An infinite energy pressed down on earth and bone, weighing down the world with the heat of the sun while a broad expanse of sky lifted the spirit to drift amongst the clouds. It sounds like spiritualist poetry but it is in fact nothing more than the sensation of placing the bare soles of your feet to the sandy dirt of the Joshua Tree desert and setting your eyes on the quiet hush of an empty noon.
We’ve all seen the old westerns (or re-makes of old westerns) where the sepia-toned cowboy rides in to an aesthetic of cow ribs poking up from desert dust, desolate birds of prey croaking from atop a lone aggressive cactus, and sunburnt tumbleweeds moseying along past hopeless crumbles of old wooden porches. None of which contribute to the overwhelming sensation of life that permeates the rocks and thorns of Joshua Tree.
In her iconic work Women Who Run with the Wolves Clarissa Pinkola Estes writes that its “worse to stay where one does not belong at all than to wander about lost for a while and looking for the psychic and soulful kinship one requires.” If the woods evoke a sense of connection and belonging, then the desert strips you of all that which does not. During my brief time in Los Angeles and Joshua Tree my hosts each independently brought to the table the trapped feeling of being surrounded by friendships that demanded more than they gave, which distracted rather than inspired, and that didn’t allow for deeper growth or even simple regenerative solitude. It made me think of all the time and energy I’ve wasted on explanations that went to deaf ears, fighting for relationships I should have walked away from, trying to fit in to a world that couldn’t possibly contribute towards my growth. The desert has no time for any of this. And the desert has plenty of time.
My friend and I settled down in the packed earth nook of a towering heap of precarious boulders and set up a ramshackle canopy improvised from my sarong. It was my first time in the desert and I have been far from making good on my new years resolution to drink more water so I found myself walking a few steps at a time, moving slowly, and conserving the little energy the 97 degree day offered. I’d make it to an interesting cactus or desert flower and squat down to observe it with swimming eyes and then settle down for a minute to absorb the overwhelming silence and faint whisper of warm wind on the horizon. I was reminded of The Little Prince expressing his love for the desert, describing when one “sits down on a desert sand dune, sees nothing, hears nothing. yet through the silence something throbs, and gleams.” Through (and perhaps because of) it’s hush, the song of the desert is deafening.
The silence is as welcoming as it was threatening. Let everything go, it said, but be wary of where you walk. I’ve sat in groves of Redwood trees and closed my eyes and been moved to tears by the sudden sensation that everything is connected. That I was of the world and the world was of me and there was little to no difference from the fern at my feet to the branches overhead to the beating blood of my own heart. The Joshua Tree desert cautioned against being too easy, against letting your guard drop too far, and was a place of power equally as much as a place of peace. Everything about it said to be careful.
Later I would show photographs to another friend whose family had hosted me several days prior, and she called her husband over. “Amor,” she said, “doesn’t that look like where you cross coming from Mexico?” I walked away knowing that I would never again think of the beauty of the Mojave or the Sonora without wondering whether, with a trunk full of watermelon, pineapple, water, and fresh bread and cheese, I had enjoyed reclining in the same heat and against the same stone that had relentlessly chased distant kin across the border from Mexico. My face burned. I should have thought of this in the first place, knowing how close we were, knowing my grandfather’s story, but I had thought only of how beautiful it all was. How peaceful. And how refreshing the swimming pool would be when we returned to the apartment complex. I didn’t think of whether I walked across the ghosts of footprints and dreams.
I held a puffy, sweating hand to the the rocks and breathed in the faintly sweet air that smelled of warm sand and dry sage and saw that my own skin was the color of the world around me. I was in danger of sun poisoning and heat stroke and dehydration. I felt fully, completely, and strangely at home.