Thursday, May 10, 2007

Joshua Tree

Back in the 60’s, beginning when I was about 17, I lived with a bunch of my friends in a big green house in Southern California. We always loved the outdoors and took advantage of any opportunity to immerse ourselves in it. Every few weeks we’d close up the house and all pile into cars for a ride out to the desert, Joshua Tree National Monument, where we’d spend a week camping and living out our fantasies. I had an old Rambler at the time with a drive-in movie speaker hooked up to the radio and hanging down in the middle of the rear window. The cops were always pulling me over, ostensibly because of my obstructed view, but really just so they could search us for drugs. We were young long hairs, and in those days that was reason enough to incur a search. Any place. Any time.

Joshua Tree was our playground, our paradise, our connection to the sublime. It was where we could let our hair down, shed our clothes, and raise our voices full to the sky. It was where we felt most at home. Most free, most unencumbered, most alive. We gave each other Indian names. Names that reflected our character, personality, ambition, body, mind or soul. All of the above even. But the names had to be given to one other. They could not be taken for ones self. That made them even more significant. I don’t remember the names now. I wish I did. It was an incredibly affirming ritual for each of us. At the time we believed it to be a spiritual thing. Now I can see it was actually just a bunch of lost kids wishing things could be different. I don’t know, maybe that made it spiritual in, and of, itself.

The Vietnam war was looming. Obviously we wished everything could be different. We were wanting a less complicated life, a more meaningful existence, and if we had to pretend to have it in order to have it, well, that was quite alright at the time. Better than any of the shallow alternatives society had been presenting us with for so many years.

Arriving in the desert, we’d transform ourselves into a bunch of naked, native, misfit teenage warriors. But peaceful warriors. Comical really, but it was something we loved. I find myself wondering today how many people actually indulge themselves so fully in something they really love. We collected cactus flowers and other kinds of vegetation to mix with earth and water to make paint. We painted each others bodies and faces to reflect the way we felt. We made bows and arrows. We made, and set, noose traps for rabbit, and box traps for mice in the dry river bed. We were marginally successful at trapping. We skinned the mice, and a rabbit or two, cooked the rabbit, and hung the mouse skins from our bows. We hunted with the bow and arrow, but with very little success. It was fun though, and it gave us a feeling of authenticity and self sufficiency.

My friend Jon had been catching and training hawks, and falcons (even though it was illegal) since early in his teenage years. He was very good at it. He used some of the live mice we trapped as bait under the stick and box trap. Would tie one by a foot to a stake. He caught a couple of different hawks on our forays in the desert. It was a thrilling experience. Beyond description. Jon loved those birds, was very good with them, and had dreams of becoming some sort of Naturalist. Had he lived he would have been a good one.

We’d make camp nestled in the huge rocks just above the river bed. We took the old adage to heart. . . . . . Indians build small fires and huddle close for warmth. Cowboys build big fires and gather wood all night. We’d spend the early evening playing guitars and singing songs, then as it got colder, we’d huddle close, watch the stars, have profound philosophical discussions, before eventually drifting peacefully off to sleep. Sometimes we’d sit up all night. Once in awhile we’d climb up to the top of the rock mountain before dawn to welcome the sun, our way lighted by the brilliant night sky. We’d wait. Up there. Out there. In the aloneness. In the quiet. In space. Like no other place on earth.

My friend Jim was a film buff. Had a movie camera. Filmed everything we did. Jim died when he was about 18 years old, within a few months of our friend Jon’s death. I’d give a year of my life to have those old movies.

I’d give 10 years of my life to have my friends back.