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Katie Lambert Reflects on the Compelling Oddities of Joshua Tree
Posted on June 21, 2016

Katie Lambert hangs on for a fun session on the Gunsmoke Traverse (v4)

Last fall, Eddie Bauer climbers Mason Earle, Katie Lambert, and Ben Ditto migrated to the high desert venue of Joshua Tree to experience an iconic location in climbing lore. With a storied Stonemasters legacy, a lifetime of sandbagged routes, and a history as one of the places where the Yosemite Decimal System was honed, J Tree is a destination where climbers still travel on seasonal pilgrimages into an otherworldly zone. Katie Lambert experienced an even more personal form of pilgrimage, tracing her trip back to an album cover and a fascination with the eponymous vegetation that gives this unique desert climbing venue its name. —LYA Editor

Katie Lamert, harmonizing her pro, in Joshua Tree National Park.

Words by Katie Lambert, Images by Gabe Rogel

I had long startled in wonder about the famed Joshua tree, you know, the one on U2’s album cover. It seemed so lonesome and startled out there in the desertscape, as if the band members had stumbled upon it while on a desert voyage to find music. It was the 1980s. I was a kid playing with dolls, and I knew the album only because of my father’s taste in music. The cassette was filed away in his case on the floor of the car, and I would eagerly rummage through it seeking this album. The first three songs resonated with me the most. Bearing in mind that I was 8 years old, I still felt a sense of mystery. The titles themselves were something to marvel at: “Where the Streets Have No Name,” “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For,” and “With or Without You.” There was loss, there was self-will, there was passion, there was something that I as an 8-year-old didn’t really know about but knew one day I might. My imagination told me this was a place where this tree was a wild wind, like a horse’s mane, and left a salty taste on the tongue.

Fast-forward to the late ’90s, to a time when I was schooling myself on America’s climbing history and Joshua Tree came into the picture again. It had long been the winter migrating place for California climbers, from the era of the golden age of Royal Robbins and Chuck Pratt to the long-haired, free-spirited times of the Stonemasters like John Bachar and John Yablonski (aka Yabo). In the pictures, I was surprised and delighted to see that there wasn’t just one Joshua tree, as I had always imagined from the U2 days, but there were thousands of these Dr. Seuss-like characters scattered across the rocky desertscape.

As I diligently researched all I could about climbing by reading climbing magazines and journals in our little public library in Baton Rouge, Joshua Tree always seemed to be in the news for one reason or another. I knew that at some point I would make my way to California to test myself against the landscape, and I hoped that someday I would make my way to see the famed Joshua Tree, with its sprawling grounds of granite.


In 2006, I made the move to call California home. For years I traveled in and around the Sierra, visiting one climbing area of fame after another, but I never made it to Joshua Tree. I even drove right by it one blustery winter night on our way back from Tennessee and opted to keep going, vowing to make sure I’d visit one day soon. Finally, in December 2015, out of the blue and kind of on a whim, a group of us made a quick five-day trip into the desert to visit the Joshua trees, climb on the rocks and listen to the night move across the sky.

Ben and I had been in the midst of an extended trip to the Southeast when the topic of the trip had surfaced. We flew back to California and landed in Palm Springs late at night. The air was warm and light. It was a welcome relief from the cold dampness we had become accustomed to over the last few months. As we headed out to the small hamlet of Twentynine Palms, the lights of the desert oasis of Palm Springs faded in the distance. Things felt very surreal.

Signs of the first Joshua trees sped into view through the windows of the car and disappeared into the vast darkness, just like the dimly lit streets lined with flat-roofed, boxy houses did as they faded into the night. It felt like we had just landed in the middle of nowhere, the desert encompassing everything. U2’s song from that great ’80s album came to mind, because at the time, after coming from the crowded and closed-in scene of the Southeast and being in this great expanse of desert, it really felt like we were in the place where the “streets have no name.”


Our five days there were filled from dawn until well after dark climbing on classics, from cracks to boulders to face routes of yore. We enjoyed our time basking in the warm sun, mimicking the lizards on the rocks, laughing at the Joshua trees and being in awe of this “training ground” of climbers through the decades. Everything I had read about the climbing in Joshua Tree seemed true. The bolts were old and in desperate need of replacing, the grades were stiff, the climbing technical and powerful, and the texture was that of the most coarse sandpaper one could imagine. Isolating oneself in the park of Joshua Tree seemed an idyllic life of leisure. The climbing was indeed something to write home about and the scenery was just as breathtaking. The trees themselves added a real sense of life to the place and things felt like they were thriving. At night my dreams were vivid, as if the mysteries of the land were seeping into my subconscious and leaving me riddles to unravel in the waking hours.

One solo afternoon, I decided to venture into civilization to check out what the towns of Twentynine Palms and Joshua Tree had to offer. Most of the charm I had discovered out in the beauty of nature had been replaced by murals adorning cheaply constructed buildings, quirky businesses, strips of palm trees lining the roads, massage parlors, empty storefronts, a lot of veterans and organizations supporting them, and an overwhelming feeling of things lost.

As I walked the dusty streets, some indeed with no name, U2 came to mind, and I was really getting a sense, especially as I passed by numerous businesses for veterans with disabilities, that this was a place where people came looking for something, people who hadn’t quite found what they were looking for elsewhere and had arrived here in hopes of finding it. It felt like a harsh contrast to the thriving and mysterious vibe I had experienced in the park of Joshua Tree. It felt like a rough life. It felt like things were going on in the world with or without these people, and if they were lucky enough, they might just get a dusty and sun-bleached piece of something.

Ben Ditto reflecting on top of Split Rocks.

I returned to our group with a vast mix of feelings: I felt depressed by what seemed like a grim existence, baking in the relentless California sun, but I also had an underlying sense that there was more. I had only glimpsed the lives I witnessed from the outside, collecting a series of thoughts and perceptions about them. Some of them may be true and some completely off- base, but I did know one thing for sure. I knew that the desert held a story of time, that Native people traveled the land and knew of its healing powers, and that just down the road was one of the most beautiful places in the country. I knew that these people had at their doorsteps the answer to finding happiness, that it was there in Joshua Tree with its iconic trees, gritty and classy granite, fluorescent sunsets, and sunrises that anyone would want to wake up to.

I thought back to The Joshua Tree album. The message I got some 28 years later was that in the natural world, the streets have no name, that what we are looking for is there in front of us, and that any one of us can find it, with or without anyone else.

All we have to do is take the time to go into the desert, into the woods, into the mountains and be open to what they have to give us. I realized then, more than ever, that if a person can find harmony in nature, true happiness can really exist, and health and well-being are sure to follow. In a way, I should thank U2 for introducing me to my life spent outside.

The author, enjoying every moment of another epic day in J Tree.

Check out the First Ascent gear Katie utilized on her J Tree trip at

Author: - Tuesday, June 21st, 2016

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