My Two Visits to U2's Joshua Tree
A photo essay by Brad Biringer
Visit my 20th Anniversary of the release of The Joshua Tree page
Updated: November 02, 2007
Think of the great icons and moments of the '80s. What comes to mind? The Space Shuttle's maiden voyage. The U.S. Olympic hockey team beating the heavily-favored Soviets at Lake Placid. The rise of cable television. Joe Montana. Reagan's two landslide elections. Miami Vice. Big earrings. Carl Lewis and Mary Lou Retton winning Gold at the L.A. Olympics. Magic's Lakers versus Bird's Celtics. Springsteen's Born in the USA. U2's The Joshua Tree.
photo credit: Irv
A great symbol of the '80s, the actual Joshua tree that appears on the U2 album jacket stands tall and proud in an extremely remote area of California's high desert. This photo, taken in 1998, provides a comparative synopsis to the way The Tree appeared when Anton Corbijn photographed it during U2's visit in December 1986.
Joshua trees grow extremely slow relative to other types of trees. In the 11-year timeframe between the two photos, you can see some slight growth in the limbs. However, The Tree had begun to seriously sag, mostly due to its sheer size. The Tree circa 1998 definitely shows signs of old age. Which leads me to my story.
In October 2000, I traveled from Florida on a trip to visit Joshua Tree National Park and Death Valley National Park, plus a pilgrimage to see U2's Joshua tree. I had a general idea of where The Tree was located thanks to my friend Alex in Florida. I arrived high on a desert plain (about 5,000 feet "elevation") on Monday afternoon, October 9, 2000. The weather was perfect -- cloudy and warm with a hint of Fall in the air.
I searched for hours for that tree, locating several that looked extremely similar. When I was hiking though that desert plain trying to find The Tree, I noticed that it was formerly a cow pasture. I noticed fossilized skeletal remains of a steer or cow laying on the ground. I also noticed a remote dirt road that led from the highway to the base of a nearby mountain range. A wooden corral remains on that dirt road. That's probably the only structure that exists for 30 miles. I hiked in the general location of The Tree until sundown. I couldn't find it.
Frustrated, I drove to Zabriskie Point in Death Valley National Park to catch the sunrise on Tuesday morning. I watched the most spectacular sunrise in my life, then drove to Badwater, the sand dunes, and other areas in the park.
After several hours of driving, I returned to the general location of The Tree. Again, I began to search for the living tree. I didn't even begin to look for a fallen tree until I found the exact angle of the mountain range that appears in the photos on the album sleeve. When I saw two large branches, one on each side, sticking up from the desert floor, I knew it was The Tree.
|| I just couldn't believe it. I was expecting to make a slow, leisurely
stroll to The Tree, much like U2 did in December 1986. Instead, I made a hurried,
horrified jaunt with a lump in my throat to the site. When I saw "U2"
and "RIP" in stones in the ground, I was shocked.
When I found The Tree, so many emotions filled my mind: frustration, sadness, elation, confusion. A beautiful icon from the best work of the world's best rock band had collapsed. I thought about how four lads from Ireland found their way to the middle of the Mojave Desert to photograph a bristly, untamed tree. And I found it 13-1/2 years later -- on the ground. Exactly three weeks before U2's new album was due for release in North America, the symbol from another era in the band's career lays dead.
Some will argue it's only a tree. To me, U2's tree symbolized a spirit captured within the music -- the thoughtful lyrics, the Edge's grand textures, the passionate vocals, the thumping beat of the percussion.
For such a noisy rock band, The Tree's location offers an eerie silence that brings to mind a message from the ZooTV Tour's television monitor during "The Fly": Contradiction Is Balance. You can only hear the gritty soil beneath your feet and an occasional wind whistling by your ears.
As I was photographing The Tree, a thunderous roar resonated from the distance, breaking the boundless silence. A gray streak pierced the desert sky. An F-18 shot across the plain between two mountain ranges at a few hundred yards above ground level. "Bullet the Blue Sky" indeed.
I don't believe The Tree fell by way of vandalism or human destruction. It simply collapsed from its sheer enormity. It was also an old tree, perhaps at least 200 years old. Joshua trees grow extremely slow because of the type of environment in which they live -- dry and hot. I believe one of the limbs on the left side (see the photos with the band) snapped off, which caused a disproportionate amount of weight on the right side. The trunk then snapped because it couldn't counterbalance the weight. Nature, age, and physics fell The Tree.
The Tree resides in an absolutely gorgeous portion of the country, an extremely remote area of the Mojave Desert. It's literally in a place where the streets have no name, where the neighboring ghost towns have no residents, where the former cattlemen have no herd.
U2's Joshua tree had fallen just
days, maybe weeks, before my first visit on
October 10, 2000 * 1:29 pm PDT
Apparently, I wasn't the first
one to visit the fallen tree. Previous visitors had gathered rocks and formed
the inscriptions "U2" in the bottom left corner and "RIP" in
front of The Tree.
October 10, 2000 * 1:31 pm PDT
UPDATE: Fast forward to March 2003. The world changed dramatically since my first visit -- and I mean dramatically. The band released a well-received new album, then embarked on an amazing tour of North America and Europe, and performed at Slane Castle twice and Super Bowl XXXVI. In addition, a U.S. president was elected, Arab terrorists attacked America, which led to the liberation of two rogue Middle Eastern nations, the stock market collapsed, and Tampa Bay actually won a Super Bowl. Wow! All this in two-and-a-half years?
On my return visit, U2's tree was found quite remarkably in good shape. It was fighting a good battle against some rather extreme elements -- the searing heat of summer (temperatures commonly range from 95 to 110 degrees) and nighttime freezing conditions in winter.
On a personal note, I brought my wife to visit The Tree for the first time in March 2003. She was three months pregnant at the time, and it was at this location where she told me: "We're having a boy." I let out a loud "Yeah!" and punched the air like Bono during Until the End of the World. Our boy's name? Well, it begins with a "J." Bono, if you're reading this, thank you.
||Mojave Desert wildlife
feed on anything with moisture in it. The bark of U2's tree
is beginning to slowly disappear. The spindly bristles have turned
a brittle brown, but most of the exterior appears to be intact. Overall,
The Tree looked surprisingly well; it hadn't withered away into a pile
Furthermore, some kind of animal has burrowed a home of sorts underneath one of The Tree's massive limbs. Remember that "mole digging in a hole" thing that Bono was singing about in the song "Elevation"? Well, I think I found it. I didn't see the animal, but a hole definitely has been dug (see the photo to the left).
". . . going down, excavation . . ."
It's amazing how a song can pop into your head when you find something that suits the moment. U2 songs tend to have that affect. This particular location seems to attract strange occurrences and phenomenons.
|Some people have e-mailed me about my two visits. Most people have responded with kind words of inspiration and admiration regarding both The Tree in particular and the American deserts in general -- two topics about which I'm passionate. One gentleman questioned why I would devote so much time and energy to exploring a tree. Well, I suppose if you're not exploring, you're not living. Isn't that what "The Joshua Tree" is all about?|
A return visit on 03/30/03 at 3
pm revealed the "Walk On" icon of a suitcase with a heart in the
March 30, 2003 * 3:19 pm PST
"The desert is fascinating to me. As an image, it's both positive and negative to me. The desert is a location for music; it's dry and arid. Some of the music is dry and arid. It's wide open space for music."
-- Bono, 1987
Want to see more? Here's some stunning photos by Chris Wessling.
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