Leaving the familiarity of the landscapes of the Great Plains and Rocky Mountains behind I ventured to Southern California. I had a singular destination in mind, Joshua Tree National Park. Ever since I first saw photographs of the park, the trees haunted me, their unique shapes emblazoned in my mind igniting my photographic inspiration. I silently crossed the border into the park. At first there were only a few of the signature trees, but as I drove deeper those few became many. I pulled off the road and parked the car. Exiting the vehicle, the dry desert heat surrounded me. I breathed deeply and slowly walked up to one of the looming trees. The branches beckoned me closer like outstretched arms. I stood silent for a minute and then walked back to my car. I was ready to explore and photograph this new terrain.
After reviewing the map I decided that I needed some exercise. I found a hike to the summit of Ryan Mountain that looked promising – a 1,000 foot climb in about a mile and a half. That sounded like just the right amount of exertion. I easily found the trailhead and quickly began my trek. I passed a couple in the first ten minutes and then I saw no one for the rest of the hike. The unrelenting sun beat down on me and I would stop occasionally and sip some cool water. In this landscape I didn’t seem to sweat, but I knew it was because of the low, low humidity and I had to keep hydrated. As the sun began to sink low in the sky I doubled my efforts. I arrived at the top and gazed in all directions. The rocky landscape stretched out in all directions. From the overlook the famous Joshua Trees seemed miniscule, almost indiscernible from the rocks and other shrubs that seemed to thrive in this hostile environment. I sat and rested for a few minutes before heading back down. Night would soon arrive and I wanted to make sure it was still light when I got back to my car.
I had heard that the dry desert air made Joshua Tree a prime location for star gazing. I initially scoffed at the idea. To me the Sandhills of Nebraska or the wildnerness of Colorado had to be much better locations for seeing the stars. After all, the city of Palm Springs is practically nestled up to the park. Surely, being hundreds of miles from any sizable population has to make celestial gazing better by far. As I began to drive out of the park on the evening of the first night I took it slowly and let darkness descend. As the light of twilight dimmed on the western horizon I pulled to the side of the road and gazed up. Stars twinkled, everywhere and then there was the silence. No chirping of crickets or chirping of birds. It was as though sound was just as foreign as rain was to this land. I continued to watch and the arc of the Milky Way slowly became visible to the south. I setup my camera in the blackness and used the light of the screen of my camera to mount it to my tripod. Somehow I managed to make out the shape of a tree in my viewfinder with the lights of our galaxy behind it. I fumbled with the focus in the darkness. I clicked the shutter and waited for what seemed like an eternity, but it was only 30 seconds. In the screen I could make out the silhouette of the tree and the stars beyond. Satisfied, I grabbed my gear and headed back to the hotel for a night’s rest.
On the second day of my journey I decided to enter from the southern entrance and drive north. After many miles of rocky terrain these prickly plants seemed to spring from nowhere. I stopped and walked the short path through the Cholla Cactus garden and was careful not to touch. The sun was low in the sky and the late afternoon light filtered through the sharp needles creating a golden outline around each cactus.
In researching Joshua Tree I had read that there was a natural rock arch in the park. It was a popular photographic destination, for good reason. While I try to find new and unique subjects to capture, I felt like I needed to find this arch. Parking by the side of the road, I begin hiking in to the part of the park the arch was said to be. As I walked by a rock, what I thought was a crack on the rock seemed to move. Shaking it off, I continued on and realized that the next rock also had a crack that seemed to move. Determined to find the source, I hunched over and looked into a deep enclave. Staring back at me was a small lizard. I slowly reached for my camera and snapped a few shots before startling him. He turned, looked back at me annoyed and scurried off leaving me to stare into an empty crack.
After only a few minutes I found the arch. I set my gear down and walked all around it trying to determine what I wanted to capture. Twilight would arrive in about a half hour and the sky was clear. I sat down and waited for sunset hoping that some clouds would somehow magically drift in making my job of composition easier. I walked the length of the arch sliding my hands against the rock, feeling it’s rough texture and warm temperature. This place that seemed so inhospitable also had such beauty and life. America’s song “Horse with No Name” began to run through my head. I found myself humming the tune – “In the desert you can remember your name ‘Cause there ain’t no one for to give you no pain”. I laid back on one of the larger rocks and stared into the blue sky. It was not long before the sun disappeared below the horizon and a purple hue slowly began to replace the blue and the arch face began to glow with a warm ambient hue. At that moment I had found my shot.
On the last evening of my trip I decided to do as I often do, find a path off the main road and follow it until I see something interesting. Joshua Tree has several sandy one lane roads that seemed perfect for this purpose and I started down the first one I found that seemed to lead into a section filled with trees. Along the way I came upon a Mustang that from the tire tracks appeared to had gone from one side of the road to the other in a haphazard manner. As I passed it, I saw that 2 tires were blown out and a partially flattened cactus was strewn about. A good warning for me to make sure no cactus jumped out in front of me.
Clouds floated through the sky, the first real clouds I had seen in three days. As I made my way down the sandy road I found myself surrounded by Joshua Trees in all directions. Finding a small area devoid of cacti I pulled over and stopped. I walked around looking for several compositions. Settling on a few possibilities I setup my camera in anticipation of twilight. As the sun descended the clouds first glowed orange and then purple and the same ambient warm hues lit the trunks and branches of the trees. I snapped away enjoying the beauty of the scene. Time seemed to pass slowly for a time and then the light was gone. My time with the trees and the desert landscape was at an end. I packed my gear and slowly headed back down the dusty road. Although it had been a quick trip to Joshua Tree National Park, it was memorable and I hope to one day again photograph this landscape.