Sunday, January 10, 2010

Desert High

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?

Magic abounds.

Tim -- Sunday


  1. Tim - Although you consider your first book to be terrible, it was a success in that you had an end. Whether writing a letter, a term paper, or a comment to a post on a blog, it is always the end that is hardest to resolve.

    Religious experiences, chemically induced or not, are about ends. Often these are the ends of beginnings. The Bible is full of desert moments, perhaps because the barren landscape induces introspection.

    The petroglyphs adorn a rock that looks, to me, like part of a human face. There is the forehead behind which is the center of rational thought and the eyes, the windows of the soul. One eye is larger. Do we see better when we narrow the field or when we look at the big picture?

    Paul Hewson used Joshua Tree as his inspiration. Although it likely labels me as a music lightweight, "I Still Haven't Found What I'm Looking For" is a pretty good anthem.
    There isn't anything to look forward to if you have everything you think you want. The search can be more fun, more exciting, and more enlightening than the discovery.

    At least Hewson didn't use the crystals as a metaphor nor did he get into the legend behind the name of the tree. For this he deserves credit.

    Magic can be found when one remembers to look.


  2. Hi, Beth --

    Religious experiences come when I least expect them. I've had them in chemically altered states and at times when I was as straight as a church organist. One of the most profound walloped me in the middle of the night, afloat in the Andaman Sea, when I looked behind the tiny longtail boat I was in and saw that we'd churned a long line of green phosphorescence in our wake. A whole chunk of metaphor about being alive fell into place, along with a renewed realization that nature defaults to beauty of the most evanescent kind.

    I walked around for days vibrating to all that. Even though I don't much believe in a deity that's personal in any meaningful way.

    That U2 album remains my favorite of theirs, and I hardly think it's lightweight. And who knows? He might have used the crystals if he'd found any. I personally find tedious the mystical qualities and mysterious vibrations so many attribute to crystals, but they're pretty. And not evanescent.

    I don't see the human face in the rock, but I can tell you from personal experience that it's an absolutely great place to sit. And I don't think it's any coincidence that monotheism arose in the desert -- for as long as there have been people with access to deserts, they've been rattling up phantasms out on the sand. Maybe the silence has something to do with it. If you're going to hear God's voice anywhere, you'll hear it here.

  3. It's a fascinating place - one I'd love to visit, as somewhat of a Gram Parson's devotee, though the morbid farce of his death and stealing of his corpse has, bizarrely, burnished a legend that should have grown from his music alone.

    On another musical note, one of my favourite albums of last year was by Earl Pickens and Family, a country-fried version of the whole of U2's The Joshua Tree. Sounds gimmicky, but it works. I'm no U2 fan but stripped back you have to admire the songs. Worth seeking out if you like both kinds of music - country AND western.

  4. Hi, Dan -- Joshua Tree is amazing in part because it encompasses desert at about 1500 feet above sea level, all the way up to almost 4500. Completely different terrains. I spend most of my time in the higher reaches, speaking literally now, but it's beautiful down below, too.

    And you and I could probably swap playlists. I'm downloading the Pickens CD as I write. Country/western is high up on my list of favorite genres -- probably 1/3 of the 7000 or so songs on my iPod. At the end of my books, I often acknowledge the music I listened to as I wrote it, and the list is always heavy in Emmylou Harris, Parsons, Vince Gill, the Avett Brothers, Mary Gauthier, Lucinda Williams, and on and on and on.

    And I know of few more perfect albums than GRIEVOUS ANGEL.

  5. Wow, Tim, looking at those names we could certainly swap playlists. I love them all. And Grievous Angel is utterly perfect, I agree. It's in my top five.

    When I completed my first novel, amid pretty trying personal circumstances, I fully intended to thank Caitlin Cary and Thad Cockrell for their album Begonias (think a modern Gram and Emmylou), which helped me alot, but I clear forgot. Thankfully, I saw them play the Borderline in London and thanked them personally. Caitlin, showing a wicked sense of humour, said she'd rather have the thanks in print for my readers to see and hunt down their records.

    I always write with a bit of music on the go, sometimes even if it's just a murmur.

    Think I've just got an idea for my next blog post...

  6. Dan, you're costing me money. Now I have to find "Begonias" and DL it. But I'm loving "The Joshua Tree." Talk about a fresh idea.

    The center section of my new book is populated almost exclusively by young women, and I wrote most of it to Tegan & Sara -- not country, but great nevertheless.

  7. Thanks for sharing. Never been there but may have to make a trip.


  8. Hey, Tim, you bring back old memories. My first and only visit to Joshua Tree National Monument was in 1963, courtesy of USMC desert survival training. It is, indeed, a beautiful area, but there is much I didn't see. Our time at Joshua Tree was severely limited, and the Monument served more as an open-air classroom than as an actual experiential training facility. There's said to be, somewhere within the Monument's boundaries, a vast reservoir of cold, pure water hidden inside a cave. Just what lost, weary, delirious desert travelers need, if only they can find it.

  9. Ahh, Phil, you had very different experiences. I floated in on the last remaining fumes of the hippie ethos -- I would have gone barefoot if not for the cacti -- and you were suited and sweating, humping stuff over the sand. You really should go back.

    There may be a hidden reservoir. It's hard to imagine anything that couldn't be found in Joshua Tree if one only knew where to look.

    By the way, they just added a couple of hundred thousand acres to the preserve. Now that's what I call progress.

  10. Progress, indeed, Tim. I hope they'll add another hundred thousand acres at some point in the future.

    Would love to pay another visit to Joshua Tree, but doubt that I ever will. Back in my truck-driving daze, I passed by the preserve numerous times, but never had time to stop.