Into The Desert, Part One

Words by Matt Willis

There’s a place I like to go every so often; a place only a few hours from home but yet feels so far away. The California desert has been sort of a retreat, maybe even a  second home to me for most of my life. As a kid, my parents would take me out nearly every year just to hang out and explore; see what we could find, I suppose. And I keep going back to this day…

California has about 30 million acres of desert land; and most of it is widely ignored and considered uninhabitable. Not a surprise considering the beautiful, temperate Pacific shoreline is just over the hills. There are two main deserts within the state: the high desert, which is widely known as everything above and to the west of Interstate 15 – includes Death Valley, China Lake Acres and the vast Mojave Preserve. On the southeast side of the 15, the hotter, more arid Anza-Borrego Desert is the gateway to Palm Springs, Joshua Tree National Park, Ocotillo Wells and the Salton Sea basin.

They are all very similar in the fact that the climates are very harsh. Death Valley got its name for a reason, right? There is not much life in the deserts – and the life that does exist is often challenged to survive. In the summer months, temperatures soar to well over 100 degrees – frequently over 110 in the valleys. The lack of humidity means the ambient  air is extremely dry and dusty. This yields extreme drought and soil that is much more like playground sand, thus very few plants and animals can outlast a summer here. The winter can bring storms of incredible force, with warm surface temperatures and extremely high winds.

The desert, for me, represents a sacred part of the Earth. Old settlers used to say that the desert was a place of lost and distraught souls, and that’s why the weather conditions were so excruciating. Many people who live in the desert highlight the activity of strange lifeforms and UFOs in the area as well, which I think is interesting albeit far fetched. The desert is also a place of ruins, which is perhaps the most intriguing thing to me. I love seeing things that “once were” – or rather, things that existed at one point in time and were abandoned suddenly. In developed areas, condemned areas are often blocked from the public, replanned and then rebuilt. However out in the desert, you can often find old structures, towns, factories and other treasures that were part of daily life in another decade, now just abandoned and rotting at the mercy of nature.

Another part of the deserts that interests me, I suppose, is the photography aspect. I think the desert is always photogenic to some extent, and you can explore and go places that others haven’t. The skies are always high in desert, which makes for great, expansive landscapes. When you’re stand in the middle of desert land, you do feel somewhat microscopic. You instantly get an idea of how little you are in comparison to the Earth. In a way, it helps keep me from being someone other than myself, if that makes sense. It keeps my head in the right spot, you know…I guess that’s another reason to go out every so often.

This series of posts will tour some recent desert trips and pass-throughs that we’ve made…

First destination is Lancaster and surrounding areas. I met up with my buddy Ryan here to talk cars and he showed us a couple shooting locations. We also visited the Lancaster Musical Road (formerly the Honda Musical Road) just outside the city. The area is about an hour north of Los Angeles, via Highway 14.


Took a few shots of my Integra. This particular spot is a popular movie filming location.



Joshua Trees are very prominent in the high desert. Their gangly, frozen-in-time stature makes them interesting to photograph.



Here’s Ryan’s EJ1. A work in progress, but it was cool to see things starting to fall into place. Unfortunately, a few days after our meeting, the car had a little accident that set him back. Ryan is now focusing on another project that we may feature as it gets closer to its completion…




On our way out, we grabbed some greasy and colon-clenching Denny’s while we were still in town. We didn’t end up seeing food again until we arrived in Vegas, so it was a wise choice…


In an effort to see Death Valley before sundown, we left the city of Lancaster and rushed up toward the infamous Highway 190. Just as we cut in from highway 395, we passed through Owens Lake, just south of Lone Pine. The scenery here was just amazing, so we had to stop and grab a few shots. The snow capped mountains against the white-blue flats of Owens Lake made for some great shots. The road was silent – all you could hear was the wind. There was NOTHING going on out there. Not even cell or radio reception. Just raw Earth.


Parked along Highway 190 near Owens Lake.







Looking out east on Highway 190. To me, Death Valley (and deserts in general) represent a place of that God (or nature, for that matter) does not want us to be. The extreme temperatures (both cold and hot), dry air and gale force storms that cast over the barren lands have been described in literature as God’s way of keeping us out of some kind of sanctuary. I don’t know, I just think there is so much we don’t know about life and nature still to make that judgement. Much like the raw power of the sea, I think the desert represents a desolate land of the harshest forms of the elements. And each time we (humans) think we can defy it, somebody ends up as a victim. And yet, that’s what makes it so interesting to me. The desert makes me feel very small, but it also makes me feel like I’m closer in touch with God and the Earth.



Before we dropped into the valley, I made a point to visit the shooting location for U2’s “The Joshua Tree” album. Thanks to technology, we were able to pinpoint the rough location of the tree, located just south of mile marker 111 on Route 190 (pictured above). There was a car parked there already, so we figured somebody else was probably paying a visit as well. A few hundred feet south is the tree – only to my disappointment, it was a fallen tree. However, that disappointing feeling went away when the other visitor (by the name of Anthony) showed us how popular the landmark was for U2 fans. A sealed case with various objects of relevance – CDs, letters, artwork – as well as some U2 stone art and plaques that previous visitors had brought out. Going through some of the log books, I found that people from all over the world come out to visit the tree. It felt awesome to be in the actual spot where Anton Corbijn photographed the band in 1986, even though the tree was no longer standing. A few of the surrounding trees (which were once babies in the album’s cut-in photographs) were standing tall. An old Indian folklore describes Joshua Trees as a form of the deceased stuck in the afterlife, due to their human-like “frozen” figures and their high level of endurance. Old Mormon settlers gave the trees their name after the prophet, Joshua; as the trees’ shape reminded them of Joshua raising his hands in prayer.


The fallen tree, surrounded by various U2 homage and memorabilia…

Looking out towards the north.


This was one of the original Joshua Tree photo books, which is extremely rare to come by these days. Here, the band is pictured around the tree at various angles.

Various guest books and memorabilia in a weather-tight container.

Made a quick scribble in the guest book and read some of the other entries. It was amazing to me that fans came from all over the world to see the site.



“Leaving it behind” (above) and the Elevation suitcase (below) were both themes of the Elevation Tour, circa 2001…


This copper plaque was left by a fan.

Jennifer Jamison of Roanoke, Virginia answers the question…




After spending time at the site of the tree, we dropped into the valley where it got extremely dusty and windy. In the interest of time and weather, we didn’t have time to visit Badwater (lowest natural point below sea level in North America) and some of the other cool spots at the basin, so we drove on through to the other side of the valley. Zabriskie Point was probably my favorite spot to see. The mountain formations were just awesome…I’ve never seen anything quite like it. The mountain formations are so surreal, like something from a dream. We explored that area for a bit and then, as the sun started to set, we headed to Death Valley Junction where we shot a few old buildings and such.

Tim in the middle of Highway 190, leaving the Joshua Tree site…

Back on the road!



The cloud cover started to come in from the east.

Rest assured, you don’t want to be caught in this area in the middle of summer with names like “Stovepipe Wells” and “Furnace Creek”.

We arrived in Zabriskie Point after another 40 minutes or so of driving.






As much as I wanted to continue exploring, the sun was heading down quick and our goal was to be in Vegas by dark. We packed up headed for our final stop, Death Valley Junction which was another 40 minutes down the road.


Death Valley Junction was essentially a ghost town with a small diner operating for through traffic. There were some abandoned businesses and homes that were a little eerie.









With last glimpse of light at our backs, we took off down State Line Road and headed for Vegas.



At the side of the road in Pahrump. I realized that after 500 miles, I should probably check the oil and coolant to make sure they’re not both dry…haha…

After about an hour more of driving, we finally arrived at the Red Rock in Las Vegas.


Food at last…


More to come. Thanks for looking.

7 thoughts on “Into The Desert, Part One

  1. Somewhere I read on our March desert trip that “if you don’t adjust (to the desert), you will die.” I believe you would agree with this statement. My life took a drastic turn at Joshua Tree National Park on Saturday, March 17, 2012. My lungs definitely did not like the dry, dusty air, and it was a four-day hospital stay when we finally arrived home. I haven’t quite recovered, but I wouldn’t change anything for our four weeks in the deserts of the Southwest.

  2. @ corinthrose – Very sorry to hear that. Nature is always supreme in every way, we must never forget it. Glad you got home safe.

    @ JJ Lim – Thanks for the kind remarks. I use a 5D Mark II and various EF lenses. The wider shots, which I think really set off the desert landscapes, were done with a 16-35mm at high aperture.

Leave a Reply

Please log in using one of these methods to post your comment: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s