Here lies the remains of a Joshua tree. The Joshua tree that lent its bizarre silhouette to an iconic black and white photo, and the cover of an iconic album, by an iconic band. But before I share the journey to this special tree, we need a little mood music.
Ok now, we have the appropriate soundtrack, let’s proceed. Winding out of Death Valley National Park, leaving behind the dry 47˚C (about 117˚F) heat for a slightly more comfortable 40˚C (104˚F) or so, we tracked the high desert pass. Yes, Death Valley NOT Joshua Tree National Park as you might expect, especially if you know the limited habitat in which the spiny yucca prefer to dwell.
Photography meets botany
That’s what made this one tree stand out to photographer Anton Corbijn in December 1986, as U2 and a small creative entourage followed this same route out of Death Valley. They’d spent 3-days touring the desert looking for images to illustrate their newly recorded album to be called “The Two Americas”.
As The Edge described in the autobiographical U2 by U2, “It felt right to follow the music and lyrics into the landscape we had tried to conjure up and shoot our cover in the desert.”
Following California Route 190, Corbijn spotted this lonely Joshua with its chaotic limbs. The band trekked a quarter-mile from the roadside to snap a few quick photos before filing back onto their LA-bound bus. One of those images became the centrefold of The Joshua Tree album sleeve, a record that has sold in excess of 25 million copies.
Searching for THE Joshua Tree
Thirty-three years later, armed with GPS coordinates and vague instructions we went in search of the old Tree. The scraggly centenarian blew over in 2000, complicating the hunt for its location. Yet, scanning the horizon we saw an unnatural glint. A sharp reflection that could not come from anything natural in the desert. It could have been rubbish, but as we followed a dry creek bed into the expansive plain, we knew it had to be the spot.
That reflection came from a metal case marked “U2” inside the outline of a heart. The protective case was filled with treasures left by pilgrims past, among more sizeable tributes to the band. Guitars, symbols, signs and even human bones surround the fallen tree trunk. Looking around us, the decaying yucca is literally in the middle of a windy nowhere with a view of the white-peaked Sierra Nevada in the distance. Yet people were still seeking out its desolate resting place.
Meaning in the music
For years they have searched the desert, album covers in hand, looking for the right scenery, the distinctive form of one tree on a landscape – for what? What did this tree symbolize to each of these pilgrims?
I could have spent all day reading the guest book and contemplating the profound impact of music on people’s lives. What brings a bunch of strangers to the same dead tree in the desert? Why did someone seemingly leave a relative’s remains at the site? What possessed a small group of devoted fans led by an LA guitar designer to install a plaque – a proper concrete and engraved bronze plaque to permanently mark the spot where the tree will one day turn to dust?
We are fans of U2, of course, and we always seek out places with musical connections on our travels, like Muscle Shoals, Motown and the Woodstock site. However, sifting through the tributes, there was a sense that for some people, the music had been life-changing. The experience was fascinating and poignant, it was like watching culture unfold right in front of us. I’ve been to two U2 concerts, and everyone can sing the words to the songs and moves to the music, but no one was pouring their heart out in the same way they do in the privacy and solitude of the open desert.
You can stand at Zabriskie Point and the Harmony Hotel replicating other images from the album for your Insta profile. You can visit Freemont Street, Las Vegas or the 7th and Main corner in LA, where videos for “Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For” and “Where the Streets Have no Name” were shot. However, no place is as touching as that decaying tree.
Where to find U2’s Joshua Tree
If you want to experience this yourself, you can seek out the GPS Coordinates: 36.33088, -117.74527. Due to no phone service out there, we found it easier to follow CA-190 22.5km (14mi) west of Father Crowley Lookout and look for the glint of a symbol or metal road case south of the road. Binoculars would be helpful.
It’s windy, so hold on to your hat and take plenty of water. Wear covered shoes – rattlesnakes and scorpions aren’t friendly. It will be scorching in summer and could be snowing in winter. There may be dust storms. Be patient. Don’t be surprised if a jet fighter suddenly comes roaring up the valley in a training exercise. Also, please treat the desert with respect. Take rubbish with you and don’t trample vegetation unnecessarily.
I’m listening to it now, can you tell? That’s the beauty of music. Even if you can’t make it to the desert, you can still visit The Joshua Tree.
Peace, love & inspiring travel,