Heather Johnson: “Joshua Tree”

When driving about two hours in a southeastern direction from Los Angeles, one will come across a foreign landscape only someone as imaginative as Dr. Seuss could draw up. This foreign land is called Joshua Tree, named after the unique contorted, spiky appearing plant inhabiting the area: the Joshua tree. The place consists of a small town with neighborhoods clustered around the center that progressively scatter throughout the outskirts of the land. As one drives out of the town center and through one of the neighborhoods south a short distance, the entrance to Joshua Tree National Park can be found, where a car is asked to pay a $30 entrance fee. The pass is good for 7 days, and the majority of the money goes towards maintaining the park and providing visitor services.

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The park is littered with an endless army of Joshua trees. The trees are cartoonish. I imagine the trees moving and dancing behind my back, and then frozen in time as I turn my head to gaze out upon them.  We followed a sign down a dirt road. After a beautiful ride deeper into a branch of the park, we stop the car to take a closer look around. Joshua trees are classified as yuccas with their spiky leaves on the end of their limbs that stretch out in all different directions. I naturally found myself stretching like the Joshua trees in what could only be called yucca yoga. I am in awe of the Joshua tree forest. No tree in my life has prepared me for the sighting of one, although they aren’t even really trees, they are succulents of the agave family.

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Amongst the Joshua trees one can find large boulders and rocks prime for climbing. The boulders piece together like a puzzle, stacked on top of each other to create varying sizes of mountains throughout the park. As we drive along the paved road that directs us through the park, we come across a boulder resembling a skull. The park’s landscape unfolds as if we entered a dream state, perhaps one of Mother Nature’s.

In the town one can recognize the toll of growing tourism. I stop at Crossroads Cafe for lunch, a warm, rustic restaurant with finishes of mostly metal and wood. On our table in an acrylic tabletop display reads a message “Welcome to Joshua Tree” with a set of rules listed out beneath it. The rules are nothing fancy, rather basic considerations of respect for the most part like “Do not drive off of established roads” and “Do not climb on or hang hammocks from Joshua Trees. They are fragile! (and it is illegal).” I imagine them written out of frustration after dealing too long with the inconsiderate or thoughtless actions of visitors.

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Joshua Tree draws in people of all different lifestyles at various points in their life’s path. There are those I imagine to be the locals, older tan men with leathery skin and scraggly beards discussing philosophies over coffee; the modern hippies wrapped in linen, dawning lightly colored hair with bangs that most would consider too short, quietly moaning about not being able to use the cafe’s restroom because they chose to spend the afternoon barefoot; and those visiting from the city dressed in bohemian disguises hoping to go unnoticed and achieve self realization in the desert. To match the diverse crowd, Joshua Tree is home to an array of businesses including eclectic vintage stores, a yoga studio, and boutique transplants like those found in Los Angeles. What once could have been considered a barren wasteland, now a sort of growing hipster haven in the desert.

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We stayed in a small Airbnb on the outskirts of town. The place was a small, well decorated and clean geometric dome guesthouse with a private patio that housed a small blow up pool and allowed dogs.  Joshua Tree is not lacking in interesting Airbnbs, even on a budget, from stylish mid century houses to dreamy bohemian airstreams, anyone can find their favorite flavor.

I was excited for the sun to go down, and the chance to look out at a starry night sky. We drove down the road into further darkness. We passed houses that grew further apart in distance. We stopped the car and turned off the lights. Too much time in the city, we found ourselves afraid of such darkness and made our way back to the Airbnb. Determined to see the stars before heading in for the night, we laid down on the ground next to our Airbnb and looked up at the stars. The car’s headlights facing away from us provided a comforting night light. I could already see more stars than I have ever counted in Los Angeles, or even the suburbs outside of the city. The headlights turned off, and we are left in the dark, only to be lit by the glow of the milky way.

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(All photos by Geoff Owens.)

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