlet bulbs are woven throughout. The result is an intimidating yet beautiful plant that looks like it belongs on the ocean floor more than the desert.
Ready for a long hike we venture to the Boyscout Trail, which reaches a Willow Tree oasis. The thing about an oasis is part of me is doubting if it exists at all — I spot a shrub that looks slightly different than the flora we’ve seen over the last few miles of walking and I ask if that’s the oasis. When we turn a corner and willows don’t reveal themselves Carl makes a hmmm face while furrowing his eyebrows. But we continue on. We have belief. Belief that something green can spring from the sand. That the desert can transform itself. That something beautiful and elusive can come to those who seek adventure. And it does.
Past another turn in the rocks emerges a thick patch of willows, shading the exposed trail we’ve been trekking on. We sit for a lunch of cheddar cheese, cured sausage, crusty bread, and an IPA — Our hiking staples. While eating we listen to the wind pass through the willows. I stand to begin the journey back and Carl is hesitant. His feet remain firmly planted where he is. He seems unexpectedly nervous. He’s fidgeting, dipping his hands into his pockets. Saying he needs to ask me a question, he pulls out a small bundle of tissue, revealing a turquoise and silver ring. With glossy eyes he asks me to be his travel buddy for life.
There’s only one answer.
One day later we would hike to a palm tree oasis. One year later we would elope along the trail we’re standing on now. But tonight, tonight we celebrate the engagement by watching the sun sink below the trees in the park, eating ribs at the Joshua Tree Saloon and playing cards next to a fire in our Airbnb. It’s all so peaceful and quiet that I swear I can hear the stars.
Cut to one year later and we’re back in the park. This time we come in from the South entrance after spending the morning acquiring our marriage license at the Riverside county clerk. We stop to say hello to the ocotillos and chollas before heading to lunch at Natural Sisters Cafe, a vegetarian spot I cannot recommend enough. As a meat eater I can firmly say you won’t miss the stuff, as the cafe always manages to turn something simple into something extraordinary.
Lunch is a wrap stuffed with warm curried rice, spinach, sprouts, tomato and avocado, dipped into a peanut dressing. To drink is a Killer Bee smoothie, a blend of papaya nectar, apples, peaches, banana, pineapple juice and bee pollen. Split between the two of us, lunch is incredibly filling and extremely satisfying.
It’s not just the food that brings us here, but the people watching. Outside sit men with desert-creased skin and long white hair — One man with Willie Nelson-esque silver braids dons a leather jacket embroidered with roses. A woman in paint-stained overalls orders a sandwich to go while tourists with floppy hats and aviator sunglasses take selfies with their smoothies.
We check into an Airbnb in downtown Joshua Tree, this one closer to the park than the year before. The yucca valley is one of those places I’d advise only renting an Airbnb, never a hotel. Charm oozes from hundreds of homes — Many offer outdoor tubs for summer soaks, backyard beds for stargazing (or whatever else you want to do at 2am), walls of windows, record collections, cactus gardens and other amenities that one wouldn’t expect outside of the desert. Our first spot featured a cowboy tub in the backyard, a cast iron fireplace (equipped with firewood/trust that patrons would leave the house still standing) and indoor benches that hung from the ceiling. Our second spot features chimeneas, outdoor cots, plenty of pendleton blankets and a shower that’s decked out in waterproof Post-Its from previous renters, covered with poems, quotes and doodles.
Tomorrow is the big day — We’ll spend the morning hiking and the early evening tying the knot. On the docket for this night is dinner with the folks (the only ones invited to the elopement) at Pappy and Harriets in Yucca Valley’s “Pioneertown”, a tiny old west-themed town that’s served as the set of hundreds of movies and TV shows over the last 75 years. The town may be mainly prop, but Pappy and Harriets is a desert institution and music venue unique unto itself. Get reservations weeks in advance as there are only two possible seating times for dinner, 6pm and 8pm, 6pm spots capped at 120 minutes.
In 2016 Paul McCartney played an impromptu show for the lucky crowd. Other artists to have stopped by over the last few years include Lorde, Rufus Wainwright, The Arctic Monkeys, Vampire Weekend, Band of Horses and Ke$ha. Some have scheduled performances, while some play a surprise set on Monday’s open mic night. Led Zeppelin’s Robert Plant showed up one night just to play with the house band.
The crowd is part local and part tourist. My mom summed up the scene pretty well when she said “There sure are a lot of hats here” after surveying the fedora-d and floppy hatted patrons.
Our group fills up on burgers, ribs and coleslaw and watches a slow parade of performers come to the stage for open mic night. Each artist is talented, but it’s with half an hour left in our reservation that a group of high school girls come to the stage. Playing for just a few minutes, I think “Damn, these girls are going to make it. Whatever it is they want to do”.
A trio from Greater Los Angeles, the group is comprised of a keyboardist (the head honcho, given the way she provided support to her bandmates) donning thigh high boots and fluffy black jacket. Her dark brown hair is dyed purple at the tips. The drummer wears a sheer black shirt tucked into high waisted black skinny jeans, with a white bandeau and red yarn jacket, blue tips at the end of her straight blonde hair.
Finally stands the bass guitarist bedecked in a leopard print silk slip, long sleeved black tee shirt underneath, and flat lace up ankle boots. Light brown hair capped at the ends in pink. She’s the most in the limelight and clearly the least comfortable. Frequently she looks over to the keyboardist for comfort, as the drummer hammers away contentedly. But when she sings, it’s with a voice that makes me remember what it’s like to be 15. Her voice tremors slightly, sounding unsure of just what she’s doing in front of 200 strangers. She sings “I don’t want to go to school. Kids can be so stinking cruel”, the words coming out cooing-ly, as if it were a lullaby she were singing to her mother.
I have moist eyes as they leave the stage and a man named Rusty steps in their place. Onstage he sways back and forth like a drunken sailor – he wears sunglasses even as dusk approaches. He’s half a song in when we’re asked to vacate the table for the 8pm crowd. We leave with sadness because what we want is to remain here, to see Rusty and whoever is next, but so it goes. Dinner reservations cannot last forever.
So our group disbands. We each take the Twentynine Palms highway as far as needed, a straight line leading to our beds. Tomorrow we’ll meet at the Boy Scout trail where Carl and I will exchange vows. The love Carl and I have for one another is what brought everyone to this remote area in Southern California. And it’s the love Carl and I have for this fragile and unique land, that brought us here at all. We’re not alone in our love for Joshua Tree, and I wouldn’t deign to imagine we’re the only ones who understand the magic of this place.
This land where palm trees and willows will spring from the dry earth, bringing with them an oasis in the dust. Where Paul McCartney and Ke$ha will appear at a bar with limited cell service. Where nothing will give way to something, but only if you trust that it will.