Several years ago, in Joshua Tree National Park
There is a moment there that I lose myself. I stand alone, an empty path snaking before me, and behind, and it feels as if the very sky descends to meet the earth. What I see is disorienting in the best way: a desert gilded in peaches-and-cream light, an arid land bursting into dreamlike bounty.
Last night the rains began just as dusk fell. I remarked a small cluster of teddy bear cholla cacti shiver under the fine drops, their stubby and furred arms growing silvery and defined in the waning light. We packed up the climbing gear, piled in the van, and drove through the oceanic desert to our base camp. The land had turned blue and purple and hazy and its transformation captivated me. A cool wind ruffled the scraggly tufts on the Joshua trees’ raised arms and darkness came quickly, falling side by side with tiny raindrops from sweeping clouds.
We ate quickly around the fire and retreated to our tents. I lingered outside though, standing silent in the dark, a gentle mist-like rain clinging to my skin. I could see the vague outlines of hills and rock formations in the night, and the ghostlike presence of a gentle, pooling fog enveloping our camp. “This must be my life,” I whispered, surprising myself with my own voice. “I have to make this my life.”
And so, this morning, when I awake and stick my head out to a clear pre-dawn sky, I dress quickly and pull myself out of my tent, taking care not to wake those still sleeping. There is a peachy stain spreading along the horizon, a cool, wet breeze. I find a narrow path and start walking.
Joshua Tree is dry. There are no streams, no puddles, no running water anywhere. Little over five inches of rain fall on the land every year. We have to cart in all of our drinking, cooking, and cleaning water, and every few days someone drives a van to the nearest town to replenish our sources. When water is that scarce, you feel its presence more strongly, and its falling from the sky becomes nothing short of miracle. The heavens seem to vibrate with it.
This morning, even with clear skies and dry grounds, it is as if I can still see the lingering vibration of rain.
It is no surprise that this desert that exists beneath our feet and before our eyes and on our sun-warm skin exists also—with great frequency—in our stories, in our dreams, in our art, and in our religions. It is a place of barrenness, of oases, of truth and song, of trial and revelation. It is the land of harsh beauty; it is the meeting place of the gods. The desert makes us all dreamers.
I walk and I take this place in with my gaze, my breath. The land, in return, unfurls in majestic transfiguration. I am surrounded by sharp, fanning Mohave yucca, low sprays of chuparosa, stiff sprigs of Mormon tea, human-like Joshua trees standing tall and straight in the morning light. A fine mist descends from the strange, rocky hills to pool in the spaces around me, and I feel awash in something holy, something mysterious and dear and informing. The rising sun lights the mists from within. Shades of orange and pink gild the stones, the sand, and the wild tumbling gardens. I am lost, and I am captivated.
I am a bit displaced, too, because this is not what I have learned to expect from the desert. When I was younger, I was decidedly uninterested in this particular biome. I was not keen on the sort of unrelenting heat that it offers, and its barrenness seemed unnecessarily depressing. In a world that can be so very harsh and dry and merciless, why pull further away from paradise by entering a land of want and hardship?
Color intensifies around me, the garden awakens, my feet are planted in this earth that grants life after all, and I see that this is why: because what we see in the world—and I mean the real world, the one that roots and flowers and rots and hunts and shivers and casts its eyes to the moon and howls and sinks into dirt and blushes into color—this world teaches us how to step into the real picture. It reveals all of the things we have closed our eyes to. It pulls us to the places where we are finally able hold and consider the shocking, beautiful, and raw pieces of this earth, and thus of our own lives. You know that you live in a desert, it says to me, but do you see the life that springs forth from these bluish rains?
Paradise is perhaps not a garden, but rather a desert in full bloom.
Jenna Griffin loves foreign music, old cookbooks, public transportation, and sunsets in new places. After graduating with degrees in writing and French, she is spending her first post-grad year as an English teaching assistant in the Midi-Pyrénées region of France.