Preparing for a miracle
Joshua means, “God is deliverance,” an unlikely name for the largest yucca plants in the world, but according to Katie Noonan, when settlers sent out by Brigham Young first saw the trees southwest of St. George, they thought they resembled Joshua from the Bible.
Not all early explorers thought the trees pointed toward the promised land, however.
John C. Fremont described the plant as “the most repulsive tree in the vegetable kingdom.”
Despite the early explorers’ negative descriptions, including, “grotesque” and “tormented,” when I first saw the trees, I was struck not only by their beauty, but by their tenacity, their ability to thrive in what seemed like the harshest of environments.
In May, Ted and I had the opportunity to see an entire forest of the amazing Yucca brevifolia in the Joshua Tree National Park when we traveled back to St. George from Newport Beach, CA, where my niece and her husband were married.
My niece had recently emerged from cancer treatments, including chemotherapy, surgery, and radiation. She chose to endure the regimen’s harsh effects out of love for family.
A gorgeous girl, she never lost her beauty, courage, or faith even as she lost her hair, energy, and strength, so her marriage was especially poignant as our family celebrated the miracle of her life and her love.
I continued to ponder my niece’s choices as Ted and I headed back toward St. George the next morning. Joshua Tree was first on our list to see along the way.
That afternoon, after entering the “forest” of Joshuas, I climbed out of our vehicle to touch the “bark” of one. The shaggy texture looked and felt like the bark of a desert tree, but I found out later the trunks are actually filled with pulp instead of wood.
Each tree seemed one of a kind, its branches loaded with green pods and thrusting in myriad directions. Those unique configurations are created in the spring.
Flowers appear on the tip of the branches, causing them to split. When a branch flowers a second time, it splits again, and so on, creating their distinctive shapes.
Some of the trees towered above us 30 or 40 feet in height, and although it’s difficult to date them, many botanists think the larger ones may be two hundred years old.
The next day, I continued to think about choices as we hiked up to an abandoned gold mine in the park, The Lost Horse Mine.
After gold was discovered in the 1850’s, miners swarmed the area. Life wasn’t easy for the hardscrabble prospectors, but the seductive lure of get-quick riches kept most of them dry panning and picking for years.
After we climbed two miles up a steep hill, we found a stamp mill protected behind a fence, some metal and rock water tanks, and a closed-off mineshaft.
From our high vantage point, we could also see ruins on the nearby hillsides. An informational sign provided the tragic story of Johnny Lang.
In 1893, Lang started working in one of the area’s mining camps. After his horse wandered away, he followed the tracks to the hideout of outlaw Jim McHaney who claimed the horse as his own and sent Lang on his way.
Lang trudged to Frank Diebold’s camp, perhaps looking for help in retrieving his horse, but ended up with much more than a horse or even a shoulder to cry on.
For a thousand dollars, Diebold sold him a mine which he hadn’t been able to work because of McHaney’s threats and harrying.
Lang enlisted partners to help defend his new property, and they began quarrying one of the richest gold-and-silver mines in the area, producing 200-pound gold bricks and millions of dollars of ore.
A steam-powered ten-stamp mill processed the ore, and a small settlement sprang up nearby.
That could have been the end of a happily-ever-after story if Lang hadn’t systematically siphoned off part of the gold.
Upon discovering the thievery, his partners told him he either had to sell his share or go to jail.
He sold and lived the rest of his life in an isolated canyon working a small mine and, they say, stealing cattle from neighboring ranchers.
When he was 75, in the depths of winter, he headed to town for supplies with only a small bag of flour and a piece of bacon to nibble on.
That night he froze to death rolled up in a tarp. Bill Keys, a local rancher and miner, discovered his body three months later and buried him near some Joshua trees.
After seeing the photograph of Lang, a thin, bald man, wearing overalls, my heart went out to him, and I wondered if his desire for wealth had been worth the high cost. Certainly, he had not found the promised land of his dreams.
The archetype of the promised land comes from ancient Biblical stories of the Israelites who struggled in the wilderness for 40 long years. If they had walked directly to the “land of milk and honey,” a journey of about 250 miles, they could have arrived in little more than month’s time even with their big company, but their hearts weren’t ready.
They needed the desert experience. Like their journey and my niece’s journey through the diagnosis and treatment of cancer, our own desert – and drought – experiences can shape us as they do the Joshua trees and prepare our hearts for miracles.