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In 1927, a Swedish immigrant built a small house on top of a hill in the middle of the Lost Horse Valley, just south of Quail Springs. John Samuelson, who was later acquitted of murder and escaped from a state hospital in 1930, spent his free time carving his political beliefs into the rocks alongside his homestead. Over 80 years later and you can still read his misspelled words carved neatly into the rocks of what is now Joshua Tree National Park. His messages have become part of the park, the ugly scratches turned into artwork, reclaimed by the desolation of the desert.

I try to remember this when I hear that parts of the park are now closed to the public because of repeated vandalism, struggling to view the defaced and spray painted rocks through the lens of history.

But I can’t.

Since January, vandals have targeted Rattlesnake Canyon, provoking the park service to close 308 acres in an attempt to curb the problem. Officials attribute the increase in vandalism to social media, stating that the vandals appear to be trying to one-up one another, painting over ancient petroglyphs with crude and vulgar messages and then posting photos on Facebook.

Joshua Tree has long been my favorite park. It was the first time I learned what open space and wilderness could mean for a person, the way it could spell salvation from a broken home and an unstable childhood. It was the first time I heard the howl of the coyotes arc into the night, the first time I slept out under the open sky, watching the wind sweep fiercely across the desert from the protection of my sleeping bag.

I wish I could show them the imprint that desert left on my childhood.

In a world that we have trampled with our presence, I have become savagely protective of the few pristine places left, bitterly swearing at those who spray paint rocks with inane messages before checking myself, meekly retreating to a more moderate stance. I want to be angry and rabid in my chastisement or peacefully understanding of the need for attention. But I’m not either of those things.

Instead, I wish I could show them the imprint that desert left on my childhood, how it called and comforted me, how in my rush to be as close as possible to all of it, I threw my arms around a teddybear cholla and then tried to hide it from my mom. She spent the afternoon painstakingly removing the spines from my arms and hands with tweezers. She just shook her head, bit her tongue while I tried not to whimper, stoically staring out at the inhospitable habitat, its wonderland of rocks, the red flowers of the Mojave mound cactus.

I pick up the coyote skull sitting on my desk, gazing absentmindedly at the pup’s milk teeth pointing up to the sky. I found it bleached and barren at the base of a cactus and begged my dad to let me keep it. He hesitated. Only the night before we had poked at the campfire, leaning up against rocks and stirring the embers while he reminded me how important it is to leave the park as pristine and rugged as I find it.

“It’s about respect,” he told me. “Not just for the land, but for the other people who come to enjoy it.”

He didn’t have to explain. I understand that it was to allow them the opportunity to stand on naked rocks and stare out over the collected mass of cacti. The white blossoms of the Joshua Tree, the shaggy surface of the grizzly bear cactus, and the glinting mass of spines from the silver cholla. To breathe the dry air and marvel at the colors of the desert, the violet blooms of the hedgehog cactus, and the yellow flowers of Acton’s brittle brush. To have the chance to love something so fiercely that in moments of stress and anxiety, you let the names of the flora fill your mouth, rolling them off your tongue with relief, biting into the soothing stillness of your desert memories. Honey mesquite, scrub oak, desert senna, paper bag bush, dune primrose, green-leaf rosettes.

I understood. The protection of the parks inspired me with a sense of purpose. Some inexplicable yearning reached for the rocks scattered across the high desert plateau, and it was the first time I felt part of something bigger than myself. I understood how this was a place that could not be broken by divorce, or human struggle, or what the kids at school said. It was a safe place where your parents might try to explain away the pain before trailing off, realizing how hollow their words sound against all that open sky. It was a place where you could learn to be silent together and learn that that was okay.

I have taken for granted that simply being outside and exposed to the grandeur of these places would inspire a respect for their protection. I have incorrectly assumed that this was enough, that sitting at the base of a rock, staring up at the sky, and feeling the hush descend upon your thoughts would provoke a feeling of stewardship.

Instead there are rocks spray painted with the same messages I remember from high school. Kids scratching their names into the smooth surfaces of public school desks, trying to immortalize ideas that are destined to be forgotten. My liberal laid-back mantra has tried to remind me that my heart has never stirred in anger over Samuelson’s messages. And the fairness I strive for whispers that it’s because I am biased, that Samuelson’s chiseled messages — insane as he was — speak to me more than spray painted notes about “oatmeal cookies” and “nature boys.” All of that misspelled poetry I might carry with me through the peace of a desert morning. Just one more reminder that “Nature. Is. God. The. Key. To. Life. Is. Contact. Evolution. is. the mother and father of mankind. Without them. We. Be. Nothing.”

I wish I could tell them how they have trampled upon the places that house remnants of me.

Still, I wish I could tell them how personally I have taken this vandalism and somehow explain the sense of violation I’m struggling with, how they have trampled upon the places that house remnants of me. How when I think of Rattlesnake Canyon, I see myself climbing with my dad, angry and bitter at my parents’ divorce and unable to express my confusion. I furiously yell that he has no idea what I’m going through. He pulls his Nalgene bottle from his pack, unscrews the top, offers it to me. I refuse it, stubbornly ignoring the cottony feel of my mouth. We are quiet for a few minutes, my dad gathering his thoughts as I brace myself for the patient tone he relies on when trying to negotiate the fury of a passionate and emotional daughter.

“Kiddo, it’s true that nobody can ever assume that they know what you’re going through.”

I glare at him, waiting for the punchline.

“But you can’t assume that they don’t.”

All of my anger bleeds out of me and I finish the hike deflated and meek. I have carried this lesson with me, keeping this gentle reminder pressed against the tempest of my emotions, holding it out in front of my feet as they pick their way across countries and continents.

And I know that I have no right to assume these vandals don’t know how this stunt rips a precious memory of place from my hands and leaves nothing but nostalgia. I have no right to assume they can’t imagine what a devastating blow they have dealt, not to a government or to some posterchild authority figure, but to a handful of everyday people, struggling to get through this life with their souls intact.

But I hope they don’t know and can’t imagine. I hope their actions were the thoughtless, uninspired, kneejerk reactions of youth who have not lived enough to learn how the continuity of a people relies on the protection of place. How a place like Joshua Tree cannot be broken by their stunts, but a person can.

That ignorance, at least, I can forgive.



About The Author

Nikki Hodgson

Nikki Hodgson is a freelance writer with a talent for making a spectacle of herself and getting into ridiculous situations around the world.

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  • Justin Mussler

    Really well written! Just took my kids to Joshua Tree last month and it left such a great mark. Sad they do this. Keep fighting to protect!

  • Paul Frolov

    “Respect” is a foreign word to Americans.

    • Douglass C McCrae

      Glad to hear the mess is being cleaned up.

  • Cameron Power

    beautifully written

  • Jim Meyers

    Excellent in distilling how the power of a place like J-tree can imprint upon us all the importance of so many things lost in contemporary society. But how do we address these missteps, with a segment of society who grew up with no knowledge of, or exposure to, what you speak of? Therein lies true crux of our woes. Godspeed to us all in surmounting that hurdle, as the salvation of our wild lands depends on it. Get Involved.

  • Connie Self

    Awesome… really well done Nikki Hodgson. A pleasure to read… Thank you.

  • Patrick McGee Collins

    Priceless. What a wonderful view and how well you have painted the picture of mindless immaturity that would deface the very image of beauty that life holds for us. The selfishness and “it’s all about ME” mental attitude we see today is in stark contrast to the beauty and soul filled reflections contained in your article. You are a Joshua Tree and your beauty remains untouched by the sometimes gross representations of the ignorant.

    • Patrick McGee Collins

      And I would say that even if you weren’t my lovely granddaughter!!!!

    • Merrilyn McElderry

      What a powerful article and excellent source of wlke up call to the world. Things lkek this are happening to us up here in the Boundary Waters of NE Minnesota too. I grew up here and like you ,was raised with the call of the loons, and the sparkling blue waters, the small flies I watched on the water as Dad fished, the smells of the pine fresh carpeted woods. I take it all for granted ! I do…Living her for over tfifty seven years I take it all for granted. But this article has awakened me to realize yes, many of our sacred native sites are being demoralized; our beackes left with garbage strewn, cure sayings wiped over our Native rock paintings. I want to forgive as you do. I will try to see the good in this is how I am taught. The message that the world needs help and love and a new grounding in Principle and yes, respect and love and it needs to do without at times, so it can rmember those childhood days…those loon calls, that fresh smell of pine. That is the good base I will work from and ask God to speak to the folks who are is such pain, they seemily have to carry it to our natural sacred places that heal us…and them too, if they would only stop and listen. their anger could be transformed into Love if they just got still, and hugged a big pine,and allowed the message to come through to them…that they are loved, and their pain can be dissolved by looking at these parks and sacred places and lsitening to the soul of them and healing .

  • Patrick McGee Collins

    Priceless. What a wonderful view and how well you have painted the picture of mindless immaturity that would deface the very image of beauty that life holds for us. The selfishness and “it’s all about ME” mental attitude we see today is in stark contrast to the beauty and soul filled reflections contained in your article. You are a Joshua Tree and your beauty remains untouched by the sometimes gross representations of the ignorant.

  • Carlo Alcos

    Beautiful Nikki. Your writing is always so poignant, always layered.

  • Voltaire T Cat

    I understand your POV. Unfortunately, forgiveness and openmindedness won’t keep the pathetic little urchins from blighting the wilderness with their mindless regurgitations. When the vermin are caught, they need to be taken out to the desert, given wate, a wool blanket, a baggie full of oatmeal and nothing else (these luxuries only because I don’t subscribe to captial punishment, at least for this level of crime), and made to erase their pathetic little noodlings. Completely. With nothing but what they can find in the natural environment. Everyone wins: the pollution gets erased, and the urchins get what will most likely be THE transcendent and, hopefully, transformative experience of their lives—an incredibly difficult and painful few days, weeks, or months in some of the most harsh and beautiful places on the planet. Besides, leaving skin and blood behind is the only way they’ll learn that it’s just not worth it. (A sound whooping by a socially-conscious female MMA fighter would be a great way to start their re-education adventure, but, alas, commonsense no longer has a place in this society.)

    • Patrick McGee Collins

      Or… an alternative. Perhaps more programs geared towards introducing these “urchins” to the beauty of the outdoor, an aappreciation of the beauty, the wonder of nature, that they may never have seen before. That would make more people that love nature and could help safeguard these treasures.

      • Jessie Wych

        Patrick, I lived about 25 miles from J. Tree, have met more than a few of the brain dead who have to leave their evidence everywhere – including garbage dumped a mile or two from the local landfill. I’ve also worked in environmental education programs and seen the blank looks of the more upper-middle class college students I was working with. I’ve come to believe that feeling a connection with the natural world is a gift that some of us simply get – and that the more the little screen of cyber-world fill the visual field, the further a person, a kid an adolescent moves from what’s real.

    • Voltaire T Cat

      I thought that’s what I was suggesting: a ‘program’ to introduce them to the beauty and grandeur….and heat and cold and hunger and thirst…of the wild.

  • Maria

    Wait til you visit the Philippines. People love to vandalize on anything including monuments to national heroes. They won’t stop there because they’ll also steal metal work to sell to a junk yard. They’ll even vandalize on rocks in the mountains.

  • Jessie Wych

    Thank you, Nikki. I just found this – on the same day I learned that a solar power installation has been approved at the SOUTH SIDE OF ALTA LOMA DRIVE, APPROXIMATELY 700′ WEST OF OLYMPIC ROAD in Joshua Tree. It’s time for all of us to understand that the desert is not a place in which “there’s nothing out there.” The Mojave is an intricate web of what matters. Go the the youtube Salt Song Trail video to understand what this land means to the people who have lived here much longer than you or I.

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