Just over a week ago I was driving a rental car through Joshua Tree National Park, my husband in the passenger seat. I haven’t been to many deserts, and my husband has been to even fewer. We did the park from top to bottom; a local friend later described the more obscure south entrance as the "hipster" one, if National Parks can have hipster points of interest. When you drive Joshua Tree north to south you start off high and roll slowly downhill; for long stretches of the trip I realized I hadn't touched the gas pedal at all for several minutes, was just lightly grazing the brake while gravity did the work.
The west entrance appears some time after the Visitor Center, where we stopped to use the restroom and to peruse the handful of informative exhibits. From there, we drove through a curious little neighborhood of short dreamlike houses set in the middle of low-fenced yards of red-brown dirt, stuck here and there with a Joshua tree, each looking like a tangled fist reaching out of the ground on a spindly arm.
Once inside the park itself, the Joshua trees are endless. It’s not like the desert I imagined, not like the red rocks of Nevada and Arizona. It's vigorously green and alive. A short drive in, we stop at an empty picnic area and I get out of the car, to take a picture. I immediately see some kind of sand-colored desert chipmunk. I didn't know deserts had chipmunks, but there it is, fluffy tail and stripes and all, crouched in the shade of a low yucca plant, holding something small between its paws.
My husband stays in the car. The NPS website had a whole section about "bee safety" at Joshua Tree -- it warned that bees in dry weather are drawn to moisture anywhere they can find it, and sometimes they can find it on your car's air conditioning apparatus, or in the sweat on your face. They just want your water to take back to cool their hives, the literature explained. Don't swat at them, that might make them angry and sting you. The literature did not offer any suggestions on how to otherwise handle an intrusive bee. I wonder if they can be reasoned with.
My husband, normally the intrepid sort, harbors a deep dislike of bees, so he chooses to enjoy the scenery from the cool interior of the car. It's probably a wise decision, considering the temperature outside is something like 116F. It doesn't bother me, though -- or it might, but I can't recognize it. I'm never bothered in the desert. My mind slows down, I'm not distracted, I forget that I’ve ever been anywhere else, like all my life I've been a lizard secretly posing as a person, and returned to my natural home I forget all about being a person, and when I step from my car and face the Joshua Tree landscape all I can imagine doing is walking away into that place, away from the road and everything else, forever.
Back in the other world, I recall this feeling as a sort of vertigo, only instead of standing at a great height and feeling drunk with the possibility of falling, I stand at the edge of the road's asphalt knowing every step I take out among the shrubs and strange desert trees, more of my humanness will fall away from me, I will be scooping it from my soul and dropping it by handfuls with every movement.
I step back, onto the parking lot of the empty picnic area, where I remember who I am. I listen to the silence. Such a silence. I try to record the silence in a video on my phone, but it will never sound the same later, because how do you capture nothing, how do you wrap nothing up and save it to return to when you need it? It is a perfect silence, and when a bird sings or a lizard crunches into a dried out desert shrub, it only draws a clearer line around the quiet. It is a silence I want to live inside, it is the calmest place I've ever been.
I pull my husband from the car so he can hear it, assuring him that there are no bees. When we've stopped moving, he smiles at me broadly, as if the silence is a magic trick. I'm smiling too. We both stand as still as we can, listening, until he says he can hear the folds of my skirt rustling in the slight breeze. We can hear each other breathing.
We drive up to something called Keys View, from which we are supposed to be able to see the San Andreas fault in the valley below, a neat line sliced through the earth by unseen planetary forces below. It's hazy (a result of pollution, the literature says) and the effect is compounded by smoke from a wildfire in Big Bear, so the overlook seems to peer down into nothing. As the top of the overlook itself is already crowded with seven or eight people -- the only people we will see all day -- we sit in the car, staring over a rock wall with muddled haze beyond, and wait for them to clear out.
They tap themselves on the windows gingerly, like tiny zombies clamoring for our flesh. They swoop under and around the car. They surround us. We are afraid to get out. "Fuck," I say, "I guess the park service really wasn't kidding about bee safety."
I suggest we move the car a bit down the road and then get out. But how will we get back in, once the bees take the car from us? We'll cross that bridge when we come to it. As soon as the car is parked again, the bees return. They seem angrier now, flinging their tiny bee bodies at the glass, evidently demanding our human water. We don't get out of the car. We drive away, a little terrified. We find an alternate overlook, which is evidently the wheelchair-accessible option, and get out to enjoy that for a few minutes when something buzzes ominously around our heads. We hustle back to the car.
"I am not getting out of the car again," says my husband.
I do get out, again and again. I get out to take pictures. I get out to peer at rocks heaved up from miles below the surface hundreds of millions of years ago. I get out to touch the stalklike trunks of the Joshua trees themselves, to look under low crouching shrubs where lizards are hiding. I know what a rattlesnake sounds like, I know to avoid shady rock piles, I know when to back away.
The official park brochure has a section entitled “THINGS YOU NEED TO KNOW,” and the first thing on the list is, “People have died here from preventable accidents.” The italics are the National Park Service’s emphasis, not mine. I didn’t read this until later, and it really didn’t need to be said anyway; there is something about this otherworldly place that brings one’s mortality into vivid focus. Without cell service, without the car, without patrolling Rangers, without water, living in this desert is an impossible mystery. Without all of these things I would die here and be a feast for the creatures that know how to survive, and they would consume what was left of me with no different feeling than if I was a fox or a rat. More than we belong to ourselves, we belong to the dirt, and no amount of intelligence, wit or passion can prevent our eventual absorption by earthly powers whose dominion we only temporarily delude ourselves into forgetting.
We make the whole drive, and at the Cottonwood Visitor Center at the southern end, I use a bathroom with a distressing warning on the door: “Please keep door closed. (Snakes enter and hide behind the toilet.) Thank you.” The explanation seems a bit much, but is probably functional; I’m sure everyone makes damn certain that door is closed. I like the matter-of-factness, the inevitability of snakes snaking. I thoroughly interrogate the entire bathroom for snake involvement before using it, thinking how even encroaching civilization must prostrate itself to the desert.
Leaving is difficult. I don't want to go. We drive back to our hotel in La Quinta.
I can't be sure whose idea it was first, to go back -- I think it was mine. Maybe my husband vocalized it first. Either way, after dinner we returned. At the park’s southern entrance, we drive into the most complete darkness; the moon is barely a sliver, the high beams on the car casting such impossibly black shadows on either side of us, I hate to use them. We want to see the Milky Way.
Light pollution is so ubiquitous in so much of the US today, we barely realize what we’re not seeing in the night sky, that the sky we look up at would be unrecognizeable to people of only a hundred years ago. Joshua Tree, owing to its dry climate, and to being remote and removed from major cities but also accessible to cars, is one of the better places in the country to look into the center of the galaxy.
I wanted to get us back to the parking lot with the snake-toilet bathroom. Traffic is hardly a problem at 1am in Joshua Tree, but being so dark, I felt exposed in the slight roadside turnouts -- on the off chance a car did come by, we could easily be hit in the darkness. I barely realized how slowly I was driving; I felt deeply afraid of the landscape, of the darkness, of the lack of connection to civilization and hypothetical rescue. I considered turning around, driving back to the hotel, watching something innocuous on Netflix on my phone, forgetting that wild places still exist, or that I don’t know what to do with myself in them. But we press on. At one point, I pull over to take a deep breath and relax.
My husband says, "Turn off the engine and all the lights for a second," and so I do. And it is terror itself, even inside the car. My phone registers no service. There are Rangers somewhere in this Rhode Island-sized park, but who knows where. It is so dark. The landscape looms black and interminable. We should have brought more water, I think, touching the half-full liter bottle of SmartWater in the cup holder beside me. The literature said you should have a gallon of water per person. I am anxious, scared, I don’t know what I am doing, I don’t know who I am here in this lightless wilderness, ground down to my basic form, a human, a body, an animal, in the world, nothing else.
I go to restart the car and it doesn’t work. My husband and I freeze with shock, and I feel my blood go cold. What’s wrong? Why won’t the car start? I realize I forgot to take it out of gear before turning it off. It’s like the desert is laughing at me. I shift into park, start the engine, and we go on.
At the parking lot, we finally leave the car. The parking lot feels safer, there is more asphalt between us and the unbroken desert, an utterly absurd and meaningless boundary my psyche has drawn between wild and civilization, even though clearly the wild has no problem crossing the line into civilized bathrooms. I look up and feel dizzy. I keep a hand on the car door, sensing a surreal danger that I will be swept off my feet and sucked into space.
The stars are just…. impossible.
There are so many. They feel so close, the whole sky feels fake at first, like my brain can’t process it, like the only way I can understand is to tell myself I am standing in a planetarium, that I’m not really here. And then they feel impossibly vast, and I stare at the Milky Way, the galaxy’s core, trying to understand what it means. A meteor winks by. I let go of the car.
I don’t feel at one with the universe, and I don’t feel like I am made of stardust. I feel, rather, a profound appreciation of my own irrelevance. I, as an individual, and everything that I do, and everything that I worry about, it all means nothing against this backdrop of space, as I am standing here in starlight shining from faraway suns that may have gone cold and dark and dead thousands of years ago, this distant ghost light of stars humans will never know standing as a more persistent memory than anything I will leave behind. As revelations go, this one is extraordinarily soothing.
We stand there for a long time, holding hands, studying the stars, my husband and I, until a close encounter with a curious bat echolocating around our heads sends us scuttling back to the car. The bat wins. We’re going. At the park’s edge, just before rejoining I-10, we discover a stowaway -- a small pale moth has fixed itself to the car’s lit instrument panel. I pull over, and we spend another twenty minutes trying to coax the moth out of the car, both of us unwilling to just crush it with a napkin and call it done. “You belong here,” I try to explain to it. “You don’t really want to leave.” I draw it away from the instrument panel with the much brighter flashlight on my phone; with some convincing we brush it out of the open passenger door, and it flashes soft sandy wings at us before vanishing in the dark.
“It’ll probably just get eaten by a bat,” I say.
“Circle of life,” my husband says.
We drive out of Joshua Tree in silence.