I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For — But I’m Close

EDITOR’S NOTE: Please welcome Shellevation’s first guest blogger! I gave my husband, Kenley, the reins to the site temporarily so he could write about his visit last month to Joshua Tree National Park.

As anyone who knows me can attest, I am not the outdoor type. I crave my creature comforts, and I bruise and burn far too easily. God knows what would become of me were I left unattended in the wilderness.

But Joshua Tree National Park has always held a certain sway in my mind. Part of its charm is no doubt entwined with a 1987 album release by U2. For whatever that band’s latter-day sins, “The Joshua Tree” remains a powerful, utterly non-ironic landmark record, and I learned a lot from it.

Yet the area is more than just an album title. The landscape is so striking — particularly the western half of the park, which is Mojave Desert habitat — that it seems almost like an alien moon. In fact, I’m reminded of the place now every time I see pictures from the Curiosity rover on Mars. The park is so gorgeously solemn and bare … well, except for the Joshua trees themselves, of course, which dot the park in every direction.

So when Shelley and I moved to L.A., Joshua Tree National Park immediately landed on our list of “Things We Have to See or Do While Out West.” And at a mere two hours and change from our apartment, it made a perfect day trip for Malia the husky and me:

malia-car

Shelley had to work that day, so I wanted company on my journey. Technically, pets are restricted, as they are in many national parks. They must remain on a leash at all times, and they have to be kept off main trails, staying within 100 feet of the highway. But I was passing through for a relatively short period of time, so Malia never posed much of a threat to the environment.

I stopped at the park’s first public entrance, walked into the ranger station and explained my situation: I was going to be spending only about four hours at most in Joshua Tree before heading back to L.A., so I needed advice on hitting just the big “must-sees” nearby. The ranger was friendly and happy to oblige, highlighting my trail map with several possible stops, including:

  • Hidden Valley
  • Cap Rock
  • Keys View
  • Skull Rock
  • Oasis of Mara

It was then that I realized just how vast Joshua Tree is. According to the map, my brief drive was going to cover barely one-tenth or so of the full park.

joshua-tree-map

When I drove through the park gate, a few hours before sunset, it was almost as if I’d entered another country. The temperature dropped dramatically, the ground on either side of the highway became rocky and burnt-orange, and the park’s signature trees started filling in my side-view mirrors like an army:

orange-dirt

These weren’t the first Joshua trees I’d spotted; you start glimpsing them as you enter the aptly named city of Twentynine Palms — a tree or two sprouting up near a road sign, or a gnarled and derelict specimen arching over a roadway.

But their sheer numbers are overwhelming once you enter the park. I must have pulled the car off the road 10 times in those first 10 minutes, trying to capture with my pitiful iPhone the bizarre beauty surrounding me on all sides:

joshua-tree-main

The Joshua tree isn’t actually a “tree” at all, but a species of the yucca desert plant. As the park brochure notes, they can grow to more than 40 feet tall, and from February to April they bloom with cream-colored flowers. American Indians used the plant to make baskets and sandals, as well as the occasional meal. Here’s how the park says the plant got its name:

“By the mid-19th century, Mormon immigrants had made their way across the Colorado River. Legend has it that these pioneers named the tree after the biblical figure Joshua, seeing the limbs of the tree as outstretched in supplication, guiding the travelers westward.”

By this point in the trip, Malia the husky was also “outstretched in supplication” in the back seat, so I pulled off at a picnic/camping area and let her roam around with me a little bit. I don’t know what it’s like in the rest of the park, but I was struck by how odd this setup seemed here. It didn’t at all resemble campsites from the movies. There were no tents or sleeping bags or open fires or roasting marshmallows or hippies with guitars.

Instead, it appeared to me that RVs and campers here apparently just pull off the main drag, park by the roadside and hang out. Some folks were gathered on the roofs of their vehicles, and others had set up folding chairs right outside. But it didn’t particularly seem like anyone around me was “preparing to camp out” anytime soon.

Maybe that’s how it is in the winter. Too cold to sleep outside in those months?

Still, there was plenty of natural beauty to drink in.

cactus

rocks

flower

rest-stop

My main goal was to get to Keys Point, a lookout spot that the ranger had recommended, at an elevation of some 5,185 feet. I anticipated some dramatic views there, and I wasn’t disappointed. I went from an alien moon, it seemed, to Middle Earth.

From this point in the park, you can see all the way to the mysterious Salton Sea, that faint, shimmering body of water in the background:

keys-point

The Salton Sea is a shallow, extraordinarily salty “rift lake” that was created quite accidentally around the turn of the last century. The California Development Co. was attempting to construct irrigation canals in the region, but clearly things didn’t go exactly as planned. Basically, thanks to major flooding mishaps, the town of Salton was eventually submerged, and the continued intermittent flooding actually led to the construction of the Hoover Dam.

Like Joshua Tree, The Salton Sea is by turns bizarre and fascinating. There’s no outflow, so the ecosystem is in a constant state of flux. Its salinity is higher than you’ll find in seawater, which causes massive “kills,” in which dead fish are left awash on its shore. What’s more, it’s a known geothermal hot spot, with mud volcanoes belching gas and steam into the air.

Oh, and it sits over the notorious San Andreas Fault. It’s almost mythic, this place. Like Mount Doom.

Naturally, The Salton Sea is also on my list of places to visit out West.

More views from Keys Point:

downed-tree

sunset

Disaster nearly befell me after Keys Point. Not the “127 Hours” kind of disaster, granted, but still bad news for any blogger. The battery in my iPhone (which I’d used to navigate myself to the park) died, taking my camera with it.

Fortunately, I had a backup. Shelley had left her “Bloggie” camera in the glove box. It, too, had only a little juice left, but it was enough for me to snap some photos of my intrepid partner as we explored the formations near Skull Rock on our way out of the park.

malia-hiking

malia-rocks-two

malia-rocks-three

Joshua Tree — what little I saw of it, anyway — made an impression on me, and it was a nice adventure to share with Malia. It was the first time I’d spent an entire day with my best girl in … well … far too long.

Next time, I hope Shelley can join us — though she may not be up for a dip in The Salton Sea just yet.

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4 thoughts on “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For — But I’m Close

  1. Well done here, Kenley. The older I get, the more I begin to think that U2’s “The Joshua Tree” is indeed their defining album. I really hope to see this place for myself the next time I visit.

    Jay Babcock, editor over at Arthur Magazine, lives in JT, and his blog about life there is pretty great:

    http://learningtolivehere.wordpress.com

    He’s got a cabin for rent, as well, so perhaps we can all stay a while next time.

  2. Thanks for the info on the Joshua Tree and the park; sounds like a great place for a fiield trip; the pictures were fantastic, too.

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