Peaceful easy feelings
Musicians, and artists, have long been inspired by the Joshua Tree: Jim Morrison, John Lennon, The Eagles, Gram Parsons, Keith Richards, Donovan… oh, and U2. It's not surprising that such a weirdly shaped tree in a spectacular arid setting – probably combined with mind-expanding drugs – spawned High Desert creativity.
The largest of the Yuccas and a member of the Lily family, the Joshua Tree got its name from Mormon pioneers. Whatever the settlers were on at the time, the tree reminded them of the old testament prophet as they were being 'guided' to their promised land.
However early we intended to leave the Furnace Creek Resort in Death Valley for Joshua Tree National Park, it was never going to happen as we endured yet more ponderous service at breakfast. And we didn't get far down the 190, of course, before stopping to pay homage at Zabriskie Point. Badlands in the early morning; they were spectacular.
The branching gulleys fascinated me. They were created by the violent action of water and earth movements. Originally, three to five million years ago, lakes filled a long valley here, before the deepest part of Death Valley had been formed. Silt and volcanic ash that washed into the lake were deposited on its bed as the thick sedimentary layer known as the Furnace Creek Formation. Although horizontal initially, the layers were eventually tilted by seismic activity and pressure that folded the valley floor. Even later on, the layers were exposed and then eroded by periodic 'gulley washers', short sharp bursts of torrential rain. There was also volcanic activity in the region. The black layers were formed when lava oozed out of the ancient lake bed. The lava was followed by hot water which brought minerals such as borax and gypsum with it, and created the crazy assortment of coloured rocks such as those at Artist's Drive in Death Valley (see also There were plants and birds and rocks and things, June 2016) and here at Zabriskie Point.
Christian Zabriskie was vice president and general manager of the Pacific Coast Borax Company. Mining was an important industry from the last two decades of the 19th century in Death Valley and beyond. Borax was mined from the Furnace Creek Formation, but demand fluctuated and, from the 1920s onwards, attention turned to tourism. Death Valley became a national monument in 1933 and, following public opposition to the high impact of mining, legislation prohibiting prospecting was passed in 1976. The Valley was gazetted as a National Park in 1994.
The day we left Death Valley our destination was Yucca Valley, northwest of Joshua Tree National Park. We were in for a cornucopia of landscapes along the route. We continued along State Route 190 to Death Valley Junction, where we turned south for Shoshone, less than 100 miles west of Las Vegas. Spiny Chollas were increasingly in evidence.
The further south we drove, the stranger yet more beguiling the landscape became. Sand dunes loomed, ghost-like; colours mystified; skylines were expansive and craggy; and all the while the road determined its future straight as an arrow, thwarted only by the largest of obstacles. A quick photo-stop by the dunes revealed yet more spectacular flowers.
At Death Valley Junction we had picked up California State Route 127, which took us all the way to Baker, where we crossed Highway 15 (Barstow to Vegas) into the Mojave National Preserve. We were now in the Mojave Desert, and the scenery could only get better. The Preserve was created by the California Desert Protection Act in 1994. In summer temperatures are often in excess of 100 degrees (F), and yearly rainfall ranges from 4 to 14 inches. Varying moisture levels, soils, elevation and shelter from wind mean that there are more than 30 identifiable habitats in distinct regions ranging from high-elevation Pinyon-Juniper woodland and Joshua Tree woodland, to Cactus-Yucca Scrub and Desert Dunes, to Creosote Bush Scrub and Desert Wash.
These extraordinary pink pin cushions (above and right) are Barrel Cacti. They only germinate in years of favourable rainfall. As in Death Valley, we were benefitting from the consequences of exceptional rains in Southern California during October 2015.
On one occasion in San Francisco, I had remembered America's gun-owning maladjusts, and calmly speculated – in my head, I didn't share – about the possibility of one of them suddenly and violently disrupting the street where I sat sipping coffee and watching the world. I successfully buried that thought in order not to introduce fear and mistrust into a beautiful day in a beautiful city. Now, in the Mojave Desert, somewhere between the two photographs above, I was standing on the car sill and leaning on the door to get a better vantage point for a photograph. My friend pointed out a car in the middle distance, off road. I had spotted it, and we were wondering what it might be doing there when automatic gunfire shattered the tranquility of the desert. I calmly got down and insisted we drive on immediately. The Cinder Cone Lava Beds didn't seem an obvious place for target practice or shooting your supper.
We left Mojave National Preserve as we crossed Route 66. The sign and, a bit further on near Amboy, the trundling trains of the Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railway, got me excited. But after that there were no more photo-ops. We had to be at our house in Yucca Valley for 4 pm, which was going to be a bit of a push.
From thereon the journey, against the clock, became a little tedious. The Amboy Road skirts the Marine Corps Air Ground Combat Center Twentynine Palms – southeastern California is littered with military installations – and then heads due west and straight and long to Twentynine Palms, where we probably would have stayed had we not been recommended the truly awesome Jackrabbit Wash in Yucca Valley. We were only slightly late meeting Aaron there. As well as explaining how everything worked, he told us a little about how he had conceived of and built the house. It has warm wood and beautiful stonework, with which artworks are colour-co-ordinated, and lots of glass. In the winter the low sun floods in the windows and warms the stone floors which heat the place after sundown. In summer, the stone floors are cooling when the sun beats down overhead. The orientation of living areas, the use of shading and selection of glazing, and insulation and draught sealing are part of what Aaron described as a passive solar system. I loved the place and felt at home immediately.
That night, it was a bit of a trek across country from our hideaway to Pappy & Harriet's, 'saloon, nightclub and restaurant in the High Desert of California', in Pioneertown. But it was worth it. The food was inexpensive but good – we had burgers, natch – and the band was great. Tall Tales and the Silver Lining might not have had a great name but their music was a peaceful easy mix of Tom Petty, Fleetwood Mac and The Eagles. You need a hat, preferably cowboy, at Pappy & Harriet's, however. I wore my SanFran fedora, and boy am I glad I did. The hatless are oddities here.
Take Pioneertown Road, off Route 62 in Yucca Valley, for 4 miles. You can't miss the neon. Read about Pappy & Harriet's movie-set history and check out the bands here. Wish we'd had time to visit Pioneertown in the daylight.
On our National Park day we went for breakie at the Crossroads Cafe in Joshua Tree town, an Aaron recommendation. It was just the job – friendly, bustley and well-run. Advice from our waitress sent us next to a nearby climbing gear shop to buy a holdall to carry all our extra stuff home, which always seems necessary when we visit the US. And then to the Park visitor centre. For the first time in our lives, we had to queue to get into a national park. We'd bought passes at the visitor centre; others hadn't.
JT National Park evolved out Joshua Tree National Monument, proclaimed by FDR in 1936. The California Desert Protection Act of 1994 made it a National Park: it straddles both the Mojave and Colorado deserts. Its chaotic granite jumbles originated during volcanic activity. Molten magma rose from the deep and intruded into overlying rock. As the magma cooled, cracks formed; chemical weathering by groundwater widened the cracks and rounded the granite blocks; and, as surface deposits were eroded, heaps of boulders were gradually exposed.
We had last October's rain to thank again for the remarkable Yucca flowers. Some pieces of granite are huge. Others remind you of things.
We decided to drive past most of the attractions on Park Boulevard to the Cholla Cactus Garden, and then return to certain granite features on the way back when we had a better idea of time. Chollas are not to be messed with. I had a painful experience years ago when a 'jumping cholla' attached itself via a spine down my thumbnail. I was on my own on a desert path, and removing the wretched thing without attaching it to my other hand was a challenge. Some of them are quite beautiful, however, while others produce spectacular yellow flowers like mini corn-on-the-cobs.
On the way back, we drove as far down the Geology Tour Road as we could without a 4WD. There are information brochures at the start that explain features identified by markers along the way. I have long since forgotten most of the geological explanations but the many piles of rocks were spectacular – especially side- or backlit.
Unfortunately, we didn't see much wildlife the whole day. I think this lizard had only just emerged: I've read that Fence Lizards are dark before they warm up into their normal colours.
Finally we before we left the Park, I decided I wanted a silhouette of a Joshua Tree, which proved more difficult than you'd think, despite the sun beginning its descent in the west.
We decided to enjoy our wonderful house more by picking up a pizza for supper and opening a bottle of Artesa Albariño from our Napa Valley stash. But first, a beer in the Joshua Tree Saloon, which was packed with characters. What a great place.
Oh, I almost forgot the crazy sign awards. Yucca Valley, you did well! I still can't fathom the connection between flash flooding and fire.
Our last day in America. There was much to achieve that morning. I set an alarm for sunrise photographs; we wanted to walk up the hill behind the house; then we had to pack, leave our wonderful house pristine, eat a hearty breakfast and be in Palm Springs by 1 pm.
We joined the Christopher Columbus Transcontinental Highway (Interstate 10) by an impressive wind farm. From there it wasn't far to Palm Springs, Thousand Palms, and Palm Desert, where we were actually headed. There are very many palms in these parts.
The San Andreas Fault (SAF) is not a dramatic crack in the landscape that bisects roads or offsets water courses. It is a zone, varying from 100 feet to 2 miles in width, between the Pacific Plate and the North American Plate. The plates here are moving at about 1.5 inches a year, and the motion is mostly horizontal and parallel to the fault plane: SAF is known as a strike slip (or transform) fault.
From Palm Desert, we were driven east in the brightest red Jeep imaginable into the Coachella Valley on our Desert Adventures San Andreas Fault Jeep Tour. We met in the parking lot of Coco's Bakery. Our driver was a jolly but bossy retiree with a keen interest in plants but less knowledge of geology. She threw the Jeep around like a pro. Our fellow adventurers were a young couple from New York who didn't say much and an old couple from Indianapolis who said far too much – and were almost certainly Republicans.
We were in shadow mountain desert; that is, any rain had fallen on the mountain to the west, not where we were. We drove through scrubland until we could see a line of palms at the base of the Indio Hills. The oasis is made possible by spring water released to the surface by plate movement along the SAF. As one plate grinds against the other, what is known as fault gouge is created. This is usually unconsolidated material that allows seepage of groundwater, hence the growth of vegetation, including the California Fan Palm, the state's only native palm. So these trees trace the fault at the foot of the hills. It was noticeably cooler among the trees.
We moved on to the canyons. Slot canyons; that is, very narrow ones. These sedimentary rocks had been sculpted by water, and eroded by particles carried by the wind, and possibly tilted or folded during seismic activity. They had not, however, been created directly by movement of the San Andreas Fault, and SAF was nowhere to be seen. I expected round ever corner that there would be a dramatic displacement of rock layers, but no. In the end we asked where it was, but we had already been and seen the closest we would get; the trace palms and their springs. We were not on the Coachella Valley Preserve here but Metate Ranch, a commercial business providing tourists with exciting desert adventures in whacky jeeps rather than helping amateur geologists realise their San Andreas dreams.
My disappointment was profound. I wished I'd done more research before our trip to identify the right location for the kind of evidence I craved. I suspect we would have needed an off-road vehicle, a lot more time, and possibly even a light aircraft! I diverted my attention to the wild flowers in the canyons and some rather different scenery beyond.
We drove into Palm Springs and went walkabout, but were increasingly distracted by the impending drive to Los Angeles International through a labyrinthine freeway system on Oscars night. We had to get on with it. Our wonderfully varied road trip was almost done. Another two or three days, I reckon, and we could have explored between Simmlet and Parkfield, or near the Carrizo Plain, for cracks in the crust. Until the next time, America.