“… Lord, I’ve never lived where churches grow …” —Johnny Cash
Joshua Tree National Monument is a special place in the desert. I say that because I’ve walked along some of its lonely trails, camped there, scrambled over the huge boulders, looked up at the night sky, and served as acting superintendent when working for the National Park Service. I love walking in the desert, seeing the bighorn sheep, and riding my motorcycle through the park, all while feeling solitude. In 1994, under the California Desert Protection Act, this monument became a U.S. National Park.
It is an easy ride from most places in Southern California, and my brother Gilbert and I have made several trips here together. We like the Belle and White Tank campgrounds, as fewer people use them, but you will need to bring water. We buy our firewood in Twentynine Palms and get water at the Oasis Visitor Center. Tonight, the moon is out and we take a quiet walk in the desert from our secluded campsite. The rocks still radiate heat from the desert sun. Gilbert is a bit nervous about walking in the dark, even with the moonlight, but we soon lay on a smooth boulder and look up at the night sky. Amazing. Perfect. Wild. The ambers from our campfire light up the dark sky and our radio picks up a nice country western station.
“Gilbert, when I was in charge here, our maintenance foreman came into my office and said ‘Guess who I just saw?’ I glanced up and asked him ‘who?’ ‘JOHNNY CASH!’ he said. Looking him straight in the eye, I asked, ‘How? When? Where?'”
It seems that Johnny Cash was traveling through the park in a big Cadillac that got stuck in the sand off the road. “When I drove up to see if the driver needed help,” the foreman continued, “the rear window rolled down and the person inside said, ‘Hello, I’m Johnny Cash and we could sure use a tow to get us out of the sand.'” “The next time Johnny Cash is around, you be sure to call me first,'” I said in my most authoritative voice.
He is my favorite singer and I love his songs, poetry, and music. After the foreman left, I began to wonder, why was Johnny Cash here? I know that he gained inspiration from people and his environment. Perhaps this desert park was something that helped him with a song. Perhaps he needed to breathe the fresh air or look up at the bright night sky or maybe just touch these massive big boulders. Maybe he was doing exactly what we were doing â€¦ seeking solitude in the desert.
Our bikes cruise easily through the park and it is one of the most relaxing rides; the curves flow naturally. On one of my trips to La Joya, NM, I heard on my transistor radio some disturbing news as the announcer spoke in a sorrowful tone. “Breaking news—Johnny Cash has died at age 71.”
It is one of those moments in life when you know exactly where you were and what you were doing. His music, his poetry, his words of wisdom began playing over and over in my head.
There is one song that he sings about God and nature, and it continues to speak to me on my adventures along the trail.
… Lord, I’ve never lived where churches grow
I loved creation better as it stood
That day you finished it so long ago
And looked upon your work and called it good
I know that others find you in the light
That sifted down through tinted window panes
And yet I seem to feel you near tonight
In this dim, quiet starlight on the plains …
Planning a Visit
Joshua Tree National Park spans nearly 800,000 acres across delicate, hardy, varied terrain. The Colorado and Mojave Deserts come together here, and the higher and wetter Mojave is where you’ll find the Joshua tree. There are nine campgrounds offering about 500 developed campsites, with restaurants and grocery stores available in nearby communities. Keep a park map handy and drive slowly to protect wildlife. In the summer, expect intense sunlight, high heat, and low humidity. Drink plenty of water and don’t forget to eat!
Day hiking, Ranger-led activities, visitor centers and museums, geology motor tours, stargazing, picnicking, rock climbing and bouldering, camping, birding, and wildflower viewing.
Open 24/7/365, weather permitting. Highest visitation is in fall and during spring wildflower season in March and April. It is very common for campgrounds to fill on weekends. Arriving in the middle of the week will improve your chances of a campsite.
$10 motorcycle; $10 individual; $20 vehicle. All passes valid up to seven days for Joshua Tree National Park. Annual passes $30. For more information or to purchase a pass, visit www.nps.gov/jotr.
Text and Photography: Robert Griego
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