The sign at 49 Palms Oasis trailhead says “THIS WAY LIES DEATH.” 

Well, not quite. But essentially. The sign warns hikers that even at the oasis, there is no accessible drinking water. People have died on this trail on fine spring days like this one. “When the water you have brought with you is half depleted, it is time to turn back,” the sign says.

 It’s very Dante-esque: ”Abandon all hope, ye who enter here.” 

We do not abandon hope, however. We do not plan to turn back. We step gingerly around the sans-serif sentinel. We read the sign, but we don’t really believe we could die. The risk is sweet, though. The dare is seductive. The tang of the forbidden thrills. (Have we considered that the Tree of Knowledge could have been a prickly pear?)

I’ve hiked a lot of trails, and the “Beware of Death” sign is a first for me. But I’m from Colorado. I’m used to dry country and bright sunlight—like time paused in the middle of a camera flash. 

The trail to possible death and a promised oasis winds away around boulders and along gravel ridges. The bleaching sun makes it almost invisible. We stop every hundred feet or so, for the view (there is no view). But the unblinking press of heat is heavy. 

None of it is sand, really. It’s all rock, whole hillsides chewed up and spat out. Though it’s hard to imagine those teeth. 

At the half-way point, the trail crosses from one desert to another. By chance, we meet a ranger who points a steady hand toward the line between home and stranger deserts—Colorado and Mojave.

I blush in the presence of a strange desert. I am exposed with my shed skins tied around my waist. I know better, of course. In intense sun and heat, layers of natural fibers like cotton and linen insulate your body and help it regulate its own temperature. The seemingly restrictive garments of other times, places, and peoples who adapted to a world without air-conditioning and sunscreen do more to inspire the desert to treat you with kindness and mutual respect than all the moisture-wicking shorts and tank tops in the world. For better and worse, modest is hottest. I still discard layers.  

Finally, off in the distance we spot green. Batting palm leaves like verdant eyelashes in the breeze. As different and shocking as the oasis is in the context of lifeless rock, it’s difficult to see, or maybe difficult to believe—like a secret. 

We hadn’t noticed the breeze before. It becomes tangible in the caressing breath on our burnt shoulders and the giggling of glossy-leaved gossips over our heads. The palms have dimmed the lights for us in here. Stones form parlor couches. We sit very still, waiting for frogs like we wait for shy cats in other living rooms. Eventually, they honor us with their fleeting presence. 

My companions climb down steep and uneven stairs into the stone cellar of the Palm House to investigate frogs or flowers or the sound of water. And I wait for them. 

There’s a man waiting there too. He is on a pilgrimage of sorts, he tells me in a British accent. A little over a year ago, his friend died. I don’t know what to say. 

I feel like I should pick a side—the desert, which at present is being so sweet, or the man the desert killed. Or perhaps the desert was merely itself, as advertised, and the man was foolish. 

“I’m sorry,” I say. 

I wonder what the man wants from this place, what he hopes to find or prove or say in chasing after loss. He’s come a long way for it, whatever it is. 

Our water is just over half gone when we regretfully begin our ascent out of the Oasis. The long, harsh shadow of the warning sign stretching toward us is a welcome sight. 

For all its wild grandeur, Joshua tree is fragile. The Joshua tree for which the park is named is different from the palms in the oasis. The Joshua Tree is sharp, forbidding, stingy with shade, and dependent on a monogamous symbiosis with the yucca moth. Well, not, I guess, monogamous. The yucca moth has other lovers—namely the yucca bush, another spiked desert plant. The yucca moth has a type. But the Joshua tree has only the yucca moth.

If the trek to 49 Palms is so dangerous, I wonder why they didn’t put the trailhead closer? Why not make it a little easier to get to paradise? 

I suppose people are people. They take water and souvenir stones, maybe even frogs, and leave trash. Even the rocks could wear away with enough feet. If your Paradise is fragile, I suppose you have to make people work for it. But it still feels wrong to have to fight paradise for the pleasure of its company. The reward of righteous labors should not be itself a transgression. 

But humans so often think they own everything they earn, even love, even land, even heaven.

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