Even the Rocks and the Cacti Cry Out

A recent trip to Joshua Tree National Park brought home the wilderness of Lent.

Joshua Tree gives me the creeps. The landscape unnerves me—dirt, dust, cactus, and, of course, the trees themselves, scaly and spiky and twisted. They’re lined out like a crop, too intentional to make sense. How did they get here? At the top of Ryan Mountain, my husband and I study the brown land. No cell connection. No water! We keep our own jugs in the back of the car.

Boulders shaped like skulls and arches and cathedral spires interrupt the desert. These are enormous rocks, nonsensical rocks, rocks that people climb with ropes and hooks or slip in between: See the Hall of Horrors,” a slot canyon narrower than outstretched arms. These are rocks you can tumble from, cracking bones. While the sun sets, we visit 12 square miles of granite—called the Wonderland of Rocks—and scoot among the formations.

Eventually, we lose the path. I am nervous. In the twilight, the looming boulders feel unpredictable. Who knows what they’ll transform into? But there, in the narrow inlets of sand between them, we see wildflowers, growing in lavender and periwinkle and violet. They give indications of life, of some preposterous plan—like the cactus garden that stretches out along the highway, smelling of creosote, birds building nests among the spines. Again: Who put this here? Near the Hall of Horrors, a jackrabbit bounds into the shadows.

The Joshua trees themselves march on, row after row after row. The story goes that 19th-century Mormon settlers named them for the biblical prophet because their arms look like they’re raised in supplication. Supplication. An especially deferential plea. Still urgent, though, even with its acknowledgement of limited power, limited means.

The arms jut and branch …

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