Joshua Tree is a skeleton.
It is not like other places, where the energy of the landscape is contained within the living things that make it up. Here, the spirit of the land roams free, and is not restricted by a requirement to exist within something physical like a tree or a rock or a flower–in fact, it is not contained by anything at all. It walks alongside us.
The plants and animals that live here are simply a structure. They are not even a map. They can move without their physical bodies tagging along with them. Things don’t even need a body here. They can be ghosts. There are no rules. There are no limits.
I remember standing on top of a formation out in the Wonderland, last climb of the day. It was dusk and November, so the light was leaving fast. We heard a pack of coyotes yipping and howling, they could have been right next to us their calls were so loud. The three of us looked in the direction that their sounds seemed to come from, and then scanned 360 degree circles around us. They were nowhere to be seen. Like ghosts. We all turned toward each other. Let’s get out here, my friend said. I wanted to stay, but I didn’t say so. Too weird.
I’ve never seen the coyotes in Josh, but I hear them almost every evening I’m out there.
Being in a place where bodies are not boundaries, your own self, so accustomed to existing within your physical parts, seems to like this idea of being able to come and go as it pleases. It is terrified and incredibly curious at the same time. That’s what freedom always feels like.
I drove down to my Dad’s house in Rancho Mirage alone, wanting to write and be quiet for a few days. I thought, how perfect, I’ll write something marvelous about loneliness in the desert. I’ll just go out there and let it all in.
It was midday as I drove into the park yesterday. The rain had kept me from climbing for a few days, so I was itching to get out. I decided on a boulder problem out in the Barker Dam area that traverses for 80 feet or so, it doesn’t get more than a few feet off the ground. This was perfect–something I could work on without having a partner.
I trotted along the sandy trail that led to the bouldering area and realized that the last time I walked this path I was carrying my friend Chris, who had broken his ankle from a fall. I could still hear the primordial sound he made when his initial shock and adrenaline wore off. It was still there, echoing off the rocks and tangled in the yucca.
As I arrived at the boulder, I pictured Chris now, a few years later, running and climbing with a healed ankle. But despite my knowing that, I could still hear that sound, his yell. Like the cries of coyotes, it could not be seen but it was definitely there, supported and held by the skeleton of the land.
I sat on a small boulder as I pulled on my climbing shoes. Okay loneliness, I thought to myself, I’m ready for you. I’m all alone in the Mojave desert. I’ve been alone for four days now. I know you’re out here somewhere. Come and get me. But my invitation was declined. In fact, I felt less lonely than usual. I decided I was weird and started climbing.
The sun dipped closer to the horizon and the shadows of the Joshua trees stretched their arms out long. I kept making big links on the traverse, squealing with joy when I got to the fun stemming section, smiling as I slowed my breath at the rests, laughing at the wild feeling that comes from exhausted hands and forearms. It was time to rest, time to go for a walk.
I scampered up a gully. I wanted to stand on top of something. My tired arms hung heavy at my sides as I hiked up to the highest point of the formation. I sat on the boulder that served as the peak. The palms of my hands started to tingle, they became hot. My arms stretched out as long as the Mojave is wide, my legs puffed up like a balloon that would never pop. My hair fanned out like Medusa and my torso was a few miles West. It was all uncaged, my body knew of no limits. Several ghosts sat right there in front of me, in a row. It took me a moment to realize that they were all mine. Some of them weren’t as scary as I thought. I even loved a few of them. Others, I didn’t want to look at, but they understood. They were all so heavy. And like that, they moved away, dissolving into the landscape.
Loneliness never came, because loneliness is not about being away from other people. Loneliness is self-abandonment, it’s denying the dark parts of you, it’s being afraid of your ghosts. And you can do all of that when you’re surrounded by a million people.
My body was back, definitely lighter, but it still felt the same. Chemically, those ghosts changed me. And that was, and still is, totally fine. In fact, I kind of like what they did. I like their imprints. I think that is the opposite of loneliness.
The desert has a way of turning things over, exposing their dark underbellies. It’s not like a dim, comforting forest. Even standing on the desert floor is exposing–you don’t need elevation to see for miles or to experience the infinite space that always surrounds us but is rarely realized. Joshua tree is a skeleton. It’s brutally honest, there is nowhere to hide, spirits roam free. But it is alive, full of blood, and breathes off our darkness.