The Joshua Tree, an album and a National Park
Released in 1987, The Joshua Tree by U2 is probably my all-time favourite album. I’ve listened to it countless times, always with the same pleasure and the same emotions. The black & white artwork and the picture of this weird tree which gave its name to the album even became almost iconic for me! So when I visited the Joshua Tree National Park in California during spring 2018, there was only one soundtrack option… While I was driving in this gorgeous place, listening to these songs that I loved, an idea came to my mind: combining both experiences, the music and the landscape. This is the result of this idea, this is The Joshua Tree, an album and a National Park.
1. Where The Streets Have No Name
A long synthesizer introduction. An instantly identifiable guitar riff, slowly growing until the humming of the bass and the powerful drums suddenly kick on, more than one minute after the beginning of the track. This is one of my favourite songs of all times and the volume is at its highest in my car as I’m entering the National Park, leaving Salton Sea and Slab City behind me. I’m very excited, and I can’t wait to see my first Joshua tree. Bono starts singing: “I want to run/I want to hide”. Here we go!
2. I Still Haven't Found What I'm Looking For
A quick stop at the Cottonwood Visitor Centre to get a map and ask for some advice about where to go first, and I’m back on the road, listening to the second track of the album and its gospel touch. I still haven’t found any Joshua trees either; actually, there isn’t a single one of them on this side of the park, as they only grow at a very specific height, and I need to climb a little bit more to reach them. That doesn’t matter, I can wait, I’m on holiday, and the dry and red landscape around me is gorgeous anyway.
3. With Or Without You
Still no trees on the horizon but I pull over for my first walk through a vast and beautiful field of cholla cacti. They are quite small but they look really good with their black trunk and their pale white/green thorns. When I come closer to them and gently try to touch one of the thorns, I realise how strong they are: if you fall over one of these cacti you might remember it for a very long time! The same could be said about this song: it starts as a soft and gentle ballad but grows into a powerful track until Bono releases all his vocal power on the last chorus. One of U2’s greatest tracks and biggest commercial success, and once you hear it, you’ll never forget it.
4. Bullet The Blue Sky
This is it. Here they are. It’s when I reach the camping area of White Tank that I finally see my first Joshua trees. Once again, the sight is beautiful: it’s a real blockfield of huge rocks and boulders, with erosion creating some delicate arches between them. The sun is hot above my head and the sky is blue but the only sounds that I can hear come from my camera, shooting the trees again and again, with the same pace as the iconic drum part from the beginning of that song. Probably the most photogenic kind of trees that I’ve ever seen, especially in black and white.
5. Running To Stand Still
The temperatures are high this afternoon, It’s way too hot for a hike. I’m driving to Keys View instead, the highest point of the park. I’m standing there still for a little while, on top of the lookout, with the piano notes of the fifth track of the album in my ears while I’m staring at the stunning view in front of me. Then I’m slowly heading towards Joshua Tree Village, where my accommodation for the night will be. Tomorrow should be cooler, I’ll come back early to enjoy the rest of the park in the morning.
6. Red Hill Mining Town
I had no idea before coming here, but the 19th century gold rush also hit this part of California. I found it when I explored the area of the Park next to Barker Dam where ruins from this period can be found, in particular the “Wall Street stamp mill”, a machine that was used to separate gold from the ore that was dug in the mines. This song that pays tribute to the fight of the British miners in the 1980s has nothing to do with California, but it opens the second half of the album, and also my second day here. I’m actually in one of the most remote areas of the Park: I’m completely on my own here, apart from a rabbit with very big ears and a few cars abandoned here many decades ago.
7. In God's Country
For indigenous people as well as for later settlers, water always was a matter of life and death in this dry country. The Barker Dam was built in 1900 by the first cattlemen who came to the area. The artificial lake created behind it is still here nowadays and it’s strange to see a stretch of water in such an arid desert. The path leading to the dam also goes past a rock with petroglyphs painted by Native Americans. They didn’t believe in the same God mentioned in that song, but they believed in nature, and their spirits probably still live in these petroglyphs or somewhere else around the park. You might see them in your dreams, “dreams beneath a desert sky” as Bono sings in the first verse of this track…
8. Trip Through Your Wires
My next stop is the Hidden Valley, a place surrounded by tall rocks which made it impossible to reach until first settlers used dynamite to create a path. The Hidden Valley was used by thieves and robbers to hide the horses they stole: behind these rocks they were completely out of sight from the outside! Life was challenging in the Far West… With its harmonica part, this song could have come from that era, and it fits pretty well with the surroundings.
Nowadays a path circles around the valley, with signs explaining you the particularities of this unique and fragile ecosystem, different from the rest of the park because rocks provide more shade and give shelter from the wind while water is more easily kept. It’s easy to see: there are way more trees inside the valley than outside for example. A lot of cacti too, with beautiful red flowers.
9. One Tree Hill
My last hike of the day brings me to the top of Ryan Hill, where the 360° view over the Park is stunning. It’s not a very difficult climb, but the wind is blowing so strong that it’s really cold on the summit! It must be very hot here during summer though, as there is no shade at all on the way. I take a quick picture of a lonely Joshua tree on top of the hill before going down, thinking about the “real” One Tree Hill from the song, located in Auckland where I was a few months before (picture on the right below). That track was written in the memory of Greg Carroll, a Maori man who met the band while they were touring and served as a roadie until he died in an accident in Dublin in 1986; an emotional connection between New Zealand, Ireland and America.
It’s time already to leave the Park… Before heading towards Las Vegas, my next destination, I pull over one last time next to the Jumbo Rocks, another blockfield of boulders with various sizes and shapes. One of them even looks a bit like a giant skull. It’s quite funny to climb between them to explore the area, and kids around me seem to love it. After a few more minutes I get back to my car, turn on the engine and follow the “Exit” signs.
11. Mothers Of The Disappeared
On my way to Las Vegas, listening to the last track of the album dedicated to the mothers of the victims of the dictatorial regimes of South America, I’m driving through a vast forest of Joshua trees in the Mojave Preserve. If most of them are concentrated in the Joshua Tree National Park, you can find more trees quite far away in Nevada or further North in California. THE Joshua Tree, the one pictured on the album artwork is actually close to the Death Valley, miles away from the park! But it disappeared too: it fell down a few years ago and is now some kind of a “pilgrimage site” for U2 fans – but it’s way too far out of my itinerary for me to go there.
This is how the album finishes, 50 minutes after its first notes, and it’s also here that my visit comes to an end. I hope you enjoyed this musical and touristic journey through the Joshua Tree National Park!