The first Desert Fathers were contemplative Christians holed up in Egyptian caves during the first couple of centuries A.D. (There were also Desert Mothers, of course.) I played Desert Father, stepfather, and grandfather— for five days in mid-February near Joshua Tree, California, surrounded by massive, uplifted, pre-Cambrian, monzogranite rocks and teddy-bear chollas.
I was in my 40s before I began to learn a tiny bit about the beauty and breadth of deserts. (Before then, my image of a desert came from the Sahara of Lawrence of Arabia. (Remember the “sand-drowned camel boy?”)
I remember flying into Cabo San Lucas in Baja, Mexico, in 1995 to visit my daughter Molly and her mom, looking down and thinking, this place could use some rain. I was on my way to Todos Santos, a charming little town an hour north when I fell in love with southern Baja. There was no shortage of mysterious plants, notably Damiana (Turnera diffusa), “imagined” to be a powerful aphrodisiac. (Damiana liqueur is a hot-ticket tourist item in Cabo San Lucas.) Two local women at a bus stop near Rancho Nuevo, south of Todos Santos, took me up a dirt road one day and pointed out the small shrub with aromatic, grayish-green leaves.
I have spent most of my life in Kentucky’s temperate climate, the beneficiary of green fields and forests. Though there are occasional prolonged summer and early fall droughts that turn fields straw colored, we are fortunate to have an annual, average precipitation of 40 inches.
Kentucky’s lush landscapes are interrupted by tree lines and hills. In contrast, in the Joshua Tree National Park, which receives a sparse 5 inches of annual rainfall, there is a vast panoramic view, for miles in any direction.
After a couple of days in Los Angeles, seven of us drove in two cars to the town of Joshua Tree. There was no command central. Each had their own circadian rhythm, ranging from ants in their pants to slow pokey. Musicians, qigongers, Jenga-gamers, readers, writers, a house full of big dreamers and perhaps a singer or two. (Story and Wyeth laughed when I tried to sing the lyrics of Lizzo’s Grammy winner, About Damn Time. “It’s bad bitch o’clock, yeah, it’s thick-thirty…” I wasn’t that bad.
There was no point trying to dominate my eclectic cadre. I followed their lead. My loved ones held my hand and gave me respectful leeway for simply being, well, old.
Somehow, when the late-morning starting gate opened each day—whatever time that might be—we drove to the park. It was sunny, reasonably mild, but still winter. Spring bloom this March and April will likely be impressive with the few inches of rain they picked up in January.
Some days we split up. Cooper, my stepson, worked on his doctoral dissertation, while Story and Wyeth went shopping for vintage clothing and old vinyl records.
The Noah Purifoy Outdoor Desert Art Museum was an interesting detour for outsider garden art. And we caught the Bitchin’ Baja’s show nearby one night at Pappy’s & Harriet’s in Pioneertown. The single, Life May Throw You a Pleasant Curve, off a record the Bitchin’ Bajas made with Louisville’s Bonnie “Prince” Billy, has a lot of noodling and synthesizer knob turning.
I’m not sure when I first became aware of Joshua Tree National Park. It may have come with the tragic news of Gram Parson’s death in 1973 in the town of Joshua Tree. Parsons had been a member of The Byrds and The Flying Burrito Brothers.
Daughter Molly’s partner, Steven Matheson, knows the lay of the desert in Joshua Tree National Park. A native Californian, he’s been visiting there since childhood. Steven helped ID quite a few desert plants. Otherwise, I used the cheater phone app called “Picture This” that was quite good, although it’s making me lazy and dumb(er). I still make photos, but previously would also take a leaf or flower sample (difficult with a prickly pear cactus) and press them between the pages of a notebook. Then I would ask someone knowledgeable or wait until I could find a written reference. Even then, once sorted out, it was, and still is, important to scribble the plant name in a notebook for the sake of the memory bank.
The solitude and beauty of the California high desert made a lasting impression, or at least that’s my memory.
I have never visited Arches National Park, in southeast Utah, but after reading Edward Abbey’s “Desert Solitaire,” his remote workplace, while not quite the fire tower, became a wilderness of my imagination that coincided with Joshua Tree. Here’s a passage from Abbey, the seasonal park ranger:
“I become aware for the first time today of the immense silence in which I am lost. Not a silence so much as a great stillness—for there are few sounds: the creak of some bird in a juniper tree, an eddy of wind which passes and fades like a sigh, the ticking of the watch on my wrist—slight noises which break the sensation of absolute silence but at the same time exaggerate my sense of the surrounding, overwhelming peace.”
In 1970, in my late teens during a confusing period when my parents imagined I might be going off the rails, I took a battery of vocational tests. The psychological portion included a question, asked several ways trying to trip me up, about whether I would like to work in a fire tower. (I was imagining it was in a forest somewhere.) I answered with an unequivocal, “YES!” The recommendation from the consultant came back suggesting I should skip the fire tower. Instead, I should major in accounting, go to law school, and work in the trust department of a bank. (I have a facility for computing numbers in my head and thoroughly enjoy being around all sorts of people, but working in a bank would have turned me into a screaming meanie.) I took a detour on a slow-moving train. I majored in sociology and veered into horticulture.
Our desert trip confirmed two things: My family means the world to me. And I am glad I followed my career instincts, with my parent’s nervous but full support, instead of suggestions based on a vocational test.
Gardening has brought me closer to mindful moments and the majestic panorama from atop an imaginary fire tower.