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John Denver and the Return to Joshua Tree Part 1 (of 2)

Updated: Sep 9, 2019

Something seemed to be calling me out of Los Angeles, to hit the road before summer started.

Living in L.A., it’s easy to get trapped in what I call “the bubble”—a force field of traffic surrounding a cacophony of car horns, sirens, barking dogs, and millions of people on the move, mosts of them choosing the same grocery store line I do, impatiently shaking their heads as they scroll through Instragram.

A road trip to one of the L.A.’s surrounding natural areas is the perfect antidote. I always relax, let my guard down, and get a fresh perspective. There’s also a wonderful sense of mystery beforehand. What will I encounter this time?

In April I started planning a trip that would take me to Joshua Tree National Park in California and then onto Zion National Park in Utah. I had unfinished business in Joshua Tree and wanted to start there.

This is About Photography

I visited Joshua Tree shortly after I got my first DSLR. I had put together a little kit with a tripod, a few lenses, and a shoulder bag, and was ready to finally explore the park.

It was Thanksgiving night, 2016. I left my West Hollywood apartment to the sound of techno music from my neighbors’ party, and arrived at Joshua Tree just in time for sunrise at 5:30 a.m.

I explored all day as the sun raged, and shot until total darkness, freezing temperatures, and dead camera batteries. I had no camping gear at the time, so I packed up and drove back to L.A., exhausted.

I made notes. I needed a headlamp. Hiking boots. A backpack. To do more research. Probably to camp. I vowed to return.

My First Photo Print

Of hundreds of images captured that day, I felt only one was worthy of print—this one, which I called “Black Friday."

Working with a local lab, I ordered about 30 prints with the intention of giving most away as Christmas gifts.

As I worked on the project, I couldn’t help but wonder why a lifelong musician was suddenly producing a piece of southwestern decor. But the whole thing felt right, so I took Nike’s “Just Do It” attitude and followed through.

After some trial and error matting the prints, I had about 15 good ones, in clear art sleeves, ready to go. I’ll never forget the stack of finished prints on my couch as I packed to visit family for the holidays. It was a true first and a great feeling to gift a piece of my journey to the desert.

Taking it Into My Own Hands

My excitement didn’t fade. Over the next year, I put together a home printing system and took online courses in inkjet photo printing. Yes, there’s that much to learn. And I’m still refining my process.

“Your First 10,000 Photographs Are Your Worst"

That quote is attributed to Henri Cartier-Bresson.

A return to my “Joshua Tree 2016” folder in Adobe Lightroom seems to back up this claim. Some real head scratchers. F/what at ISO what?

I had to get back to Joshua Tree, and this time I wanted to wake up in the park. No techno.

I was lucky to score a campsite reservation, they sell out almost immediately once released. I chose a regular campsite rather than go into “backcountry”—which is often free in national parks—because I love to build a fire. You need a proper campsite with a fire ring to do that, at least in the summer in California.

I packed up for the big trip and hit the road.

I Pulled Over for This

When I got into the park itself, it didn’t take long before I got out to snap a few photos.

Jumbo Rocks Campground

Jumbo Rocks is about a twenty minute drive into the park from the nearest entrance. The campground has no running water and very little shade, but it’s pretty central in the park and was only about $23 a night.

iPhone snap of my campsite at Jumbo Rocks.

My camping setup is pretty simple, a home base is all I need. So simple, in fact, that I didn’t make a list.

As I set up camp, it dawned on me: something was missing.

My tripod!

I couldn’t believe it. All that preparation. And Utah for the first time—what the hell was wrong with me? It had to be under a car seat or something.

I ripped through the hot car a few times, and finally accepted that it was sitting in my apartment, packed in its bag.

I remembered passing a Walmart close to the freeway, probably a solid 40 minutes from my campsite. There’s no cell service that deep into the park, so Google wasn’t an option, but I had a feeling Walmart would have something.

The Lady at Walmart

I marched back to the electronics section and found a full-size tripod under lock and key.

The woman that unlocked the case was friendly, and was OK with me taking the tripod out of the box to check it out. I felt I had a moment to shop but better hurry. But no one tried to pull her away.

66 inches—about the same size as my “real” tripod—and only $32. Sure, it was made of cheap plastic. But it was a full-size tripod.

“I think that’s the one,” she said with a smile. “I think you’re right,” I said.

She was kind. The store seemed spacious and to be moving at a slower pace. Not everyone was in their 20’s or trying to look like it. This was not L.A. It occurred to me I didn’t have to validate parking. I had plenty of time.

I walked out with my new tripod and finally felt in charge of my trip, relaxed. Oddly, I didn’t think to share an Instagram ‘story’ or tell anyone I was there. I put some music on and enjoyed the drive back into the park.

Stay Parked

I made coffee, unpacked my tripod, and tested a few things out.

Checking out the tripod (see reflection in glasses).

With another full day ahead, I decided to simply grab my camera stuff and go for a short hike across from the campground.

This was one of the Jumbo Rocks near my campsite.

The sun was just starting to set.

I love this shot and have already committed it to print on the perfect paper:

Near the main road, I saw a young couple posing for a photographer, likely an engagement session. “I’d love to do something like that,” I thought.

But there was plenty to keep me busy. When you haven’t scouted in advance, Joshua Tree at sunset feels like a photographic shopping spree—so many options, with the light changing every few seconds as the sun falls below the horizon.

I hiked for a while and made a few attempts at interesting photos, accepting that I had a long day and was just getting settled.

Putting my new tripod to good use.

Eventually I was in almost total darkness and realized I had wandered off a bit. I walked carefully with my headlamp full blast, and grabbed the whistle around my neck a few times just to make sure it was handy.

Soon I saw the glow of an oncoming car, and knew I was almost back to Jumbo Rocks.

This Isn’t Really About Photography

Some campsites were already dark, but I was determined to start a fire.

It was windy but I got it going. I sat near the ring, enjoying the peace and focus that comes with watching a campfire. No phone. Didn’t even set my lantern up that night.

Then I heard an acoustic guitar a few campsites away. Someone was strumming, the chord progression sounded familiar.

I heard a few young female voices sing, in unison, “country roooooooads, take me hooooooommeee, to a plaaaaaaaace, where I beloooooong.”

John Denver.

The music trailed off, then started again a few minutes later. Same girls, different key. “To a plaaaaaaaaaace, where I beloooooooong.” Higher this time.

The dim, orange glow of my little fire danced across the rock walls. The Jumbo Rocks appeared to be man made in that light—clean, perfect—as if Joshua Tree was a an amusement park, built for us to enjoy.

I slid more of my morning pages beneath the fire logs, keeping an eye on the flames as the wind pulled them around.

About to sit back down, I looked up at the sky and was dumbstruck. More stars than I had ever seen. Ever. It was like a prankster had Photoshopped a million stars and turned the contrast to 100.

“Wow,” I said, shaking my head. “Ho-ly shit.”

I felt that feeling, the one where I’m connected to something greater. I felt I belonged right there.

There’s no photo to share. I was too tired to set up my camera and I’m glad I didn’t. Some moments are just moments. Moments where I’m not a creative person, a photographer, a musician, or anything except a spirit in awe. Raw, authentic moments that feel like real life. They can be hard to find.

Just then, the Milky Way looked like a gridlocked freeway across a metropolis of star charts. I let out a breath.

“Instagram,” I thought. “How ridiculous.”

I meant everything. The game of life in my phone.

What a sham. There’s something bigger.

There’s absolutely nothing.

The wind blew, sparks crackled.

“Maybe I’ll write about that,” I thought.

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