I’m out in Southern CA this week on winter vacation and trying to get as good a sense of the place as I can in just four full days. On Monday, like any good U2 fan, I went to Joshua Tree National Park in Eastern CA. Joshua Tree covers 8,000+ acres in what is known as the High Desert. I had never been in a desert before and what I expected was basically lots and lots of sand dunes. That proved to be an ignorant assumption, for in fact the desert is alive with many different kinds of species and a variety of vegetation too. Imagine a cross between the landscape of an old Lone Ranger show and that of Mordor in the Lord of the Rings movies, and you’ve got the basic idea. Two plants that are especially common close to the ground are a small black scrub plant called blackbrush and a larger, squarish plant with spiky yellow leaves called a yucca. The Joshua Trees themselves are generally between 10-20 feet tall with a number of twisty, stunted-looking limbs capped by greenish, banana-shaped leaves. While they look benign, they pack a punch, as I discovered when I foolishly tried to touch the leaves on a low-hanging tree. A gentle, hesitant touch was enough to draw blood! I later learned that some birds who nest in the tree impale their prey on those leaves. Happy to be only pricked rather than impaled, I was more cautious thereafter. Some of the more interesting sites were the Hidden Valley Trail (narrow defiles lead onto a broad plain which you can explore via a mile-long circular hiking trail) and the Keys View lookout point (you can see nearby Palm Springs along with snow-covered Mount Gorgonia, the tallest point in southern California, and Signal Mountain, south near the Mexican border). The desert experiences many temperature extremes (hot during the day and cold at night), and I gained respect for anything that can survive in such a harsh environment. On the way out, I bought a DVD of all the National Parks, and I hope someday to see many more. But you have to start somewhere and that’s what I did today.