I come to this review fresh from a trip to Joshua Tree. My eleventh such trip in the ten years I’ve lived in L.A. I can recall each one of them clearly, each time a different chalk mark in my personal and spiritual history, now grown up bent and spiky like a Joshua tree itself. It all began in an unexpectedly cold December, when, at 24, I stood out of the sunroof of a rented Cadillac Escalade with U2’s obligatory “Where the Streets Have No Name” pumping full volume. Cliché, of course, but at least I was introduced to Pappy and Harriet’s right off the bat, saving valuable time.
Later, the discovery of 29 Palms Inn made Irene’s Adobe the centerpiece to a series of memorable, minor-key blowouts. Years afterwards, we abandoned 29 Palms Inn for the closer Joshua Tree Inn, and a whole new wave of crazy sojourns commenced, culminating in one of the most epic birthday celebrations on record. Pappy and Harriet’s returned to glory as our de facto canteen, a reliable purveyor of mesquite combos, cheese fries, tequila shots and casual pick-ups.
Finally, a new stage has evolved. At Sara's directive, I abandoned the hotels off the highway and traveled up the hill towards the Monument, turning on an uneven dirt road to stay in a perfect little house at the “artist’s retreat” known as the Joshua Tree Highlands, as close to wilderness as one can get with a grill and a jacuzzi.
In various other trips I have camped in the park a couple of times, with others and alone, with fire and without. Once I was there just for an afternoon, a restive detour in the middle of another grand adventure. Once I even caravanned down late at night to catch the Leonid meteors, arriving just in time to see the sky turn red on a flatland backroad, as a flaming ethereal orb streaked past at high speed above the jagged hillside. I have been there with women I’ve loved, desired and misread. I’ve been there with friends for life and friends lost through time. I’ve been there fucked up, frivolous, serious and sober. Twice I’ve been when I didn’t go into the park at all. But always I’ve been there with myself.
There is an emptiness in the desert that wreaks havoc on the mind. Like a massive sounding board for the subconscious which reflects back all your hidden neuroses, anxieties and fears. Dreams too. All that’s there is what you bring with you. And stars. That’s the reason, I think, so many people have such wild experiences when they go down for just one night. All those energies find a sudden release, everyone’s weirdness bouncing out of themselves, off the desert floor, into one another. It can be destructive or the stuff of legend. But if you stay for longer, you adapt to the rhythm of the place. The stillness wraps around your mind and you’re forced to face what’s in it. That’s why we keep going. That, and to climb big rocks.
This time, for the first time in a long time, my days in the park were spent not by challenging myself on the big boulders, trying to see if I still knew how to climb them or trying to climb trickier routes than in the past, but by hiking. Sara and I did an 81⁄2 mile loop out to the Lost Mine and back around a mountain peak near the highest part of the park. The view was beautiful, of course, a perfect day, and we were stoned. As we descended into a wash we found ourselves surrounded by some of the tallest, mightiest Joshua Trees I had ever seen. For the first time, as I looked at their crooked, broken, in some cases prostrate, trunks and shaggy, withering branches, I finally saw what the Mormon pioneers saw when, no doubt feverish, frightened and dehydrated, they crossed this same terrain two hundred years ago: a bunch of agonized, penitent sinners kneeling before God, begging Him for mercy. I saw it once, and then I saw it all around me. And I knew I was one of them, my eyes watering all of a sudden for some old grievance, some buried and forgotten wound coaxed from the depths in the balmy starlit night, brought to light under the open sun. The epitome of catharsis.
Music plays a quintessential part in the drama. For the last few trips, I’ve been assisted by The Skygreen Leopards’ 2006 opus, Disciples of California, a quiet masterpiece of banjos, steel guitar and organs, with plaintive vocals somewhere between whispers and hosannas. As you listen closely in the silence of a desert evening, the similar sounding songs unfold a subtle complexity, weaving a romantic mythology of a sacred, pure Old West that plays out its search for gold alchemically, in the modern heart. Disciples of California draws deeply, expertly from the West Coast's psychedelic musical past, the Byrds in particular, to create a timelessly organic, oracular sound, redolent of worn saddle leather, creaking porch slats, abandoned mines, rusty railroad spikes, gunsmoke, blood, and velvet-curtained opium dens. To listen is to enter a deep golden dream. The band hails from San Francisco, another place I’ve journeyed to nearly as often as Joshua Tree, my last decade circumscribed by a humble circuit between those metaphysical poles, north to south.
Now that I’ve seen the Joshua tree for what it is, I guess I can finally claim to be a disciple of California myself. We are a strange breed. Joshua Tree is our Gethsemane; the place where we go to be forgiven. To forgive ourselves of our particular sins. When we lie flat on our backs looking up at the shroud of stars, it’s the closest we get to our own funeral. We know that life is not a line, but a circular climb up the Holy Mountain. Not a straight journey from beginning to end, but a series of re-visitations, always swinging pendulously from beauty to breakthrough.
We know instinctively when it is time for a pilgrimage to the mountains, to the coast, to wine country, to Big Sur, to Tahoe, to Yosemite, to the Kern River, to Point Reyes, to Baja, to Shelter Cove. We know when it’s time to bust loose and when it’s time to stay home. To get crazy, to get some rest. Where to get the best cheeseburger in L.A. or the best grilled burrito in the Mission. We know sushi and bulgogi and heirloom tomatoes. We know that our friends are there, that there will be a time, very soon, to get together. We know we are dreaming, and we don’t want to wake up. We understand the bright joy of graffiti and the monochrome, heartless sun. The brooding fog and the hazy sea layer. The harsh crash of rocky surf and the cold Pacific. Jacarandas and roses and wild mustard. Hawks and seagulls.
We know that things might be different tomorrow because we might choose to be different.
We respect the struggle when it’s over, and we love the good sell.
And most of all, we don’t give a fuck how they do it in New York.
THE SKYGREEN LEOPARDS DISCIPLES OF CALIFORNIA, 2006, Jagjaguwar Records