30 Years on, U2's 'The Joshua Tree' Still Draws Fans to the Edge of Death Valley
David Tokaji of the Title Trackers during a video shoot at the site of U2’s 'The Joshua Tree.' (The Title Trackers)
On the inside cover of "The Joshua Tree," the members of U2 stare grimly into the camera, a lone Joshua tree looming behind them.
The story goes that it was Dutch photographer and filmmaker Anton Corbijn who spotted the tree while motoring along Highway 190 with the band out of Death Valley National Park.
U2 had spent several days exploring the otherworldly desert landscapes of the Coachella Valley and Death Valley (the photo that graces "The Joshua Tree" album cover was shot at Zabriskie Point in Death Valley).
They pulled over and hiked about 10 minutes south from the highway. Once at the tree, they took a series of photos and then pushed on toward Los Angeles, where they’d later film a music video for one of “The Joshua Tree’s” biggest hits (“Where the Streets Have No Name”) at the top of a liquor store (now a Mexican restaurant) on Seventh Street and Main at the edge of L.A.’s Skid Row.
That downtown location is as easy to find as it is to download the entire "The Joshua Tree" album, released in March 1987. But if you set out to find that mysterious tree, you’re unlikely to find it easily.
There are no obvious landmarks or road markers to guide you there. After some considerable online sleuthing, I finally run down some GPS coordinates that I hope are correct.
Driving toward the western edge of Death Valley (the opposite direction U2 was driving on the morning "The Joshua Tree" photos were taken), I spot a small cluster of Joshua trees off in the distance after driving about 23 miles east of Olancha. But these are shorter and younger than the majestic, towering tree immortalized on the U2 album.
I'm hoping to see a car or two pulled over, a tell-tale sign that some U2 pilgrims may be making the trek. But there’s nothing but the wide-open desert expanse and breathtaking views of the Coso Range and snow-capped Sierra Nevada Mountains.
If you set out on a search of your own, there’s one important thing to know: The fabled tree died and toppled over years ago, its massive trunk and gnarled, desiccated branches outstretched on the desert floor.
After hiking about a quarter of a mile toward the trees, things start coming into view.
Messages in the sand spelled out with small stones beckon visitors closer. There’s a formation in the shape of a heart with "U2" spelled out in the middle in matching stones. Another formation reads "Leave it behind," a reference to one of U2’s more recent hits, "Walk On."
Visitors have left behind an array of tributes for band and tree; weathered old acoustic guitars with rusty strings, stones with hand-painted messages, a piece of driftwood painted with the colors of the Irish flag.
There’s a massive silver road case jammed with notes, photos and trinkets.
There’s a large metal ammunition case filled to the brim; more handwritten notes, pictures, ticket stubs from past U2 concerts across the world, guitar picks and even some military dog tags.
There’s a photo of a guy with shaggy beard and shorts, standing on a boat along with a handwritten message.
“I ran from Joshua Tree National park to here on the 19th of January 2017 to find what I was looking for,” he writes.
“Follow me all the way to Maine and beyond.” He's left his phone number.
He’s 38-year-old Rob Pope, a British marathoner re-creating the coast-to-coast run from the film “Forrest Gump.” Along the way he’s raising money for the World Wildlife Fund and Peace Direct .
Pope is in Maine when I reach him, winding down after another long day of running. I tell him about finding his picture way out near Death Valley.
“That’s amazing, dude. I was wondering if anyone would ever see that! Isn’t that place magical, man?” he says.
Pope is now running back across the country. He hopes to make it to Chicago by June 4 to see U2’s performance at Soldier Field. Then he’ll push on to California.
“When people ask, 'What is the best place you’ve run through so far?' I almost invariably say 'Joshua Tree and Death Valley,' ” says Pope. “I was just struck by the vastness of it all. I felt just felt lucky to be there.
"By the way," he adds,“I had 'The Joshua Tree' on loop the whole time. And I played it 8½ times in the traversing of the [Joshua Tree National] Park when I was running.”
“The Joshua Tree” and the landscape that helped shape it can leave a lasting impression. They inspired one of the site’s most mysterious tributes: an immense bronze plaque set deep in the soil about 15 years ago.
Below an engraving of the actual Joshua Tree, there’s a simple question inspired by one of U2’s biggest hits; ‘Have you found what you’re looking for?’
“I’m asking it as much of myself as I am anybody else. It’s like, 'Are you seeking joy? And do you think that you’re going to find it outside of yourself?' " says the bronze plaque’s creator, Ernie Navarre.
It was shortly after the 9/11 terrorist attacks when the San Diego guitar designer conceived of the idea to create a lasting monument to the album and the location.
Navarre had just lost a job at Dreamworks Animation. He lived out of his car for a while and couch-surfed with friends while he cast about for a new direction.
“I needed to do something, get out of town away from this. So I started exploring the desert a little bit,” says Navarre. “I thought, you know, I wonder if that tree is out here. Maybe I’ll bump into it."
Navarre made several treks to the desert and finally pinned down the location near Highway 190. But he still couldn’t find the tree, which by then had already fallen over. So he figured he’d find a suitable spot and install the plaque anyway.
He went on a last search and this time, just as the sun was setting, he found it. He and a couple of buddies returned the next night with flashlights, bags of cement and shovels and got to work.
“Going out and finding the tree and making the plaque, that all felt very powerful, like I was taking charge of my life again,” says Navarre.
“The Joshua Tree’s” original title was “The Two Americas,” which makes sense. To many, the record evokes freedom in the open road and the untamed expanses of the American Southwest. But several songs like “Bullet the Blue Sky” also rail against Reagan–era American foreign policy.
But something’s always puzzled San Gabriel Valley-based musicians and U2 fans David Tokaji and Russell Wiener: Why isn’t there a song called “The Joshua Tree?”
There of course isn't. So, they wrote one called "(Chopping Down) The Joshua Tree."
It’s the premise of a tribute band Tokaji and Wiener formed with fellow musician Andy Hill called the Title Trackers to create title tracks for classic rock albums that don’t have one, each written and performed in the style of that artist.
“They're all bands we love, but we also love to poke a little bit of affectionate fun. It’s a loving parody,” says Tokaji, who’s always been told he sings like Bono anyway.
“People who love U2, they hear the song and laugh their asses off,” adds Wiener, who replicates The Edge’s chiming, propulsive guitar work with startling accuracy. In fact, he’s pranked some people, asking; Hey, have you heard this U2 song that never got released?
“People who don’t like them just go like, 'Yeah, that’s a U2 song, I hate that song,' " laughs Wiener.
The Title Trackers set out on their own journey to find the elusive Joshua tree two years ago. When they did, they shot a music video to go with their fake title track. It lovingly mocks a band they adore and pays tribute to the site itself.
“For somebody who is even a casual fan, it's really hard not to be moved to be out there,” says Takaji. “If nothing else, to see the power and the beauty and the richness that this site, and that album by extension, has brought to people’s lives.”
It’s not clear if anyone in U2 knows this place near the edge of Death Valley has become a sacred pilgrimage site for fans and curious desert explorers alike.
But in a recent interview on NPR’s Morning Edition, vocalist Bono did say the searching spirit that helped inspire the record is as relevant today as it was 30 years ago when a different celebrity-turned-politician was leading the “two Americas."
“And at a time like this, it is a moment to re-evaluate yourself, your value system, what you believe in,” said Bono. “And I imagine Americans are going through that right now, you know, 'What is this country?' ”
To find the Joshua Tree site, here’s a helpful hint: If traveling from the west, use Olancha as a starting point. From Olancha drive east toward Death Valley on Highway 190. When you’ve driven about 23.2 miles, pull off to the side of the road when and where it’s safe to do so. Hike south from 190 for about seven to 10 minutes. The site should start coming into view. If not, you may be in the wrong area. A pair of binoculars or a camera zoom lens will also help locate the spot.
If you go, plan ahead. Check out a map or two and familiarize yourself with the Death Valley area’s main hubs. Have plenty of gas, water, food and if possible a spare tire and other emergency items. It is the desert, after all, so cellphone service is very unreliable and road services like gas and food are limited.