Letter from Planet Joshua Tree

The Earth gave us Joshua Tree 100 million years ago when subterranean magma cooled, leaving a series of giant angular rocks underground. Eventually, years and years later, water flowed and washed away the soil and inselbergs— giant rock formations— were revealed scattered all over the desert floor for climbers, photographers and L.A. rockstars to explore at all hours of the day, and night. 

I found myself there a few weeks ago on a pilgrimage to photograph the geology and the strange Seuss-like trees that can be seen on countless calendars and Instagrams. Something about Joshua Tree awakens the mystic in us. The purple light cast over the rocks. The strange hidden nooks and crags to explore. The vastness. The quiet.

Even for the godless, Joshua Tree is a spiritual place. It’s close to impossible to visit and not think about our space in the cosmos and the history before us. This is the power of many great geological sites. 

Joshua Tree National Park is the size of Rhode Island and an hour-plus drive from Palm Springs. Weary of the mid-day heat, we pulled up early in the afternoon to the Park’s visitor center, read the warning signs about water, not feeding the wildlife and staying on the trail, and we headed in. With a full tank of gas and snacks, we weren’t quite sure where the trip would take us, but we were prepared enough. Into Joshua Tree was all we wanted. 

On the road through the park a natural high set in. While many choose the park as a backdrop for their hallucinogenic explorations, no psychotropics are necessary to achieve supreme satisfaction there, just a sense of adventure and an open mind. 

Our mission was photography and memory cards fill up quickly in Joshua Tree. We traveled from inselberg to inselberg with two film cameras and three digitals (including our iPhones). Like many deserts, Joshua Tree is actually teeming with life, despite its barren appearance. Snakes curl up in the shade of trees, spiders crawl out from the rocks, and curious foxes introduce themselves to visitors from a distance.   

An hour before sunset near Jumbo Rocks, we found an area we wanted to shoot. There were two big outcroppings and in between them a small tucked-away valley that would have been our campsite, had we had gear. As the sun disappears behind the rocks in Joshua Tree, something of a photography feeding frenzy begins to happen. Cool lavender light washes over the valley. The rocks turn a soft pink and orange. And in the distance, a far off plain lights up amber. Everywhere you turn, there’s another picture to take. 

And then, suddenly, it’s dark. Very dark. Wide open views of the stars emerge and the cold begins to set in. And even though you know it’s going to happen quickly, it’s always a fast passage to the dark side of the moon. So it was then that we got back in our car for the long windy drive back to the world.