A certain kind of magic hovers over the desert, a place where nothing is shrouded but all remains slightly obscured and wholly mysterious. Stark white, deep blue, glaring light — everything is illuminated as if set down in a shallow stadium for an audience of mountains and stars, yet nothing becomes clear. Sleight of hand and trick mirrors usher you through the strange landscape, and you shake your head and applaud.
I went to Southern California’s Sonoran Desert this past week, to the part better known as Joshua Tree, and unknowingly stepped into this great illusion. Each sight was accompanied by the notion that something was off. Mountains push up out of the earth in lawless forms and locations, mimicked by the equally misplaced structures that pop up in varying degrees of degradation — dusty trailers, collapsed sheds, earth-toned homes at the end of long driveways behind makeshift fences. Joshua Trees, those tall, multi-headed creatures for which the area is named, appear across the landscape in a way that is oddly sparse and impossibly abundant, like guardians of the earth nodding stiffly in the hot winds exhaled from the sky’s wide open mouth. Rounded boulders the size of cars appear in piles out of nowhere, far away from mother rocks as if moved strategically by huge hands. None of it makes sense.
Before this trip, my desert experience was limited to Nevada’s Black Rock Desert, where the earth is so flat and empty that it is not astonishing. It is a barren landscape and the vast emptiness feels natural. Joshua Tree holds the same desolate feeling, the same impression of total vacancy, but it is not equally void of flora, fauna and man, leading to the eerie feeling that you and everything around you have landed in an alien landscape where life should not be but is, a place that fosters dichotomies as harmoniously disparate as science and mysticism.
Indeed, Joshua Tree is known in part for extraterrestrial sightings, from strange lights in the sky to abductions to encounters with glowing beings traipsing through the desert or buying supplies at one of the many little convenience stores selling cigarettes and soda. Some swear there is a spaceship base hidden beneath the earth somewhere out there, and the fanatics watch the dark skies from their trailers, waiting for a foolish alien to give away the covert location.
ET believer or not, when you find yourself in this landscape the ethereal doesn’t seem so impossible and the natural becomes otherworldly. Standing in the middle of that desert, I became fascinated with the constant stream of long airplane lines that dipped in and out of the horizon behind the purple mountains. Each line that appeared in the sky felt like a signal from another world, me in this isolated gap between civilizations, ignorant to what lay beyond. It was alien. It was mystical.
From here, the desert empties you of your frame of reference about the world. Your mind becomes like the landscape: more sky than earth, more open than not. This is its beauty. Emptiness is synonymous with potential, a vessel only useful in its state of vacancy, a hole in the wall a window with a view. And when the emptiness of a landscape is taken on by the mind, lucidity is attained. What is known becomes obsolete, and in the space left by familiarity and expectation, inspiration takes root. And from there, anything is possible. Magic abounds.