My first introduction to the desert was the Sinai – the intense August heat, the Bedouin tent Sue and I had to take refuge into during the hottest hours of the day, the riotous shades of pink and orange that would dance on the mountains at dawn and dusk. And the respite of the Mediterranean nearby.
My first introduction to Joshua Tree was through U2 and the iconic black and white Anton Corbjin’s photo of the band, huddled to the left of the shot, the bare desert mountains in the background. Surprisingly, despite having scoured all corners of California and put some miles on other deserts on different continents, I had never been to Joshua Tree, a mere three-hour car ride from where I live, a travelling gap I was intent on filling over the week-end.
With the temperatures in the high desert back to acceptable levels and with Ottie in tow, I left brimming with U2 fuelled expectations I couldn’t probably fulfill: creative bursts, magical sightings, deep revelations (not having a stash of ‘shrooms was my first handicap).
Fully aware that dogs are not allowed on trails, I edged my bets on driving the Geological trail and, being a bit of a princess averse to camping – it’s that having to make in the bushes and not being able to wash that always dampened my most adventurous enterprises – I confided in my traveller’s luck in finding decent accommodation for the two of us, in the full knowledge that Palm Springs was a mere 45 minutes away anyway.
The town of Joshua Tree proper would have etched itself in my European imagination as one of those iconic American forlorn locales, embodied by countless movies, were it not for the fact I have been living here too long to see for what it is – a dump, cut in two by the highway, but a dump that caters to mystical seeking tourism and Los Angelenos who need their gluten-free vegan sandwich, of which I am ashamed I also partook, looking much better than the alternatives, a Mexican joint or a sad sandwich shop. The Two Sisters Cafe was manned by super friendly girls and very slow cooks but I would heartily recommend it for a pit stop before venturing into the park, where nothing is available: no gas, no water or food.
$15 will buy a seven-day entry pass. Camping is permitted pretty much everywhere you can park your car (there are also many camping sites proper) and you take most trails at your own risks. Dying of dehydration is not unheard of and all the rangers do stress making sure you have enough water and gas for the length of time you are planning to stay.
The Joshua trees are the first to welcome you, sprouting at every turn, followed by gigantic rock formations that look like constructions of a deranged mind. But what makes a desert more than just a pile of rocks (and a nightmarish environment for your skin) is its stillness. Once you opt for one of the more off the beaten paths, unpaved trails, where you will encounter only a few souls who will generously advise you as to the perils you are about to encounter, if you stop and get out of the car and sit still, you will be able to embrace the utter silence. A desert rat will scour now and then, the wind will murmur softly and a deep sense of aloneness will prevail, Ottie notwithstanding. The canyons and valleys are quite majestic and make it impossible to remember that, a mere 3 hours away, lies a sprawling metropolis.
Exiting the park through Dillon Road (where you could actually enter without paying the fee, provided your car can stomach a rocky river wash where the once paved road ends in disrepair and two foot falls on either side) the lone traveller is confronted by road signs pockmarked by bullets, proof that drunken idiots have nothing better to do on Friday nights. After hours spent in solitude, with no visions to brag about, it all felt rather spooky and Ottie and I fled from the town with wings on our feet.
That night, we both fell into an exhausted and deep sleep.