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Winter in Joshua Tree Country

Snow on Joshua trees | Photo: Sandy Redding/Flickr/Creative Commons License

Stand on its flanks and the shape of the Mojave National Preserve's Cima Dome is hard to make out. It is vast, easily ten miles across, but your eye will be lost in detail. Erosion-resistant rock peppers the dome's surface in whalebacks, fins and house-sized rounded boulders. There are declivities and washes and scours where wind scrapes soil from bedrock; roads and trails and fences and cow-churned paths. There are mounds where the roots of blackbrush have held the soil fast against the wind. It's a rugged desert landscape, with little geometric perfection about it.

Back up a few miles, though, to the far side of Interstate 15 east of the World's Tallest Thermometer in Baker or to the summit of the Providence Mountains to the south, and the Platonic profile of Cima Dome becomes startlingly clear, as if the face of a 150-mile-wide sphere of rock were bursting from the earth, the crown of a new moon being born.

Cima Dome's shape stems from the way quartz monzonite weathers, exfoliating layer after layer in thin sheets, angular rock inexorably sculpting itself into rounded domes, the same process responsible for the better-known domes in Yosemite. Monzonite and Yosemite's granodiorite are close cousins, differing only in the relative percentages of their constituent minerals. The elements -- water, heat, and cold -- peel them much the same way.

You can see the forces that smoothed Cima Dome working in microcosm on the broad, low whalebacks that dot its surface: sheets of gray rock, thin enough to transmit light, peel off the outcrops. A small child could break them with a gentle step. There are spots on Cima Dome where it sounds, when you walk, like you're hiking through a bowl of cornflakes.

A bowl of cornflakes sounds good right now. And I'm thirsty. Perhaps it's time to pry myself out of the sleeping bag, put on some shoes and start breakfast. I look at my watch. 6:45 a.m., February 11, 1998. My friend Matthew snores heavily next to me. It's dawn, though the sun has yet to come up. The light through the tent bears an odd, muted color, the color I imagine a thin sheet of monzonite would transmit. I manage to find the zipper pull through half-opened eyes, and open the tent door.

And howl in delight without intending to, provoking a resentful moan from my tentmate.

The rain that drove us into the tent from our fire last night must have turned to snow at some point while we slept. Now, two inches of white covers the ground, the tent, the truck, and everything else around us. The sky is looming and deep, spilling fat flakes onto Kessler Peak. The snow has thrown the detail of the landscape into stark relief. It outlines the grass stems, cholla spines, hard quartz veins protruding from boulders. I squeeze my feet into boots and emerge from the tent into the largest Joshua tree forest in the world.

The relative openness of the terrain accentuates the immensity of the forest, as does the wide spacing of the trees. Stand in a redwood forest, and though the woods may run from you to the Oregon line, your field of view will be hemmed in by the thickness of vegetation. In Joshua tree country there are no vines to obscure the middle range, the shrubs tend to be lower than kneehigh, and the structure of the trees does little to impede the long view.

Matthew pokes his head out of the tent, looks up at the landscape, and grins. We arrived after dark last night, feeling our way by truck headlight along Cima Road toward the two-rut pull-off for the campsite I had in mind, the ghostly forms of Joshua trees edging into the cone of light and slipping away, shades of the Mojave night. This is his first clear glimpse ever of Cima Dome, and he's lucky enough to see it snow-wreathed.

Our campsite is at the crest of a 5000-foot saddle. Two miles to our west, Teutonia Peak, the largest of the Dome's monzonite outcrops, obscures the Dome's actual summit. Dark clouds surf up Teutonia's far side, seeming to stick. A mile east, the 6000-plus-foot summit of Kessler Peak winks in and out of its wispy gray shroud, the snow increasingly masking its red desert varnish. To the south the New York and Providence mountains are totally obscured by wet gray. A haze of falling snow to the north mutes the colors of the Ivanpah Range, of which Kessler Peak is the southern pediment. To east and west, the ground curves steadily up. North and south, just as steadily down.

A flurry of zipper noise, and Matthew emerges from the tent, resplendent in tattered blue Goodwill nylon. He points at Teutonia.

"Is that where the trail is?"

"Yep." Beyond Teutonia, a tantalizing pale blue hole in the clouds stays motionless, the sun shining through it warming the base of the World's Tallest Thermometer.

"How high is the summit?"

"A hair under six thousand feet," I say, accurately if one grants the possibility of a hair two hundred fifty feet thick. "But you can't get to the true summit without a bit of bouldering."

Neither of us think bouldering on two inches of snow sounds like much fun.

The trees are irregularly spaced, the average distance between them maybe thirty feet. Some seem of ancient vintage. Perhaps two centuries have passed since some of them first sent leaves through the Dome's white gravel. Some are low, their point of first branching at knee height, culminating in thirty or forty growing tips ringed with the species' eponymous short, sharp leaves. Other trees seem to have grown for decades before branching, their first forks as much as twenty feet up. The majority of the trees resemble slim candelabras. From first fork to treetop, they flare at about a thirty-degree angle. But many trees here depart from that norm. Some have toppled partway, sprouted stems from their tilted trunks, and now look like the tails of giant scorpions. Others, gouged by rot or insect or buckshot, grow witches' brooms of shoots from their points of injury. Still others extend drooping, impossibly thin branches out from underneath their canopies, as if for lack of sunlight in this baking desert.

I cross the rutted road to a large tree, its crossing, drooping branches laden with white blankets. Every nearly-horizontal surface on the tree is frosted: the short, dagger-like serrated leaves; the upper edges of the plates of bark; the curving, pockmarked upper sides of lateral branches. I flush a red-shafted flicker from a sharp tangle of leaves as I approach; the bird alights on a nearby tree and starts to sing. "Clear! Clear!" The notes fall away, muffled by the snow.

Down the two-rut road lies a wind-felled Joshua tree. Termites and mold have crumbled the trunk into six or seven sections. Dark, pencil-thin roots fringe the margin of its basal swelling. Farther up the trunk, someone has sawn a thick section clean off, probably for firewood. A waste.

I once took an old highway map of the American southwest and drew five dots on it to represent the extremes of the Joshua tree's range. A dot went just south of Gorman, where Los-Angeles-bound traffic crosses the San Andreas Fault on Interstate 5 -- the westernmost population of Joshua trees. The easternmost dot went near Wickenberg Arizona, at the southern terminus of the Joshua Tree Parkway. The southernmost went on the crest of the Cottonwood Range in Joshua Tree National Park, and a northern dot on the road between Tonopah and Goldfield, Nevada. The last one went in the extreme southwestern corner of the state of Utah, between Beaver Dam Wash and the Santa Clara River near St. George: call it the northeasternmost extension of the tree's range.

I drew an irregular five-pointed star with a dot at each vertex. At the center of the star, a lopsided pentagon surrounded the Mojave National Preserve. I inscribed another star inside that pentagon, and it centered right on Cima Dome.

It was a sloppy map, and the trees do grow on the wrong side of the lines -- in Joshua Flat near Big Pine, for instance. But if Cima Dome isn't exactly the heart of Joshua tree country, it's certainly close enough. The precise mathematical midpoint of the range of the Joshua tree may well be elsewhere in the Mojave. Odds are there are no Joshua trees growing there. Joshua trees have quite a limited distribution in their range, narrow topographic bands of proper elevation and hospitable climate, an inchoate set of wispy fingers on the map. Below about 2,000 feet above sea level, the trees give way to creosote or shadscale or big basin sagebrush, plants that can withstand intense heat and drought. Above six thousand feet, one enters the land of the juniper and piñon, the domain of the Clark's nutcracker, where only plants capable of surviving sustained frost can grow. Even in some places with the proper elevation, the trees just never bothered to show up.

And though Joshua trees are taken by many as the signature plant of the Mojave Desert, they grow well outside the boundaries of that desert as usually described. I've never seen a field guide to Sierra Nevada trees that includes the Joshua tree, but I've camped beneath them on the Sierra crest at Walker Pass, and they stretch a day's walk west of there. They mingle with saguaros and Yucca elata in the Sonoran Desert near Wickenberg. They grow from the red rock of the Colorado Plateau at Cedar Pockets Utah. I've stood beneath them near the mouth of the Grand Canyon, the Grand Wash Cliffs in view, the trees stretching for miles on both sides of the Colorado River. They grow among Great Basin Desert sagebrush and shadscale near Goldfield and Big Pine. The Gorman grove even grows in coastal Californian grasslands, though that's cheating a bit: the Mojave is a mile away, and the Gorman trees got where they are by riding on the San Andreas Fault. In ten million years they will be growing in Oakland.

So most of the Mojave doesn't have Joshua trees, and the trees grow in other places. Still, it's hard to argue against the idea that Joshua trees symbolize the Mojave the way redwoods symbolize the coast of Northern California, the way saguaros stand in for the whole Sonoran Desert. What can I say? They just fit.

Because of the plant's altitudinal requirements and the generally diagonal topography of the Mojave, you can't hike into many Joshua tree forests for more than a few minutes; after that, if you keep going, you're hiking out of them. But at Cima Dome, not-quite-but-not-far-from the center of Joshua Tree country, balanced between Sonoran heat and Great Basin cold, between Pacific winter rain and Gulf monsoon, on a rock that slopes painfully slowly up to a summit that just grazes the upper altitudinal limit of the tree, the forest stretches for miles and miles. You could get lost in this forest.

I'm lost in it and I haven't finished my coffee yet.

The ravens have risen, their feathers a deep blue-black against the snow and threatening overcast. One flies over our camp, passes by, and then in one of the most obvious animal double-takes I've ever seen, falters in mid-flight, turns, and flies swift, tight circles over my truck, likely scouting for French fries. It makes six circuits, then seven, and then the far slopes beckon, a forest of Joshua trees dripping with melting snow.

Chris Clarke is an environmental writer of two decades standing. Director of Desert Biodiversity, he writes from Joshua Tree regularly at his acclaimed blog Coyote Crossing and comments on desert issues on KCET weekly. Read his recent posts here.

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