I visited: Joshua Tree National Park in southern California. According to NPS, the area’s early occupants included “the Pinto Culture, followed by American Indians including the Serrano, the Chemehuevi, and the Cahuilla.” This was my 14th National Park.
In March I traveled with Gregg and Steve to Los Angeles for our friend Matt’s wedding. There we reunited with our friend Julie, and after the wedding, I made the long drive with Julie and Steve out to Joshua Tree.
This happened to be a period of significant transition for me: I had recently accepted a full-time position as an Associate Pastor at LaSalle Street Church, my church home in Chicago, which meant leaving my previous job of six years. “Significant” is an understatement, as you can imagine, the culmination of an ongoing journey that has always felt surprising and inevitable. I managed to work out two weeks of (f)unemployment between jobs, which gave me some room to expand a Los Angeles weekend wedding trip into a few-days-longer California National Parks adventure.
Julie and Steve were each in the midst of their own transitions—ask them, if you’re curious—so we did what old friends do in the midst of change, if they have the means: We wandered around the wilderness, interspersing banal comments about the flora (which really are so peculiar and beautiful, defying the imagination) with suddenly-but-not-inappropriately deep questions about identity and purpose and God. We booked an Airbnb with a hot tub and stayed out under the stars drinking whiskey from plastic wine tumblers. We went to the same burger place two nights in a row because the fries were so good and the bartender’s recommendations sounded so personal.
I should describe the park itself! Our first hike in Joshua Tree, a late-afternoon sneak preview of the northeast corner before the next morning’s full-day drive through the main strip, took us along a rocky path to the Fortynine Palms Oasis. This was easily one of the best hikes I’ve ever done, both because it almost immediately rewarded us with altitude and panoramic desert views, and because it had a narrative arc. All along the way you catch glimpses of the oasis itself, an impossible pocket of palm trees growing steadily larger each time you catch another peek. The pictures don’t do justice to just how surreal it feels to stumble through rocks and dust and then suddenly, like walking through a doorway, to find yourself surrounded by trees and plants, albeit with no visible standing water.
The next day we wandered under Joshua tree forests and over piles of boulders. Joshua Tree has become an exceedingly trendy park, but our visit didn’t leave much time to explore the art and culture that draws crowds as readily as the wilderness preserve. We spent our few hours with trees and cacti. At one particularly long pullout jaunt, I felt a sentiment I often feel at these parks, namely, a sharp awareness that I’m somewhere spectacular and likely won’t ever return, and a real anxiety about what to do about that. (Trying to visit all the National Parks in my lifetime doesn’t leave much time for revisiting, at least not yet.) I took hundreds of pictures; I spent a lot of time simply looking and listening and breathing; I used as many of my senses as I could to capture robust memories, like how the early-March cool air clashed with a sunny landscape that looked, my brain was certain, like it should have been blazing hot. The kinds of plants that survive in an environment like a southern California desert aren’t the kind that invite firm grasping, but they sure make an impression.
This trip was nearly three months ago, and if I’m being honest, I remember much more about our conversations in the car and the hot tub than I do about what I learned from the informational panels at the visitor center. I don’t mean that I wasn’t paying attention to the park, or even that I was distracted, and I’m not trying to make a statement about how I consume experiences or travel, or how anthropocentric my experiences of even our nation’s most bizarre and remote places can sometimes be. I think what I mean is that wherever you are, being together with friends in a time of significant transition feels like walking through a doorway into a place of surreal hospitality, steadying your feet before you step back out into the dust.