Whew! I sent my mother off at the airport this morning, after a very busy trip. Most of it was shopping, actually, because her Christmas present was to get me a chest of drawers, which pretty much had to be selected here. But we did have a pleasure trip.
My mother likes naturally beauty and places that don't look like rural Pennsylvania, where she now lives. So I decided to take her to Joshua Tree National Park. It's a huge preserve out in the Mojave Desert, about 100 miles east of L.A. Neither of us had been there before. In fact, I really hadn't been out in pure desert before at all.
It's an amazing place. It's hard to explain how alien it looks, even to someone from a neighboring ecosystem. Joshua trees are actually a type of yucca plant that grows in a treelike fashion; if you just know them from the picture on the U2 album, you really don't get an idea of how weird they look. The guide described them as looking like Dr. Suess trees, which is getting at it. The branches of each tree twist in their own freewheeling fashion, and looking at a whole "forest" of them you may wonder if you ate one of those desert mushrooms without realizing it.
There are also rock formations that defy description. This picture of Skull Rock gives you an idea, but you really have to see them in situ to believe them. There are these great "piles" of boulders that look so haphazard that my mother was convinced that in an earthquake they'd tumble down. Yet when you climb on them you realize the "loose" rocks are totally immobile.
We didn't stay overnight, but since it got dark early I was able to look at the stars from the desert. From L.A., not surprisingly, few stars are visible. (One speaker at the local planetarium quipped that if Carl Sagan had grown up in L.A., he would have looked at the stars and said there must be dozens and dozens of them.) In Joshua Tree there was such a thick blanket of them it was difficult to pick out the constellations among them. The Milky Way arced almost straight overhead, and the universe seemed oddly close. As I was walking back from the dry cleaners this evening and saw the familiar form of Orion glimmering faintly above, it was hard to believe it was the same sky.
My mother and I were both really glad we went there, but I must admit I don't understand wanting to live in the desert. When I was there I enjoyed the beauty but there was an undercurrent of melancholy, a bite. I was aware, subliminally, that this was not a place for humans, that I could die here. It was nearly pure nature, and it was harsh.
On the long drive back we listened to the U2 album. I got it for my sixteenth birthday, so it's almost part of my DNA by now, but it was interesting hearing it after seeing the locale that evidently inspired it. The lyrics are full of desert imagery, and both the melancholy and the harsh purity of the desert inhabit the music. My mother remarked that the park reminds her of the Biblical wilderness, and indeed, the hills look a lot like pictures of Israel that I've seen. It's interesting to think, as Tom said here a while ago, that the Israelites thought the wilderness was God's place. What does that say about him?