In Search of the Joshua Tree
I care a lot about visiting the various sites of rock and roll history, whether it’s the former site of the Cavern Club or the Finsbury Park Astoria or the Palladium or 213 Bowery or the bank that used to be the Fillmore East. But clearly I am close to something very much resembling insane to wake up at 6 a.m. in Las Vegas, rent a car, and head four hours into the desert to look for a dead tree.
Yes. We went looking for The Joshua Tree.
This all started a few years ago, when I brought up a Bono quote from a Rolling Stone interview back in the day, about how they didn’t remember where the Joshua Tree that was photographed on the album was. Bono thought it was a good thing, because otherwise some fan would turn up at a concert with it: “Bono! I’ve got the tree!”
“That’s not true,” the boyfriend said. “They found the tree. It died a while ago, but the fans know where the tree is.”
Now, contrary to popular belief, the tree is not in Joshua Tree, or even in the Mojave Desert. It’s not even technically in Death Valley National Park, but rather just outside its boundaries. Thanks to the internet and the industriousness of the U2 community, within a few hours we had photographs, Google Earth screen captures and GPS coordinates at our fingertips. We just had to wait until a trip to LA or Las Vegas gave us enough time to make the trip ourselves – and this year was the year.
We watched videos and talked to people who had gone and planned and planned and planned some more. We rented a car with a GPS and satellite radio, stopped at a Starbucks on Windmill Lane (not kidding), and headed up into the mountains.
This would have been an excellent plan had the satellite radio worked, and had the GPS accepted longitude and latitude coordinates. This is a dead plant in the desert, it wasn’t like we could just enter “the Joshua tree” into the GPS and it would take us to where we wanted to go (although we ended up having data signal–of all things–and it’s now on Foursquare). So much for being sure we were absolutely in possession of the exact coordinates.
But we are not stupid. We were smart enough to have brought a RCA plug for our iPhones and the SO had even burned some emergency CD’s of a 1987 Chicago radio broadcast, just in case. He plugged the last intersection before the location of the tree into the GPS and we figured out how to reset the trip odometer on the car so we could find the location by watching mileage. We had printed out maps, we had screenshots of Google Maps on the phones.
Off into the desert we drove.
The Oceans 11 quote about still being in the middle of the fucking desert once you get out of Las Vegas becomes relevant about 15 minutes outside of town, as you head up and over actual mountains and into the middle of nowhere. Pahrump, the only town of any substance between LV and Death Valley was a blip of casinos and strip malls, and 10 minutes later we made a left turn towards Death Valley and two stop signs later had left all of that behind.
We saw wild horses. We saw a coyote crossing the road. When civilization of any size approached, you could see it miles ahead in the distance, because there was nothing else out there. We had brought water and snacks–and if I had to do it again I would have doubled the water and the snacks and brought more warm clothing, because if the car had broken down we would have been waiting a very long time for help. We never passed one law enforcement or official vehicle, and for the entire four hour drive, I never had a car in front of me. We would see cars pulled over on the side of the road and I would mentally prepare to stop and ask if they were okay, but in every single case, there was someone with a huge camera on a tripod taking advantage of the winter morning desert light.
We made a few stops to take photos and one to pay our national park admission fee, but mostly, we kept driving. I was worried about finding the tree and losing the light and so we would do any extra sightseeing on the way back. We talked about U2 driving around between Death Valley and the Mojave for three weeks 25 years ago (25 years ago the week we were there, just by coincidence), and how overwhelming all of this must have been for four guys from Ireland, where there was nothing at all like the wilderness surrounding us on all four sides.
For me, the desert is all about the silence. I guess it’s the thing that stands out for a city girl, more than anything else. And then the light, that amazing desert light, especially in the winter. The air, even when there’s dust blowing it’s cleaner than an average city street corner. The stars at night, the true, deep black, the absence of ambient city light. The colors are muted, the horizon stretches so far ahead you have to strain to see it, no dead-ending in New Jersey at the edge of the island.
I took the wheel for the drive out and am almost sorry that I did because I couldn’t take any photographs. I kept telling the SO to take his camera out and take pictures of the things I couldn’t. I would set up the shot in my head and tell him, “Take a photo of that. Now, take a photo of that. Wait, that. Did you get that?” He set up a tiny tripod on the dashboard and filmed movies of us driving through the desert. The scenery is unbelievable, awe-inspiring, purple mountains majesty and all of that. You feel tiny and insignificant and wonder about the people crazy enough to walk through this place on foot hundreds of year ago.
We reached our first official stopping place, Panamint Springs, a little before noon. Gas was $5.38 and we were at half a tank. We got out of the car and stretched, put $20 worth of gas in the tank, used the bathroom and their wifi, and bought some drinks before getting back on the road for what would end up being the worst part of the drive. The mountain pass before the valley before Panamint Springs was a steep grade and twisty and windy but the road was wide and felt reasonably safe. The road out of Panamint Springs felt tiny and the absence of guard rails less than comforting. (It got to the point that when we did see guard rails, we really worried.)
I started to get excited. It was close, or at least soon, and we would be there. The odometer clicked slowly towards the magic 107 mile mark. I didn’t know what it would be like to stand there and see those mountains. I saw clouds in the distance and scowled at them, mentally telling them to get lost, that they were ruining my photographs even as I was on my way there.
And then we came around a curve and sloped downward and the odometer crawled toward the 107 mile mark and I looked to my left at the mountain range shrouded in clouds and tapped the window gently saying, “There. There it is. Look. We’re here.” The SO glanced up, but back at the map, telling me to watch for the curve to the right and that there would be a dirt road on the left and I should pull over there.
And then there was a curve to the right and the dirt road fading into the distance on the left and with a pro forma glance back and forth to make sure there was no oncoming or following traffic, I pulled off the road, stopped the car and opened the door.
“KEYS,” said the boyfriend.
We always do this when we rent a car but the special emphasis was not lost on me. We would be SOL for a very long time if we locked the keys in the car. I held them up in the air.
“NO REALLY, KEYS,” he said.
I held them up and waved them vigorously.
We assembled everything we thought we needed, went through “KEYS” one more time, shut the door and headed into the desert .
The SO took out a map and some printouts of photographs and squinted into the distance. “There,” he said, pointing at a solo, non-branched Joshua Tree plant in the distance. He held up a photo printout to get my assessment. “We start walking towards that.”
But as we reached where we were heading, we realized quickly that it was not the right place. We studied the terrain and the maps and the printouts again. (Astonishingly, I had data coverage–I couldn’t pull up Facebook on the Strip, but in the middle of nowhere Google Maps was working.) I entered the GPS coordinates, it pinpointed the location of the car. I entered another set of GPS coordinates, it pinpointed the car again.
We looked at the map one more time. The boyfriend walked over to a concrete block in the middle of nowhere but it was a sea level marker. We looked at a solo tree in the distance but it seemed too far away to be the location of the photo. They stopped at this one location because there was a tree that stood out alone and wasn’t surrounded by other ones. We considered that the solo tree in the photograph we had, adjacent to the now-dead tree, had also died. That would make things difficult without a compass or a hand-held GPS.
I started to consider the futility of this effort. I started to consider that we might not find the damn thing, after all of this. I wondered how long we would have to walk through this particular stretch of desert before the boyfriend would be willing to give up. I wondered how stubborn I myself would be about all of this. There was no way I was going to give up after coming this far. I reminded myself that we were within sight of the main road, that it was still daylight, that it wasn’t the middle of the summer, and we were not going to get lost like those Dutch tourists. The boyfriend did insist that I be within his range of sight at all times, however, and I wished I had worn my cowboy boots and not sneakers.
After a few more minutes of walking and looking at pictures and more walking, the boyfriend stopped, and pointed to two trees in the distance, down the road away from the car.
“I think we should walk this way.”
I looked in the direction he pointed in, and agreed, with the provision that there was a small rise just ahead. I wanted to get to the top of the rise, and then discuss how we would split up and do a grid search, like I was in a CSI episode, or something.
No sooner did I get to the top of the rise than I saw something, something in a color not native to the desert. It was bright green.
“Honey…” I said.
“Yeah, I see it,” he said.
We started walking briskly in that direction, and then all of a sudden, we were there.
The green box was a plastic crate that has replaced the former “U Tube,” the PVC pipe that held the logbook for people who visited the tree. The box was full of messages and mementos and had been signed by people–some very recently–from everywhere on the planet. I was slightly humbled to see signatures from Poland and Serbia, that these people from the other side of the world would make their way out to this godforsaken place in the literal middle of nowhere.
Speaking of dedicated, whoever created this plaque wins the ‘dedicated’ title. It wasn’t just that they made a bronze plaque for the location of the tree, it was that they had to truck out cement, a cement mixer, water, and shovels, and a couple of people to help dig the hole, form the frame, pour the cement, and then wait around for it to cure. Did they drive an ATV into the desert? Did they push a wheelbarrow in from the road? It would have taken several trips to figure the whole thing out, and even if you ‘lived nearby’ you’re still talking about 8 hour round-trips at a minimum.
There were some people who had made signs out of wood or metal and brought them along, but aside from writing in the logbook or on the box, the popular way of marking your presence was to create something out of rocks. There was a peace sign; there were U2 logos; there was the heart-in-a-suitcase from a previous tour. I didn’t bring anything to put into the box because I disliked the idea of adding refuse to the desert, but it might have been smart if one of us had considered bringing a pen to write in the logbook (luckily there was a working pen inside the two ziplock bags holding the very wet logbook).
The boyfriend started picking up rocks. “So, ‘dream out loud,’ or something else?”
“Dream out loud.”
“We’re going to take a picture of this and send it to our friend, and she’s going to respond, ‘You know, they’re still not going to play ‘Acrobat’.”
We laughed hard, considered that no one who wasn’t a U2 fan would find that remotely amusing, and went back to picking up rocks and positioning them in the hard winter desert ground. No soft sand in the winter.
I am amazed that the now-dead tree is still there. I am amazed that no one has stolen it or sawn pieces off to sell on eBay or even taken a leaf or a branch. Trust me, U2 fans (just like intense fans of any band, to be fair) can be a brand of crazy I don’t even want to stand near, but yet, this site was left to exist in peace without being selfishly scavenged limb from limb. Sometimes people manage to rise to their expectations.
We were starting to lose the light, and the clouds blew away from the mountains but were now over the sky as a whole, and it was getting to be time to start heading back. I took as many photographs as I could think of, although I now look at them and wonder why I dismissed certain angles, or why I didn’t walk back far enough to get the tree location properly positioned against the mountains. We took pictures of each other, we did the goofy thing where you hold up the iPhone with the tree and the mountains in the background. I thought about bringing a tripod but it was okay that I didn’t, because no photograph will ever show what it was like to stand there, to be there with someone who wanted to be there as much as I did, who didn’t think that it was dumb or stupid or idiotic to make this trip, to stand in the middle of the desert in December because 25 years ago, a Dutch photographer and four guys from Ireland decided they would shoot photos for their next album cover here.
And then, almost at the same time, we decided that we were ready to leave.
The walk back to the road from the tree was infinitely easier than our walk to it (If you park at the turnout, walk back to the drainage culvert and head in from there.) and then we were back at the car and heading back towards civilization. We stopped back at Panamint Springs for lunch (recommended, mostly because there ain’t much else, folks) and use of their free wifi, and drove back over the mountains and through the desert once again. We stopped one more time, at Zabriskie Point, the site of the album cover proper, but it was almost 4:30 by then and getting dark so any hiking around in imitation of the band had to be shelved because we still had a long way to go.
It got dark quicker than we had ever imagined and it even started snowing as we were heading over the last mountain pass between Pahrump and Las Vegas, making the drive difficult and nerve-wracking at the very end, before we descended into the bright light city again.
It was about pilgrimage, even if you look askance at assigning such a word of weight and import to a journey that seems trivial on the surface. But we go to these places because we are seeking connection, because we are looking for something divine, magical, at least other, seeking meaning or significance above and beyond what’s on the surface. I look at the vast enormity and wild beauty of the desert and wonder how it felt to four young men from Ireland. I listen to the silence and wonder what it does to the imagination of someone who constructs sound for a living. I look at a place and see it through my eyes and the eyes of everyone else who has seen that place. I stand there and try to figure out what I feel and wonder if it is what others felt standing in the same place.