Photo: E R I K / S C H M A H L
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.
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.”
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.