pulses of light stream
from the milky ink basin
of Joshua’s night
If I was unable to appreciate nature in any capacity—if I could disregard the raw beauty in a seedling’s will to harness the desert deeply and extensively with a barbed vengeance for hundreds of years—if I had come to Joshua Tree National Park at a much earlier time in my life, I might have walked out of this experience completely unaffected, unchanged. I’m still trying to decide if it was a good thing.
That day, our mid-afternoon hike through the park turned into a slow bake, but we persisted through the vast, melting waste into the evening. In a new landscape on which to rest Dali’s orange, ant-covered clock and softening Camemberts, we passed beneath the bizarre, grotesque limbs of Joshua trees offering little to no cover, stretched out in supplication like twisted fingernails overdue for a ‘cure.
Later I learned that survival for the desert yucca depends on well-timed rains and a winter freeze to stimulate flowering in the spring—a unique weather concoction that has me convinced of the Mojave’s true nature as a portal into Earth’s own climatic fantasies, a terrestrial phantasmagoria.
The temperature dipped with the sun, the fervid midday heat instantly forgotten when without warning, a sudden silence stole over our small patch of desert. Standing at the head or the tail of an unmarked trail, while the surrounding rocks blushed orange and the Joshua trees burnt black, an awareness slowly seeped under my skin and settled in my stomach. A moment later I was doused with an overwhelming awe for the Joshua tree’s resilience in an impossible world. I shivered in the wake of that thought, from the fear of a wilderness so formidable, so unrelenting and capricious a master as to strain and wrench at a life until it contorts, a grudging bend of the back and brow, even as it sharpens its spines in angry submission.
With profound humility, I felt an intense compassion for beautiful laborers, fighting for life in other deserts as savage as the mighty Mojave. My soul was paralyzed in wonder and respect for the unforgiving reality that beyond me, before me and after me, there is so much shifting sand, so many ravaged Joshua trees bearing thorns in their struggle to remain above the surface. Passing thoughts so banal as to be taken for granted in other settings transform into terrible truths in the desert, or perhaps I’m just ridiculously naive to think that more people should become desert wanderers.
In this desert dreamscape, where a life is a line drawn in the sand, where survival is balanced on the tip of a spine, where existence means transcendence,
where night winds whip the
stars falling on Coachella—
We sat on Keys View, perched atop the Little San Bernardino Mountains, the lights along the Milky Way in competition with the glowing radiance of the Eternal Sunshine Valley below. Our heads nodding a lazy swing, we drank in Coachella’s panorama before turning our faces up to swallow the glittering expanse of the midnight sky, ears attuned to the nighttime desert soundtrack. Searching for dippers and a lion’s front paw, we spoke in whispers because it seemed appropriate or because we weren’t really paying attention to the words, just reassuring each other with a tiny bit of familiarity, a comfortable presence in that fearsome depth.
a coyote howls
Not just beautiful, though—the stars are like the trees in the forest, alive and breathing. And they’re watching me. What I’ve done up till now, what I’m going to do—they know it all. Nothing gets past their watchful eyes. As I sit there under the shining night sky, again a violent fear takes hold of me. My heart’s pounding a mile a minute, and I’ve never given them more than a passing thought before. Not just stars—how many other things haven’t I noticed in the world, things I know nothing about? I suddenly feel helpless, completely powerless. And I know I’ll never outrun that awful feeling.
Haruki Murakami, Kafka on the Shore