I’m skeptical the first time I see a Joshua tree.
“Are you sure that’s one?” I question my husband, who’s driving us to Joshua Tree National Park from Palm Springs.”That looks like some kind of giant yucca plant.”
The closer we get to the park, the more of these strange trees we see. It becomes obvious that the trees that look like cactus-palm hybrids, reaching toward the heavens with outstretched arms, are indeed Joshua trees. They’re so cool-looking that a national park is named after them. Also, you might have heard of The Joshua Tree, U2’s best-selling album. Evidently, Bono thought that anything that could live in the harsh desert environment and not just survive but thrive, should become the symbol for the band’s fifth musical endeavour, says George Land, community outreach for the park, who guides us around for the day.
“That album really introduced the tree to the world and gave it international notoriety,” says Land.
Almost 30 years after the album’s release, two million visitors come to Joshua Tree National Park each year to see the trees growing on parched ground and in between fantastical clusters of red granite rocks. The park protects a desert ecosystem — the Colorado and Mojave deserts come together here — that spans 800,000 acres (larger than Rhode Island) and is home to 17 different kinds of cacti, plus reptiles, birds and mammals. Even though it’s midday and the sun is beating down a scorching (for February) 29C, we see a jack rabbit hopping through scrub from a distance. But the show-stoppers are the red rocks, and the green-and-gold Dr. Seuss-like trees set against a blue sky.
“Supposedly, Joshua Tree has 24 different vortexes,” Land tells us as we drive deeper into the park. “We have long been a destination for artists, musicians, photographers and filmmakers, to come and nurse their muse.”
I’m no stranger to natural places purported to have magical powers or healing properties. While exploring Machu Picchu in Peru, I settled my hands on a wall that celebrity and New Age proponent Shirley MacLaine had, during an earlier visit, declared to be a source of mystical energy. I was in awe of the ancient Incan city, but all I felt was a cold rock. In other words, if it possessed New Age powers, they were lost on me.
In Sedona, Ariz. we visited a few of the supposed vortexes and I waited for a kind of mental calm or spiritual tingling to overcome me. Again, nothing. I saw pretty rocks in a surreal landscape.
In Joshua Tree, I don’t close my eyes and wait for an epiphany. Instead, I take in the phantasmic sweep of red, rounded rocks erupting out of mountains, and blooming Joshua trees reaching skyward. Perhaps the landscape’s power lies in its ability to bewitch from beauty alone? If that’s the case, the creative souls before me have come by their inspiration honestly.