Joshua Tree

It’s hard to believe it’s almost a year now since we went to Joshua Tree.

Yucca brevifolia is evidently a species of agave, although until DNA tests proved otherwise it was believed to be a lily. I imagine it would be quite unsettling to find out you were not what you always thought you were, but since some of the Joshua Tree specimens are up to 100 years old, they are probably above all that nomenclature nonsense. They are what they are, and people come and go and say what they say.

I read that humans have probably lived in the area of this 800,000 acre park for close to 5,000 years. It’s easy to imagine: this is the kind of place that gives meaning to the word “primitive.”

The first time I ever heard of such a thing as a Joshua Tree was during my Anais Nin phase, back in my 20’s when all I wanted was to be a writer. It’s a little difficult to imagine Nin, the quintessential avant garde author, traipsing through the desert; but I remember that the landscape stirred her imagination. If it doesn’t stir yours, you have no imagination.

As I’ve told you, Mary and I went to Joshua Tree on the first day of my last annual visit because I thought it would be a good place to see the Perseids, the August meteor shower. You know how you have a litmus test for great lovers? Mine has been this: Who will take me to see the meteor shower?

Until Floyd came along, prospects fell like bowling pins. They. Just. Couldn’t. They couldn’t remember, or make it, or schedule it, or something.

Even though my dear husband has – every single year – made it his business to take me somewhere to see the Perseids, I thought that since their peak was scheduled for the day I arrived at Mary’s, the two of us should go directly from LAX to the desert. And so we did.

In planning this excursion, I selected the Joshua Tree Inn as our lodgings. It looked appropriately funky and suited to the wild landscape without looking shady. Its rooms had been occupied by a range of musicians since the ’60’s. While staying in the Graham Parsons Suite seemed a little morbid (he bears the distinction of having died at the Joshua Tree Inn), I thought the Donovan Suite would do just fine.

Graham Parsons was a very early figure in the fusion of country music with rock. Pictures of his long-haired, bell-bottomed hippy youthful self made me think of Austin’s Armadillo World Headquarters – a famous landmark that fell to the wrecking ball just before I arrived. Music fans at the Armadillo lived at the intersection of country and rock, and Austin lives there still. I felt connected.

The landscape of the Joshua Tree Inn is gently swept sand and drought-loving plants, with little art objects here and there. There was a little Graham Parsons memorial, with his guitar and boots, lots of candles, and an assortment of beer bottles and objects generally associated with the use of mood-altering substances.

It was remarkably peaceful for a motel right on the “main drag.” We spent a fair amount of time in old wicker chairs in one corner of the veranda, sheltered from the rain. The next morning we would drink our coffee here watching the housekeepers come and go with sheets and mops, taking time to talk to the sweet-natured baby in the stroller, who’d accompanied his mother to work.

Leave it to us, to arrive in the desert to await a clear view of a meteor shower, and encounter a thunderstorm. We heard and saw it coming in over the park, a blast of cool air, deep rumblings, and a smattering of rain.

When the storm abated, we ventured out into the evening. Our first stop was at a convenience store, for bottled water and chocolate to get us through the long night ahead. The clerk told us that the storm had been so ferocious up in the park that one old-timer had, in an extremely rare episode, departed the park for the lowlands.

It was late evening when we first drove into that astonishing landscape.

Hills and hills and hills. Trees that looked as if they lived on air.
Great distances, and darkness moving in. We drove for a while, then returned to town for dinner and early bedtime. After all, we’d be waking up at 2:00 a.m. to come back into the park for the best part of the meteor shower.
In the middle of the night, then, Mary and I lay on the hood of the rental car, in a small parking lot, among other meteor-gazers, and watched the sky – by that hour perfectly clear. I think I saw a lot more meteors than Mary did. When we went back to the Inn we lay our by the pool for another hour or so. I just love meteor showers.
The next morning, we gave a certain amount of thought to our route through the park and then back to the freeway toward LA. It hadn’t really occurred to us that you could drive for two solid hours and still be in the same park. Of course, we were taking our time.
We saw miles and miles of arid mountains. I thought, if the moon had trees it would look like this.
Then when you drive close enough to those mountains you see they are not the kind of mountains you are used to. You’re used to mountains that have soil, meadows, creeks running fast, and small flowers growing everywhere. In winter, you can ski on them.
These mountains were made of rocks. Piles and heaps and cascades of rocks. Rocks and rocks and rocks.
So many precarious, balancing, perching rocks.
Here’s a man napping a hundred feet off the desert floor, in the middle of a scorching day.
It seemed impossible to go through this landscape without a sense of time: what lasts, what disappears. Even the fragile surface of the earth, subject to change with and without notice.
From a high vantage point we peered down into a curvaceous valley that looked like any other curvaceous desert floor. But a clear line crossing the landscape told us this is not just any valley. The sign says that if you stand on this exact spot one year from this day, you will be two inches southeast of where you are standing right now.
Even the most long-lived plants come and go, even huge hunks of the world we walk on move from here to there. Mary and I are two best friends for almost half our lives now, and will be until one of us can’t stick around any longer. We commemorate our friendship in many ways – some serious, most quite light-hearted. You’ve seen her adirondack chairs, painted in memory of this excursion.
We also brought to our separate houses small wind chimes, memories of this trip that speak in the wind’s voice:

hers in California, mine in Texas, 

speaking at a distance, one language, in the same wind.

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