Dry fingers ran over the frets like powdered bone as I laid down a busted blues lick on top of the Joshua Tree. Someone had left the guitar here, propped against a dead plant in a nameless California field. The five strings that remained mixed with the rattle and hum of a portable speaker in the cold, desert air.
1,800 miles from home—the racket bleated out across the land. I think the tree needed the blues. A feeling surrounded it, an unmistakable aura of love. Scattered notes and tokens surrounded its once proud roots, and even the young trees around it seemed to bow in respect.
Leni bowed, too. Together, we’d traveled those 1,800 miles in a bid to escape civilization for the new year. And Together, stood on the empty plain and scribbled notes to this tree, dropping them gently into a suitcase filled with dozens of others.
There are thousands of joshua trees in the high deserts of California, but for millions of people this is the Joshua Tree. This is the tree where U2 once stood, Bono under its branches, the Edge sauntering off to the side. It’s the tree that graced their album art in 1987, and it’s the tree that gave the album its name 30 years back.
Years ago, after months of combing the desert with that artwork in tow, a fan found the tree, and scattered well-wishers have sought it out ever since. Some left words, some left instruments, and some left stones.
I didn’t have anything to leave but the blues. It was the best tribute a boy from Memphis could give.
I Though it’s far from anywhere, the wandering stretch of two-lane between Death Valley and Lone Pine, California is the known location for the Joshua Tree. A Google search will deliver GPS coordinates close enough to find the shrine. So, I expected to find the tree here; maybe even a briefcase full of memories and a guitar.
What I didn’t expect to find was hard to ignore. It was a ghost from Souled Out past, clearly visible from the Joshue Tree’s shrine—the looming presence of Mount Whitney.
Mount Whitney. The last time I saw her was one of the hardest days of my life. From dawn to dusk, I’d tried to hike the 22-mile trip from her base to summit. I struck first, but the mountain struck last, sending me back to Lone Pine, barely breathing, with a battered body and a broken spirit. That was a day of failure, of raw determination turned to confidence, and confidence turned to defeat.
For over a year, Whitney has been the ghost of that defeat. Now, she became a Dickensian spirit come back in time to haunt for the holidays. But, if I had known then what I know now. If I had known that my failure at the Battle of Mount Whitney would launch me into a new world of forged determination and exploration, or a new world of friendly faces and foreign places, I’d have welcomed that spirit even as I struggled to inch higher and higher up her slopes.
It’s that spirit that galvanized this blog, and ultimately launched me to foreign shores and an entirely new perspective on life.
I put down the guitar and glared out towards the snow capped peak in the distance. In that scene, two worlds combined. In the hardest times, I’ve had a habit of throwing that 30-year old album on. Something about its cinematic soundscape always seemed to sooth the soul. Now, under the literal shadow of a personal defeat, that albums landscape did the same.
The past and the present merged over the branches of the Joshua Tree today. If the first time I saw Whitney was a failure, the second time I saw her was a success.
In the blue hue of twilight, we walked back towards the car. In the distance, a new joshua tree was springing to life under the mountain’s shadow.