Lessons on survival and evolution unfold on the austere desertlands of Joshua Tree National Park near Palm Springs.
Mojave Desert mating rituals can be grisly. Loggerhead shrikes advertise their desirability by impaling prey on razor-sharp cactus spines; female scorpions and tarantulas often kill and devour their short-lived suitors. It's a tough place for romance, and for survival. Yet there I was, in Joshua Tree National Park, to celebrate both.
My husband of 15 years had planned a surprise 40th-birthday getaway for me. We stayed in a rented ranch house, with our 9- and 7-year-old sons, just outside the northwest entrance to the park. Our nearly weeklong January visit was filled with blood-pumping boulder-climbing, quiet star-gazing and revelatory hikes over alien hills and plains.
The 1,236-square-mile park actually straddles two deserts: the Mojave to the north and west, and the Colorado to the south and east. The former, where we spent most of our time, is mostly "high desert," from 3,000 to 5,000 feet above sea level. Winter nights can be bitingly cold, and on our walks we often found patches of snow in shady crevices. The fireplace in our house was appreciated.
My sister-in-law and her partner met up with us on the trip; they stayed in a bed-and-breakfast near the house we rented. The innkeeper told them one morning that "People come to the desert to make major decisions." That wasn't true for any of us; the entire week, our biggest decision was which trail to take. But Joshua Tree does foster reflection, and lessons about resilience -- making do, even prospering, with what's at hand.
Only in the Mojave can one encounter the scraggy, peculiar plant with swordlike leaves for which the park is named. The Joshua Tree isn't really a tree; it's a relative of the lily family and a member of the agave family, and it is utterly dependent on the tiny yucca moth for pollination. This symbiotic arrangement gives the moths, in turn, a home and food for their offspring.
The plant was a source of food and fiber for American Indians; they used its leaves for baskets and sandals, roasted and ate its seeds and flower buds, and made dye from its roots. Its present name came from Mormon colonists, who saw in it the biblical prophet Joshua, beckoning them west.
I learned a new vocabulary word in the national park: mutualism. Embodied by the yucca moth and the Joshua tree, mutualism is a relationship between two species in which both derive benefit. At the start of a new year, it seemed a fitting concept. (It's also rather applicable to marriage.)
Our most memorable hike was the 3-mile-round trip to 49 Palms Oasis. It's meant to be a moderately strenuous, two-hour trek -- if you don't take an accidental hourlong detour and lots of boulder-climbing stops along the way, as we did. Lush, green, tropical and dreamlike in its total lack of resemblance to anything around it, the oasis was the high point of our trip. I rested on a flat, cool boulder there, under a canopy of desert fan palms, and listened to the hum of insects -- a sound we hadn't heard anywhere else in the park.
Resilient, yet fragile
The park is home to a surprisingly wide array of fauna. The black-tailed jackrabbit -- also known as the desert hare -- is ubiquitous throughout the park, and we often saw Gambel's quail strutting along (and across) the road. On one hike we spotted a tarantula just off the trail -- a dead one, alas. But the creature I'll most associate with that trip was the coyote, which seems to be a different animal in the desert Southwest.
As tent-camping Minnesotans, we've seen a few coyotes -- and heard many more -- in our day. But we've never been circled by them the way we were in Joshua Tree. Nearly every morning, and every evening at dusk, the yipping dogs seemed to congregate by the dozen around our house. Their high-pitched, hyena-like yelps gave me the creeps; I would certainly think twice about letting a house cat, small dog or preschooler outside there pst 4 p.m.
We learned about the desert tortoise, a symbol of the Mojave whose survival is threatened by human activity (including urban expansion and use of off-road vehicles), disease and the loss of forage plants to grazing livestock and invasive species. And we learned that the park's very identity is threatened: In 100 years, a ranger told us, there probably will be no more Joshua trees in Joshua Tree National Park. Sadly, the plant's range is shrinking as a result of a warming climate. That doesn't bode well for the host of species that depend on the Joshua tree, especially in times of drought.
Pappy & Harriet's Pioneertown Palace ("Where everybody's just happy not to be in jail") should be a requisite stop on every Joshua Tree itinerary. Known for barbecue, catfish and the Cadillac margarita, the Yucca Valley hot spot is a parallel universe peopled by leather-clad bikers, aging hippies, young scenesters, underfed artists and old ladies with enormous bouffant hairdos. If there is a better place to turn 40, I'd like to know where it is.
Even closer to the park, the unassuming Sam's Convenience Store in the town of Joshua Tree has an annex that serves up unexpectedly tasty East Indian food. The Crossroads Café is another local favorite, beloved for its applewood bacon BLT.
Lay a photo from Joshua Tree National Park next to a picture from Yosemite, Glacier or Yellowstone, and Joshua Tree is likely to lose the glamour contest. It's Meryl Streep, not Scarlett Johansson. For those of us from more verdant places, the Mojave landscape's charms aren't immediately obvious. Through a car window, much of it looks uniformly brown, austere and forbidding.
But up close, it's another story -- an unexpected variety of life forms, each one a small marvel of economy and evolution. In certain light, especially the soft pink of dusk, its rocks and flora have a singular, otherworldly beauty that will penetrate the stubbornest of hearts. Give the park a few days to grow on you, from as many angles as possible, and you'll be richly rewarded. As our fourth-grader succinctly put it, "I'm not a super-big desert guy, but I'm really glad we came here."
Susan Maas is a Minneapolis-based freelance writer.