by Will Stabley, Stabley Times
(Originally posted March 1, 2013)
36.33088, -117.74527 marks the location of a dead tree and a metal suitcase. The inland California desert is sprinkled with countless Joshua Trees, but only one is singularly iconic. Made famous by U2 in 1987 in the photo sessions for the album of the same name, that one particular Joshua Tree has gone on to be immortalized in posters and banners for the past quarter century. U2 fans have pinned down its location over the years through trial and error, gradually determining that it's nowhere near Joshua Tree National Park, but instead hundreds of miles to the north, somewhere between Yosemite and Death Valley. It's located where the proverbial streets have no name, far enough out into the middle of nowhere that the only accurate way to convey its location is by the global coordinates above. So I head north out of Los Angeles into the desert the hopes of finding what I'm looking for.
I won't be the first to visit U2′s Joshua Tree. Fans have been there, enshrined it, documented it, marked the spot - and about a decade ago, they noted that the aging tree fell over and died. It's now disintegrating in the desert wind, and I know that if I'm to ever see that tree, it must be before it disappears entirely. Nature waits for no one, after all. So I take Highway 14 north into the Mojave Desert, past Red Rock Canyon, into nowhere. I stop at a lonely gas station for a beverage, where an elderly guy whittling on the front porch shouts "Harvey you've got a customer," and the lights turn on inside. So places like that exist after all. The 14 becomes the 395, and at the southern tip of Owens Lake a right turn takes me onto a road technically called 190, but around these parts the name doesn't much matter. I drive twenty-three miles east, until the coordinates tell me that it's time to abandon my car and finish the rest of the journey on foot.
I walk southward from the road, and if I've got this right it'll only be a couple hundred yards. A single tire track, perhaps from a motorbike, seems to mark a trail through what would otherwise be nondescript roadside desert. Down into a bit of a dip, then back up... and after a few football fields, there it is. The most famous tree of its generation. Dead as it can be.
I've spent my life staring at this tree. Joshua Tree was the first album I owned, and that tree was on the inside of the album artwork. That tree was also on a poster in my bedroom growing up, and on another poster in my college dorm room. Heck, it's on a poster on my office wall right now. So I recognize its particular branches immediately, even lying on the ground, pale brown, decomposing. I already knew it was in bad shape, as I'd seen recent pictures. I realize, however, that I'm still not quite prepared for the emotional comeuppance of seeing this tree dead. But then I see that fans have assembled small desert rocks to spell out messages in the surrounding sand: one reading U2, another in the shape of a heart, still others spelling out song titles. Then I spot a suitcase with the band's logo painted on the side.
If driving hundreds of miles into the desert to find a dead tree isn't odd enough, then getting there and finding a metal suitcase tucked underneath the tree's corpse makes this journey suddenly feel like an impossibly avant grade dream. What's inside? Do I dare open it? Who's going to stop me? I undo the two metal clasps, and inside is the greatest treasure a U2 fan could hope for: a haul of artifacts left by fans over the years. U2 t-shirts from every era, sunglasses with fan messages scribbled on them, and notebooks full of messages left by visitors over the years.
"Hello U2 fans," one page of a slightly withered notebook reads. "Back for my second visit to the beloved tree." Beside it is a jar of sand that says it's from a venue the band once played in Moscow. Near the bottom is a weathered Joshua Tree cassette, which I open with some temerity in order to pull out the full album artwork and see if I can match up the skyline of the interior photo with what I'm staring in the face.
Sure enough, this is the right spot, the right tree, the right mountain line behind it. U2 stood here twenty-five years ago, in front of a random Joshua Tree in a random spot in the desert, and instantly immortalized both - which leads to the question of just how they chose this spot in the first place. The album cover photo itself (the one without a tree) was taken in Zabriskie Point in Death Valley, about an hour from here, so the band and photographer Anton Corbijn must have been driving around the desert in search of a suitable tree with a suitable background and just happened to settle on this one. Then it occurs to me that back when the tree was still alive and standing, it was visible from the road. U2 itself didn't have as hard of a time finding this tree as its fans have.
Reminding myself that this tree is about music, I pull out my phone and start playing Joshua Tree. I'd planned to use headphones, but with no one around, it seems more fitting to simply let the music play out loud from the speaker. I sit on the still-sturdy trunk of the dead tree which gave this album its name, and my favorite album gains a new dimension. High on a desert plain, where the streets have no name, I've found what I'm looking for. Feeling unprepared at having nothing to place inside the suitcase, I pull out my business card - the only item I have on me that I can part with - and on the back I scribble the first thing that comes to mind: "3/1/2013: this is my favorite day."
Suddenly, as if a scene out of the wrong movie, a fighter jet buzzes by directly overhead in an occurrence that's so overwhelmingly improbable that my first instinct is to conclude that the desert isolation has me hallucinating. I take a picture of the jet in the sky, just so I can check later and see whether it's real or imagined. Fearing that I may have indeed been out here in the heat and dirt for an hour too long, I decide to head back - but not before taking a moment to ponder this plaque next to the tree.
When I get back to the car I notice that the mile marker sign on the side of the road is blank, as if to signify that this is where the streets literally have no name. On the chance that writing on a road sign with a pen is less than legal, I won't admit to being the one who did this.
That night at a small town motel an hour away, now fully hydrated and bereft of the sand in my shoes, I look back through the hundreds of photos I've taken. It occurs to me that Joshua Trees tend to live a couple hundred years, and this one died barely a decade after the U2 photo shoot. That means the band chose one of the oldest trees in the desert, one that was perhaps even older than the United States itself, without knowing it. The odds that this band would end up outliving this tree are remarkable. Now that I've stood where they've stood, sat on the tree that I've been staring at on the poster my entire life, the next time I see them on tour, the next time I hear them perform these songs centered on this tree and what it stands for, will be all the more ethereal.
I realize after the fact, only by looking through the photos, that a new still-budding Joshua Tree has sprung up several feet away. I must have been so mesmerized by the deteriorating tree I was looking for that I failed to notice another tree next to it, still standing. Then again, we see what we want to see.
My photos also reveal that the fighter jet was indeed real. Perhaps the pilot is also a fan and wanted a closer look. Or perhaps he was simply left wondering why a lone man was rummaging through a metal suitcase while sitting on a dead tree out in the middle of the desert. My card is now a part of that suitcase's treasure trove. Perhaps one day I'll hear from a future Joshua Tree visitor who stumbles across it.
Copyright 2013 Stabley Times
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