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The Sentinals of the Southwest

An exploration of the Joshua Tree, a symbol of the American southwest, the advance guard of the perennial invasion against civilization.

I first saw a Joshua Tree when I was 19 and still loved the Irish rock band U2. They had named their latest album after the Yucca Brevifolia and pictures of it were all through the liner notes. There was was something unearthly about the plant, something striking. I could see why the Mormons came up with its name because it looked like something out of the Bible. I had been excited to get the new U2 album, but it lay forgotten on the table as I looked at those grim photographs of yuccas over and over. It was at that moment I began to feel the draw of the desert and one of the few living things it supports, the Joshua Tree.

U2 was not the only rock and roll band drawn to the Southwest, they weren’t even the first. Gram Parsons spent a lot of time at the Joshua Tree Motel. Knowing his love for the area his road crew stole his coffin and attempted to burn it out where the desert burns so many things without provocation. It seems a perverse, mystical act, equally sick and beautiful, poetic and profane. The desert brings that out in people.

That was fifteen years before U2 had their limousines take them deep into Joshua Tree National Monument. After the Irish band did it, going to the desert and loitering among the Yucca Brevifolia became a rite of passage for European bands. They’d grow beards, put on peasant blouses and Amish hats, and make a pilgrimage to the American Outback. Seeing them trying to look like nineteenth century pioneers made me think about the real thing: the people who braved the Great Basin and Mojave and Sonoran deserts in covered wagons. The desert is unforgiving enough in an air conditioned car with water half an hour away at most; I cannot fathom how it was for people a hundred twenty-five years ago. It makes sense that people would have respected the land more back then because they understood how easily it could kill them.

The Mojave desert has two symbols, the Saguaro cactus and the Joshua Tree. As someone who loves the desert, I have had pictures of both on my walls. Whenever I got sick of the town I was in or the job I was working at or whatever else I needed to escape, I would look at those pictures and daydream. By my mid-twenties I had credit cards and could rent cars reliable enough to cross the desert in. I saw Saguaros and Joshua Trees in person but only from a distance; I was too scared of rattlesnakes to leave the pavement. The desert was no longer a dreamland, I saw the profound beauty of the rhyolite cliffs and rock formations, but I also saw the poverty of the towns and the abandon houses. My love for those places deepened despite, or maybe because of, the darkness I came to understand they possess.

Yucca Brevifolia are protected now in some places. In some towns you have to get permission to cut them down even if they are on your property. To me, they seem to grow like weeds, especially around Lancaster and in parts of the Mojave Preserve. In a way, Joshua Trees are perfect symbols of the desert, they have this sort of gnarled, dried out beauty to them but they are home to scorpions and other dangerous things. You do not want to hug a Joshua Tree, just as you wouldn’t want to set out into the open desert without water. That is one reason why I appreciate the Mojave the way I do; it is wild like few other places are. In Oregon, where I live, there is a lushness, everything is green and wet. If you get lost you could get caught in a sudden rain and get soaked to the bone. If you get lost in the desert you could die and only your bones would be found.

When we were in Lancaster, California this February, we went to a friend’s house for a barbecue. After their kids had gone to bed, James and his wife brought out a fresh round of beers so the four of us could sit on their cement porch and marvel at the night sky. The disappearance of the sun brought a chill to the air and loud hip-hop was coming from a nearby apartment complex. Our friends had attempted to plant a lawn but the ground was poor and thwarted their attempts. That, and they felt guilty about all the water it required. A horrible thing was moving across the patio, a millipede. James laughed when I jumped out my chair in disgust…

“We get a lot of those. Scorpions, too.”

“Where do they come from?”

“On the other side of the fence are a whole mess of Joshuas. All sorts of things make their homes in them.”

“And they end up in your yard?”

“Yep. I used to love Joshua Trees, thought they were cool looking, but now when I look at them all I can see are scorpions and millipedes.”

Invasive pests. I took a long drink of beer and tried to put the millipede out of my mind. Closing my eyes I still heard the loud hip-hop and had to wonder who the invasive pests really were.

Lancaster, in general, is a strange place. Right now, man is standing tall, putting in his subdivisions and fast food restaurants. But it feels temporary to me. The desert suffers no fools, and we are foolish for gathering in millions in places that can barely support hundreds of us. Lancaster is no different. You drive down the Sierra Highway — old U.S. 6 — and you see all the vast, vacant lots where men ran out of ideas or money or courage or maybe all three. The desert reminds you how small you are, how frail, and even in cities of a decent size you get the feeling nature could sweep in at any time and erase our feeble attempts at civilization. The Joshua Trees are like sentinels or the advance guard of an invasion. They seem to grow like weeds and currently their numbers are that of an army. Maybe people like James and his hip-hop playing neighbors will open their doors one day and see that the war is over and that they lost. Maybe they will even understand that the war was lost even before it began.

Filed under: California, Deserts, USA

About the Author:

Izaak Diggs is a freelance writer based in Portland, Oregon. He is currently at work on a book focusing on the deserts west of the Rocky Mountains. His website is here. has written 3 posts on Vagabond Journey. Contact the author.

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