First came the real estate signs. Planted in the sand every 50 yards or so, each touted a priced-to-move patch of barren sage land. Then came the town--a collection of low-slung cinder-block storefronts, barely enough to justify a small dot on the road map. I noticed an unusual proliferation of Ross Perot posters and a bumper sticker that warned: "I Brake for Hallucinations."
Clearly, this was Joshua Tree.
I first heard about Joshua Tree, set in the high desert east of Los Angeles, in the mid-1970s. Friends lovingly described its low-rent tackiness and post-hippie strangeness. They told of late-night steel guitar sessions and of UFO conventions at Giant Rock Airport. One believer, they reported, carried a briefcase marked with directional arrows--to better maintain his bearings when floating in space.
Their own discovery of Joshua Tree was owed to the bizarre death of Gram Parsons, a young pioneer of country rock music. Parsons liked to frolic in the nearby Joshua Tree National Monument, gazing down upon the San Andreas Fault line. He would hole up at the Joshua Tree Inn, a no-frills, cinder-block motel. One night in 1973, Parsons overdosed in Room 8. Later, a faithful roadie snatched his corpse and set it afire under a Joshua tree. Notoriety followed.
Parsons followers still make pilgrimages, taking peeks inside Room 8. Described in a recent biography as "what you might expect a half-decent jail cell to look like," the death room is now quite different. The motel is being remade into a bed and breakfast. Lots of work remains, but Room 8 is ready, turned out daintily in curtains and ruffles.
"It was," the owner said, "the first room we fixed up."
I'd been told the Joshua Tree monument itself resembles "another planet." It struck me more as a B-movie set, a backdrop for Westerns and sci-fi. I kept expecting to stumble upon Apaches or spaceships, unloading Perot campaign workers perhaps: "Remember, comrades. Stay angry. So far, the Earthlings expect nothing."
The main attraction is the trees. Joshua trees suggest a prehistoric dalliance between palms and juniper bushes. They are strange--smallish, with a few branches, bearing foliage that is somewhere between a palm frond and a pine needle. The groves stretch for miles, broken only by fantastic rock formations. Set in neat stacks, these reddish boulders appear to have been dropped from the sky. In fact, they were pushed up from an ancient seabed.
Squinting down from one tall peak through L.A.-made smog, it's possible to detect the San Andreas Fault cutting across the desert floor. Now, most Californians carry a vision of how it will be when the Big One comes. For some, it involves elevators or bathtubs. In my nightmare, Southern California snaps at the fault line and sinks into a roiling sea. So I have come to view this part of the state as a giant trapdoor hinge, and lately it has been squeaking.
A 6.1 quake struck along the San Andreas a month ago, and Joshua Tree has been quivering ever since. There have been thousands of aftershocks, more than a dozen with a strong kick, and also a mysterious quake somewhere back in the monument.
"It's weird," said ranger Joan Jackson. "I've lived around here almost all my life and I have never experienced anything like this." For days, her toll shack at the monument gate has been rocking gently, like a boat in ocean water. She has seen a boulder split and the road roll toward her like a carpet being shaken. One arm has a bruise suffered in the latest shake.
Town talk focuses on geological theory and government cover-ups. The Big One is imminent. Something is bubbling up beneath the monument floor. The seismologists aren't telling all. Some rumors are quite specific: You hear a lot about six unexplained plumes of white dust and a precise three-inch movement of the monument peaks. A 180-day theory is popular--it gives us just six months before the long swim to Boise.
Townspeople are rattled. Doctors have prescribed sea-sickness pills to people made dizzy by the nonstop ground motion. Residents monitor hanging plants or set water in cereal bowls to measure the jiggles. With each aftershock, old-timers look north toward the nearest volcano. Still, most people seem fatalistic about it all.
"When the Big One comes," Jackson said, "I guess we'll know it."
I guess. She laughed, and I turned uncertainly toward Los Angeles. My mind bubbled with scenes of crackling fault lines and surging tsunamis. I felt a strong need for some Gram Parsons on the stereo and maybe a briefcase with arrows.