Apr 4, 2022

Oh, I’m Just a Cacti Optimist: A Few Days in Joshua Tree

Remember, you’ll find everything in the last place you look

By Ed Goldman

“When flooded turn around don’t drown”
Helpful, if unpunctuated sign on rural road in Joshua Tree

When I told the guy at Fleet Feet—a store for runners, hikers, bicyclists, all-around outdoor athletes, and me—that I was buying my new shoes because I was headed to a long weekend in Joshua Tree, he cocked an eyebrow and asked sardonically, “Going to find yourself?”

It was an apt question, though for a different respondent. I had no intention of finding myself, a task I abandoned long ago even before the posse whom I’d assembled for the task dispersed.

A bougainvillea break in Palm Springs. Photo by Cynthia J. Larsen.

But for decades, Joshua Tree—the national park about an hour’s drive from Palm Springs, as well as a small town and the name of the famous inn where we’d be staying—has enjoyed a reputation as a destination for artists of every medium, hippies and stoners. (And that may have been the most redundant clause I’ve ever written.)

We stayed in the Joshua Tree Inn’s Gram Parsons room, so designated because the late musician often stayed there—and died there, as the hotel clerk warned me in advance when I made the reservation. I wondered if the clerk was fulfilling a legal obligation to tell me this, in the manner that home sellers need to disclose if someone died on the premises.

I told him it wouldn’t bother me—unless it was incumbent upon us to likewise perish there if we rented the ill-fated room. Assured that it wasn’t, we confirmed the reservation.

Edgy Cartoon

Columnist and OSSO (oh-so-significant other) have it made in the shade. Photo by Cynthia J. Larsen.

If you’re not a fan of a desert’s eerie topography, spectacular light and frequently stultifying heat, a visit to Joshua Tree is likely not on your bucket list, much less entered in your phone’s mapping app.

But if the air and vistas speak to you in a primordial whisper—and you like listening to owls hoot along with your morning coffee, read on.

Until I visited there, I wasn’t sure why kids would enjoy being piled into an SUV to go to a national park like Joshua Tree (it’s only the third one I’ve been to, sorry to report. The others were Lassen and Yosemite—and probably still are).

There aren’t any rides, video galleries, movie re-enactments, special-effects demonstrations, food concessions or concerts. But there’s staggeringly primitive beauty. There are monumental rocks to climb on and painless lessons they can learn about life.

For example, the cholla cactus garden at Joshua Tree, which has a quarter-mile footpath to negotiate, features elegant and even comical configurations of the plant—some that offer more imagination-sparking interpretations than passing clouds—as well as the harsh reality but subsequent durability of nature. We’d noticed that the bright yellow tops of the cacti were supported by brown-black crumbly stems or trunks.

A park ranger explained that the latter were the parts of the plants succumbing to the dearth of water: that even the desert here gets 10 inches of rain in a less-than-normal year. But this year, Joshua Tree had received only about four inches at the time we visited. That’s the harsh part. The durability part is that when the plant’s supports flake into oblivion, they connect with the soil and sprout new cholla cacti. It’s life, death and rebirth writ humbly, with nary a religious leader nor sermon in eyesight or earshot.

Some of Joshua Tree National Park’s vistas—when seen from even a thousand feet up (it peaks at 5,278 feet)—form a vast, pastel planet-scape. You can see why George Lucas many years ago used the desert to depict other, often inhospitable worlds. This is breathtaking geography at its most unforgiving.

Edgy Cartoon

Columnist reacts to being needled. Photo by Cynthia J. Larsen.

If you’ve made it this far, you’re probably wondering, “Hey! How can I get my Romneys* on some of that Joshua Tree real estate?” Here’s a sampling of advertising copy from Desert Moon Pictorial Real Estate, the local homebuyers guide:

  • “Incredible view cabin on 5 acres—This total fixer historic homestead recreational cabin property is perched up high…Water appears to be on Sunever Road…”
  • “Cabin on 5 acres…Electricity is close by and so is water!…(Buyer to verify availability electricity and cost to connect).”
  • “156+ acres! Value in land only, seller will make no repairs, no guarantees….Buyer to investigate availability of utilities…Come and see this Jewel of the Desert!”

Finally, I can’t say I found myself in Joshua Tree because despite notable character lapses and misadventures in my life, I can’t say I ever went missing. But I will say that I found another facet of me: one who keeps no active bucket list but finds enjoyment in almost every new drop of experience.

*Mitts

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Ed Goldman's column appears almost every Monday, Wednesday and Friday. A former daily columnist for the Sacramento Business Journal, as well as monthly columnist for Sacramento Magazine and Comstock’s Business Magazine, he’s the author of five books, two plays and one musical (so far).