The Joshua Tree National Monument, about 140 miles east, and a mile uphill, of Los Angeles, is a landscape that could (and probably has) given rise to religions.
During the seventies and eighties, I came here regularly to wander the desert and try to map out my life. Like many, many people who frequented Joshua Tree in those days, my experience was occasionally enhanced, or at least altered, by complex organic chemical compounds derived from mushrooms and/or cacti.
Those days are long gone, but the desert is still here and still awe-inspiring. I'm now in the unusual position (for me) of being between books, and it seemed like a perfect time to come back. It's my first time here in ten years, but everything is pretty much where I left it.
On one of those earlier visits, I had an extremely vivid image of my life at the time as a dark, rough-sided tunnel through which I was crawling, somewhat apprehensively, on hands and knees. At the same moment, I realized that the tunnel was an illusion I had created and that I could, at any time I had the courage, stand up and live in the light. At that period, I had a job I loathed and was doing nothing that gave me personal satisfaction, much less fun, and I saw nothing on the horizon to change that. As a result of that visit to Joshua Tree, I started to write my first book.
It was terrible. But it had a beginning, middle, and end, and I had learned that there was a way out of the cave. I owe that to Joshua Tree.
Like life in general, the desert up here is full of things you don't want to run into. This is at the top of my list. It's a cholla (choy-a), a relatively low-growing cactus that's simply all spines. Life in the desert has evolved in obedience to a single rule: Don't steal my water, and the cholla has overachieved. Each spine is housed inside a papery sheath, barbed only to go in, and never, ever, to come out. So when you blunder into a cholla, even after you pull away, you have the little sheath as a memento of your encounter. Hurts worse than elevator music.
The unremarkable little hill to the right sparkles with quartz crystals. Walk across it for a minute or two and just let your eye follow the sparkles at your feet. Pick them up, being careful of the vicious little cacti they like to cluster around. The smaller crystals tend to be diamond-clear, while the bigger ones are usually occluded. There's a metaphor there somewhere.
Here's five minute's worth:
Joshua Tree has a stony history in several senses of the word. After the immortal Gram Parsons finally overdosed, his remains were stolen from a funeral home and brought up here to be cremated, and the Monument has hosted the Personal Psychedelic Olympics for tens of thousands of wayfarers. As though another spiritual overlay were needed, the Native Americans who first called the place home left behind petroglyphs that are almost all that remain of them because they walked so lightly here. Who knows, in a landscape full of marvels, why they chose to ornament this person-high hollow, with its natural stone window?
Tim -- Sunday