The Winding Road to Joshua Tree

Travel Stories: She moved to Los Angeles, found herself in the midst of a personal monsoon and began skipping dinner parties. Then Deanne Stillman rearranged her life around trips to her new church: Joshua Tree National Park.

I had not yet been to Joshua Tree National Park, but at the airport Hyatt with my eyes closed, I knew I was deep inside it, traveling down a path marked by ocotillo and sage, crossed by a desert tortoise. As my trance deepened, the path took me to a large sandstone altar that stood under the shade of an ancient and giant Joshua tree. Atop the altar was a small vial of what I took to be water. The sun glinted off the vial, and then from behind the tree my maternal grandmother appeared.

In my family history, she was a woman known for the wonderful and cryptic line, “Life is funny. Oh dear, oh dear.” She had died at least a decade before this shamanic encounter at the airport Hyatt, with a letter from me in her hands. It was while living in New Mexico—another desert—that I had found out about her passing. As she approached me in my trance, she handed me the vial from the altar. I took it and started to cry, knowing in my bones that what she had just given me was not a vial of water, but a vial of tears, my own tears, tears I had not shed since my parents’ divorce when I was in fourth grade, and from that point on, had pretended that everything was funny and fine when in fact it was rarely either. As I clutched the vial to my heart, my grandmother faded back behind the Joshua tree, reclaimed by the desert. A raven’s cry joined my own and then I followed the path back to the surface of the earth, exchanging a glance with the tortoise. Sometimes life is not funny. Oh dear, oh dear.

In an instant, everything had changed. Mary Austen’s land of little rain had yielded to me a personal monsoon. I started skipping dinner parties, openings, reordering my life. Joshua Tree National Park had become my church, my temple, my Stouffer’s frozen turkey tetrazzini. Week after week I would leave Los Angeles, the Xerox machine of America’s dreams, and head for the Mojave, where they all started. I felt at home in this vast space where, if you happened to be near the right dune at the right time, you might stumble across a cosmic joke in the form of a shamanic workshop at the corner of Highway 111 and Bob Hope Drive, a biker with a used bookstore and an espresso machine (more on this later), a cosmetic epiphany in the form of a shack that peddles thigh cream next to an earthquake sinkhole, or endless miracles of nature such as the reclusive desert frogs that leap out of the sands after a rainstorm.

The more time I spent wandering the trails of Joshua Tree National Park, the clearer it became that the desert—not Long Island, Wall Street, the White House, Madison Avenue, the Home Shopping Channel, or other regions born of mirage—explains the national character: it is the wide-open space that rocket-fuels the American obsession with personal rights, an extreme terrain that both comforts and kills; an underrated scape that is always there but doesn’t particularly care if you are; an ever-changing blank slate that does its own kind of business, turning tricks if the tricks are there to be turned, but has no price or any other result in mind. And then, of course, there’s Indian bingo.

Soon I was spending so much time there that I found the very Joshua tree of my dreams—the one that looked just like the one under which my grandmother had appeared in my vision—and I visited it often. JTNP became my second home; my friends in L.A. started calling me Chuckwalla Deanne and the friends I made out there started calling me Deanne from L.A. And that’s how I learned the cardinal rule of the desert: Don’t ask, don’t tell. The desert doesn’t care who you are, and neither does anyone or anything who lives in it.

Deanne Stillman has written for Rolling Stone and the New York Times, among many other publications. She is the author of the Los Angeles Times bestseller"Twentynine Palms: A True Story of Murder, Marines and the Mojave." This story is an excerpt from her book, Joshua Tree: Desolation Tango, featuring photographs by Galen Hunt.

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