This article , touches on the entire bus trip that the Irish rock band U2 took before they released the album that was destined to be called “The Joshua Tree”, we will mainly focus on the portions of that trip that lie within the Mojave Desert.
Let’s start with what we know for sure, in 1987 U2 released an album called “The Joshua Tree”, before the album was released they traveled from Reno to Joshua tree with a few stops in between to take pictures. Later they would return to film videos in Los Angeles and Las Vegas after the album was released. The band U2 were aware of the mythology of the Mojave Desert, this is part of the reason they used it as a backdrop to their album. According to the designer of the album sleeve, Steve Averill, the band rented a coach in Reno, Nevada, at the time the cover was shot, The Joshua Tree album was tentatively titled “The Two Americas” with another alternate name being “The Desert”, the band wanted to capture the part of the United States where “nature and industrialization meet”.
Steve says the end photos for The Joshua Tree were the result of a “happy accident”, we had stopped and shot at a ghost town in Nevada (actually Bodie, California), and their photographer, Anton Corbijn wanted to shoot at Joshua Tree National Monument (now a National Park) next. After the Bodie shoot they drove toward Joshua Tree National Monument, along the way they stopped at Zabriskie Point in Death Valley National Monument (also a National Park today) and shot the cover photograph, then on Highway 190 just outside Death Valley they saw a lone Joshua Tree in the distance, it was then that the band began thinking of The Joshua Tree as a possible name for the album. They got out of the coach there and then and shot the inside sleeve photograph, all in all they were there about 20 minutes in the early morning cold weather. This famous session with the Joshua Tree became the back cover and the inside sleeve of the album which was released on March 9, 1987.
A friend and myself decided to drive to find this elusive tree that actually fell down from natural causes in the year 2000, we found the fallen tree on July 3rd, 2014. We assumed that it would be hot and we knew it was about a three hour drive without any big stops. Joshua Trees only grow at higher elevations because they need below freezing winters to reproduce so we knew it would be not quite as hot as the lower reaches of the desert. We found the spot to stop on the road near the infamous tree rather quickly, at about 4700 feet above sea level the site was quite a bit cooler than nearby Death Valley, our temperature was only about 100 degrees. I decided to try my new 4wd vehicle and we went down some fairly sandy washes, in the end we walked about 3/4 of a mile to find this iconic monument to an Irish rock band in the middle of the Mojave Desert. After being at the site for about 15 minutes and taking pictures we walked the 3500 feet back to the car. I would recommend parking on the main road and walking 1300 feet to the site, its much easier than driving off road, the wash was very soft and parking on the paved road is a relatively short walk and if you are a true fan of U2 this is the way that the band traversed to the tree from their rented coach.
Back to 1987, I believe that it was later that same day that they ended up at The Harmony Motel in 29 Palms for another photo shoot and stayed in the Motel for at least a night. While at the Motel it is rumored that they rented all of the rooms at the Harmony Motel but room #4 was rented as a group meeting place to congregate. If you visit the Motel ask for Ash the owner, she knows alot about the U2 stay back then, she is the current owner but she has contact with the person that owned it in 1987.
On a side note, my buddy that helped me find “The Joshua Tree” fallen in the desert is recently retired from United Parcel Service. He actually delivered packages to the Harmony Motel one of the days that they stayed there, when he made his delivery the owner at that time told him they were there in the Motel, so finding the fallen tree was kind of like coming full circle.
The Bodie, Zabriskie Point, Joshua Tree and Harmony Motel photographs were used to promote the band forevermore at concerts and on their memorabilia.
Anyone can visit these places if you know where to look:
Bodie is a state park in California, here is the link: www.parks.ca.gov/?page_id=509
Zabriskie Point is in Death Valley National Park, here is the link: www.nps.gov/deva/planyourvisit/furnacecreekarea.htm
The iconic Joshua Tree is on Highway 190 at coordinates: 36°19’51.00″N, 117°44’42.88″W
The Harmony Motel is in 29 Palms, it is rumored that they rented the entire motel but the gathering place where they all met was in Room #4, here is the link: www.harmonymotel.com
On a side note another Irish band called Snow Patrol also stayed at the Harmony Motel in 2010, following in the footsteps of their Irish brethren.
On our way home we visited the ghost town of Darwin, we also stopped in Lone Pine and drove up Whitney Portal Road to get a closer look at Mount Whitney. We then visited the Lone Pine Movie History Museum www.lonepinefilmhistorymuseum.org and learned alot about the movies that were made in this area including one of my favorites, “Tremors”.
Please be careful if you make this journey, summer is hot and winter is cold but you can always end your long day at the Harmony Motel just like U2 did.
Take It Easy – Mojave