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The Joshua Tree

Started: 2020-01-20 19:26:45

Submitted: 2020-01-21 00:31:31

Visibility: World-readable

10th January 2020: In which the intrepid narrator returns to the Mojave Desert, comes face-to-face with alien Joshua trees, and retraces U2's steps in Twentynine Palms

I spent four days in the first full week of January at work, on-call for my service, then took Friday off to go visit the sun in Joshua Tree National Park for a quick weekend trip. (I saw, somewhere, a comment that Joshua Tree tends to get more crowded on holidays, so I skipped MLK Day.)

My trip through the airport in Seattle on Friday morning, the 10th of January was uneventful until my plane had taxied near the end of runway 16L in anticipation of its departure. We sat on the taxiway for some time until the pilot announced over the intercom that there was a "small maintenance issue" that involved some "paperwork", and they would be "running up the good engine" of our 737-800 on the taxiway. From my window seat, I could see and hear the starboard engine throttling up and running, then throttling back after a minute or two. After fifteen minutes we started moving again, but we appeared to be turning away from the runway, heading instead towards the terminal. The pilot returned to the intercom to announce that the issue now required a "visual inspection from maintenance", so we would be heading back to the cargo area. We drove past the main terminal to a parking stand on the south ramp, across from the South Satellite terminal (from which we'd embarked, an hour earlier). After another twenty-five minutes the maintenance inspection had passed, so we returned to the taxiway to drive to the end of 16L again -- and at length we were on our way for Palm Springs.

The delay did give me plenty of time to read, cover-to-cover, A Very Scalzi Christmas by John Scalzi. (I bought the limited-edition Subterranean Press hardcover and gave it to Kiesa for Christmas; we have copy #640.) Our detour to the maintenance ramp and back gave me just enough time to read the amusing collection of mostly-humorous Christmas-themed short stories in its entirety, before we actually took off.

(One of the weird things about the context of my flight was heightened media attention to a recent plane crash -- including on newspapers and TV screens in the cabin of my plane. My flight was only two days after the crash of Ukraine International Airlines Flight 752 on its departure from Tehran, and the morning's press coverage centered on the reports by western intelligence agencies that blamed the crash on an Iranian surface-to-air missile; it was only late that night (my time) that Iran officially acknowledged their role in shooting down the passenger airliner. I did not dwell on the fact that the plane that crashed had been the exact same model, a 737-800, as the plane I was flying on.)

Clouds covered Washington and Oregon, thwarting my attempts at observing any of the landscape from my window seat. The clouds dispersed by the time we reached California, giving me a good view of Lake Tahoe and the ski resorts surrounding the lake. I saw Hetch Hetchy Reservoir, and then a few minutes later the entire Yosemite Valley, from Half Dome to El Capitan.

Looking down Yosemite Valley
Looking down Yosemite Valley

We began our descent near Bakersfield, then flew along the north side of the San Gabriel Mountains. We were still high enough that I could look over the mountains into the Los Angeles Basin, under low clouds tinged with smog -- and Santa Catalina Island, on the horizon in the Pacific Ocean. We descended into the Coachella Valley, taking the long way around to land from the south-east, giving me a view of Palm Springs and the entire valley before looping around to land in Palm Springs.

Coachella Valley
Coachella Valley

We disembarked onto a ramp parked on the tarmac rolled up to the plane. I stepped out of the plane into the bright sun, my t-shirt all I needed to feel comfortable outside. The desert soaked up the rain and gloom of Seattle, elevating my spirits and improving my mood.

Open-air walkway at PSP
Open-air walkway at PSP

I picked up my rental car, ate a burrito for lunch at a fast-casual restaurant in a strip mall near the airport, and drove north out of Palm Springs towards the Mojave Desert. To accompany my drive I played The Joshua Tree, one of the greatest rock albums ever recorded, celebrating the wide-open spaces of the American Southwest. As Bono sang "I want to feel sunlight on my face" I understood completely.

I drove on I-10 for a few miles, then turned onto the Twentynine Palms Highway (otherwise known as California State Route 62) heading north into the Little San Bernardino Mountains. As the road climbed into the mountains, I left the low desert (the Colorado Desert, the local branch of the Sonoran Desert, where higher temperatures dictated plants adapted to extremes: octillo, cholla cactus, and (elsewhere in the Sonaran Desert) towering saguaro cactus) for the high desert (the Mojave Desert, where relatively cooler temperatures allowed Joshua trees to thrive). As the Morongo Valley opened up around the highway, I caught my first glimpse of the spiky Joshua trees, looking like they were the result of an alien's idea of what a tree was supposed to be rather than something that actually was supposed to grow on this planet.

I stopped at the main Joshua Tree National Park Visitor Center in the town of Joshua Tree. I picked up a park map, verified that there were no outstanding important road closures, and drove into the park via the creatively-named Park Boulevard. The road wound through a broad canyon just south of the town, scattered with houses in the rugged rock dotted with Joshua trees. As soon as I entered the park the development ceased: I was alone in the desert with the rocks and the Joshua trees and the road winding into the distance.

Park Boulevard running through Joshua Tree National Park
Park Boulevard running through Joshua Tree National Park

I stopped at my first good opportunity and stepped out of my car to appreciate the trees in person. They looked even weirder up close: here the family resemblance to yucca was obvious, as if they were a yucca plant that suddenly decided to become a tree.

Joshua Tree
Joshua Tree

The Joshua trees stretched to the horizon, in a weird dispersed forest, as if every tree wanted to stay more than an arm's length from its nearest neighbor. The ersatz forest looked like it came straight from a Dr. Seuss book; I expected at any moment for the Lorax to appear and tell me that he spoke for the trees.

Joshua trees stretching out in the distance
Joshua trees stretching out in the distance

By the time I arrived at the park I had forty-five minutes left before sunset. This was the golden hour, as the sun approached the horizon and cast golden light across the landscape. I took advantage of the light as I walked around the Joshua trees on both sides of the road, marveling at the desert landscape in every direction.

Sun backlights joshua trees
Sun backlights joshua trees

This late in the day the shadows stretched two or three times as long as the objects casting them.

Long shadows in Joshua Tree National Park
Long shadows in Joshua Tree National Park

I turned off Park Boulevard and drove to Keys View, an overlook at the top of the ridge in the Little San Bernardino Mountains. I reached the overlook just as the sun was setting behind San Gorgonio Mountain on the other side of the Coachella Valley.

I joined the tourists watching the setting sun, shivering at five thousand feet in the wind blowing across the valley. (I put on my sweater when I entered the park, but I hadn't yet retrieved my jacket. Other tourists seemed even less prepared for the cold.)

Joshua trees at dusk
Joshua trees at dusk

I descended from Keys View in the twilight, then continued driving east through the park as the full moon rose in the east, hanging large and bright over the desert landscape.

Moon rises behind joshua trees
Moon rises behind joshua trees

I exited the park in Twentynine Palms and checked into Harmony Motel, perched on the hillside west of town. My guidebook told me that this was where U2 stayed while they were working on The Joshua Tree -- a detail I was not aware of when I made my reservation, but seemed appropriate given that the album serves as the soundtrack on my visits to the desert.

I drove into Joshua Tree for supper, then returned to my room for the night, ahead of a full day in the park the next day.

For more pictures from my trip into the Mojave Desert, see Photos on 2020-01-10.

The plural of 'anecdote' is not 'data.'