Up The Road: Joshua Tree National Park

Apr 4, 2018

Joshua tree: “Follow the way pointed for thee by the trees."
Credit Christopher Michel

We head up the road this week to Joshua Tree, about an hour north of Coachella Valley and party-central Palm Springs. But if you’re going you’ll need to put pedal to the metal—or bike shoes to the pedal metal—quite soon, because by June it gets hot, an average high of 100-plus through the summer. Speaking of the plus side: In summer, you can grab a prime camp spot even on weekends without a reservation.

Joshua trees, those kinky agaves for which this young national park is named, spooked early desert immigrants. Perhaps to push back anxiety they attached derogatory names and descriptions. But Mormon pioneers exhausted by their Colorado River crossing envisioned inspiration, perhaps even divine intervention, where others saw only the  grotesque. Thus the trees’ given name, prompted by the Bible’s Book of Joshua: “Thou shalt follow the way pointed for thee by the trees.” Equally inspiring are Joshua Tree National Park’s giant granite formations—eccentric arrangements of fat, khaki-colored stone as smooth and well-rounded as Henry Moore sculptures.

Joshua Tree embraces both the Mojave and Colorado Deserts as it defines the weird no-man’s-land connecting them.

“Weird” is a common description for Joshua Tree. Even its human dimension can be somewhat strange, since the oddball and outlandish visit fairly frequently—and always have, judging from the murders and miscellaneous treacheries that dogged even early settlers. To keep track of current inexplicable events, park rangers keep an ongoing “weird file.” Some blame the lunacy on the landscape and its proximity to Los Angeles. New Agers believe the area is veined with earth-energy “power centers,” explanation enough for some.

Cholla cactus “garden” at Joshua Tree.
Credit Dee Dee Lim

All of the above—or maybe none of it—explains the 1973 outdoor cremation at Joshua Tree of mythic musician Gram Parsons, formerly of The Byrds and The Flying Burrito Brothers, and musical mentor and early significant other of Emmylou Harris. Parsons overdosed from alcohol and drugs and died at age 26 in nearby Twentynine Palms. But before he could be loaded up at LAX for his final flight home, someone stole his body and spirited him back to Joshua Tree. The following day, a park employee discovered Parsons’ blazing corpse near Cap Rock. His after-death immolation left a long-lived stain that served, for many years, as a pilgrimage site and de facto shrine for fans.

The Joshua tree itself, Yucca brevifiolia, is the lasting reason to make a pilgrimage to this place. You’ll find Joshua trees throughout the Mojave, but the park offers excellent access for appreciation. With luck, some early evening you may even witness one of the tree’s most intriguing stories—its symbiotic relationship with the female yucca moth, which shows no interest in any other plant. The two depend on each other entirely for raising a new generation.

Joshua Tree in bloom.
Credit Stacy Egan

When the Joshua tree is in bloom—which happens only in years of adequate rainfall—the small white moth sets out at dusk to collect Joshua tree pollen from at least several trees. She selects one plant for her own purposes. Laying her eggs inside a yucca flower’s ovary, the moth then deposits enough collected pollen to both cross-pollinate the plant (ensuring seed production) and feed her own young (upon hatching, the moth larvae eat some of the seeds). Established Joshua trees can resprout from their roots, if chopped down for fence posts and so forth, as once happened often, but they can reproduce—produce seeds for dispersal—only in this way.

And that, people, is a committed relationship.