Six weeks ago, we started our pilgrimage to here in California in a desert national park (Death Valley) and completed it with a visit to another desert national park (Joshua Tree). The bookends of desert have brought unimagined awe.
The word “desert” comes from the middle English, desertus, which roughly translates as a place where nothing is going on. Most often that is understood as not much in the way of flora and fauna and rainfall. What we have come to realize is that the deeper understanding of the word is that there is nothing going on to distract you from what you are here to consider. For us on this pilgrimage, the instruction was about slowing down, sitting quietly, and finding the beauty in unexpected new places, both in nature and in ourselves.
Edward Abbey wrote, “most of my wandering in the desert I’ve done alone, not so much from choice as from necessity. I generally prefer to go into places where no one else wants to go. I find that in contemplating the natural world my pleasure is greater if there are not too many others contemplating it with me, at the same time”. Precisely.
Joshua Tree is a solitary and captivating place which sits at the contact point between two deserts, the Mojave and the Colorado. The Mojave covers the western part of the 792,500 acres of the park. With elevations of 3,000′ and higher, it has a bit more rainfall than its sister desert. You know you are in the Mojave if you are seeing two things – Joshua trees and the distinctive rounded boulders. The well-known tree (which is actually not a tree but a member of the yucca plant family) was named by early Mormon settlers, traversing the desert on their journey to find a place to settle – their promised land. As people of the Book, legend has it that the Mormons were moved by what they saw in the shape of the tree – a biblical reference to Joshua lifting his hands in prayer to God. The sheer number of the trees pointed to lots of prayers!
The boulders are actually the visual record of millions of years of geologic activity in the area which lies along one of the world’s most active tectonic boundaries, the San Andreas Fault. The dominant rocks are a kind of granite, called monzogranite. They were formed when the hot molten rock from the earth’s center gradually oozed upward as the North American tectonic plate moved over the Pacific tectonic plate.
The molten rock didn’t make it all the way to the surface and formed huge masses and globs (my non-technical term!) which eventually cooled and hardened beneath what was then ancient rock called gneiss, topped by lake water. As the climate warmed, the water disappeared and then erosion, caused by millions of years of rainwater, began to wear most of the gneiss, exposing the granite to the direct contact with rainwater, wind from above and geologic activity from below, ripe for action and movement and creating remarkable and surprising shapes in many of the boulders.
For Peter, one of the surprises of the park was that it was not about the trees, it was about the geology. From the overlook at Keys View, we could look into the haze-filled Coachella Valley, home of Palm Springs, and see the San Andreas Fault. It is marked clearly at the foot of a low bank of hills and strung with a garland of bright green vegetation, a desert oasis, formed by the uplift of water along the cracks in the earth’s crust. This fault line, continues to play an active role in the geology of the park, as the plates inhale and exhale as they pass over each other. Much more to come here…
The park’s sister desert, the Colorado, is actually part of the vast Sonoran Desert which we visited and wrote about earlier in 2016 (Cave Creek, Arizona). The Colorado is under 3,000′ and has less rainfall. The distinctive vegetation here is the beautiful creosote bushes now in full yellow, fragrant and bee-filled glory. The ocotillo are showing off their feathery scarlet blooms while cholla and beavertail cactus, also native to this desert, are in colorful plumage as well.
And in both deserts, as we crisscrossed the park, the wildflowers are on display painting the desert floor in swatches of yellow, deep blue, purples, and accents of brilliant fuchsia and scarlet. Once more, the rains of the past fall (as we witnessed in Death Valley) awakened the adaptive plants whose seeds burst open when the right amount of moisture is present.
I was awakened, suddenly, this morning at 3:00am because the inside of T2 was lighted up by the full moon, pouring its silvery light into our little house. As I lay there, feeling the cool desert air through our wide open windows, I was filled with gratitude for the experience. I got up as quietly as I could, grabbed a jacket, and went outside. The stars were discreetly understated, demurely deferring to the moon, which was perfectly mirrored on the front of T2. The boulders behind our site, the ground itself, and the entire trailer, were tinted in shades from a palette of deep metallic blues and grays. I am not sure how long I was outside, smelling the sweet air, feeling the cool stillness on my face, and breathing in the surprising beauty of this solitary place.
In writing about Arches National Park, Edward Abbey wrote, “If (Arches) has any significance it lies… in the power of the odd and unexpected to startle the senses and surprise the mind out of …ruts of habit, to compel us into a reawakened awareness of the wonderful – (literally) that which is full of wonder.”
And so our pilgrimage to here continues as we head slowly eastward, attentive to the unexpected gifts of each present moment. Peace.
Peter and Liz continue their pilgrimage to here, heading generally east into Arizona, as they continue to travel the U.S. in their Airstream, T2.