I’ll show you a place. High on the desert plain, where the streets have no name.
I was 17 and a senior in high school when U2’s The Joshua Tree was released in early 1987. While I’ve always been a U2 fan, it’s that album that has always been my very favorite. The music and the images from that album are burned into my memories of being a teenager. I have to admit, I really hadn’t thought much about where those images were taken and had no idea that fans would search the site out. When I made my first few treks out to Joshua Tree National park in 2013, I think I automatically assumed that The U2 Joshua Tree was somewhere in the park. How wrong I was! In early 2015 I came across a news story about how someone had defaced the iconic Joshua Tree. The tree having died and fallen over sometime in early 2000, someone had taken a saw to one of the limbs to take a piece of the tree as a souvenir. It was that story that clued me in to where the tree was and that the tree had been a fan pilgrimage site for a couple of decades. I decided that I was going to have to visit the site to see it for myself.
The U2 Joshua Tree lies in the Mohave Desert, high on the desert plain where the streets have no name. There are no markings along the road to point the way, no parking lot and no services. The story I’ve heard goes something like this: U2 had been working on the as yet unnamed album in 1986. In December of that year the band, along with their photographer, were travelling from Reno to Joshua Tree by bus. They made stops in Death Valley, where photographer Anton Corbijn shot the photo for the album cover. As they made their way from Death Valley to Joshua Tree, Corbijn spotted this lone Joshua Tree along Highway 190 and told the bus driver to stop. They all walked out to this seemingly lone tree in the middle of nowhere and those photos were used inside and on the back of the album cover. That one lone tree in the desert became the most famous Joshua Tree ever!
I made my way out into the desert in search of the famous U2 Joshua Tree using coordinates found online. When my GPS showed that I was near the spot in the desert where the tree could be found, I found a dirt turn out along Hwy 190, parked the car and grabbed my gear. I set out on foot to find the sacred spot in the vast desert using the GPS on my iPhone. I veered right and kept my eyes out for a tall skinny Joshua Tree that I knew was near the spot I was looking for. After wandering the desert for about 45 minutes, I realized that I was way off the mark. The spot should be fairly close to the road, within a few hundred yards. I reset my path and within about 15 minutes, I saw the gleam of the silver suitcase in the desert. I had found what I was looking for!
I was so excited to see the tree, now fading into the desert but still sturdy. I was also excited to be able to see my car from the tree, all that searching and I could have literally drawn a straight line from my car door to the site and it wasn’t even far. Mental notes were taken for a future trip. With The Joshua Tree album playing on my iPhone, I opened the suitcase to see what was inside. I felt like I was on a grand adventure, like I was Indiana Jones! Inside the case I found Ziploc bags containing notebooks containing notes and photos from previous visitors from all over the world. I was glad to find fresh notebooks and a pen as I had planned to bring a photo of a Joshua Tree and a sharpie to leave a note… but I had forgotten them at home. There were several copies of the original album, photos, t-shirts and my favorite item… a vinyl record that says U2’s Joshua Tree is Located In God’s Country.
After I left a note in the notebook, I surveyed the area. There are plaques of all sorts that have been left by fans, rocks spelling out “U2” and song titles as well and just designs I couldn’t quite make out. The top of the tree is donning a U2 t-shirt. I wanted to get a photo of the tree that shows it’s shape, so standing on the end of the tree trunk, I point my camera down into the desert. There’s not as much left of the tree as there used to be, but the limb that had been cut has been repaired by some caring fan.
As I was taking photos of the tree, all of a sudden I got buzzed by a low flying jet. I assume it was an F-16, but what do I know? It was amazing! This little trek into the desert had turned out to be epic! I found the tree, I had the music going, I got to see and touch all the special items left by fans far and wide AND a F-16 flyover!! This was so worth the trek. I finished up my photos, placed everything back into the case and left it all as I found it. I packed up all my gear and rubbed the plaque for good measure then headed back to the car. As I walked back to the car…another F-16 flyover! Dang! Totally unprepared. I pulled the camera from my bag… if there was a next time, I’d be ready. Five minutes later…another F-16 flyby… and still I failed to capture it. 🙁 But really, amazing amazing afternoon. Next time I go… I’m just going to sit in the desert waiting for the planes.
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