It was the silence that struck me the most. As my husband and I zipped down Interstate 10, heading from Los Angeles to Joshua Tree, the IMAX scene before our rental car began to shift — the bright city lights faded in the distance, the streaming streak of cars tapered off one by one, the stillness grew louder. Sporadic roadside dives supplanted trendy restaurants and bars, and California's High Desert, with all its sunny disposition, drew closer.
"I think that's one," I said, enthusiastically, pointing to a spindly, scarecrow-like tree. We — and millions other that year — had made the two-hour drive to witness these whimsical, wonderfully weird figures. Wondering how they got their goofy shape, I flicked around my phone for a quick tutorial: "Did you know Joshua trees are not, in fact, trees, but plants that are part of the yucca family?" I asked, rattling off a few other fun facts.
As we continued to follow the dusty desert floor, the shaggy succulents began to increase in frequency, each time prompting an excited exclamation: "There's another!" This went on until we pulled off the main road and reached our rental — Black Rock — a midcentury modern home sitting on five acres of almost extraterrestrial land: prickly cacti, shaggy junipers, and stunted pinyon pines, all stretching back to the ochre hills and bright-blue skies. Up here, it felt like it was just us.
The charcoal façade smack in the middle of the tawny landscape was a beautiful, if stark, welcome, adding to the far-away feeling. Inside, however, the two-bedroom ranch-style retreat was bright and homey, with vaulted ceilings, crisp white linens, and surprising pops of color, from its bright-red door to the pillows and framed print hanging on the wall — a sharp yet inviting deviation from the bone-dry backdrop outside. Within moments, it became clear that we had arrived at an Instagram haven — and I hadn't even seen the backyard yet.
Sliding open the floor-to-ceiling doors, there were mind-clearing views in every direction — nothing to interrupt our thoughts or line of vision for what seemed like miles. Though we were mere minutes from downtown Joshua Tree and all its off-beat offerings — artsy boutiques, old-timey bars — we chose to maximize the next 48 hours at the house. That meant lazing on the hammocks out back, playing a few friendly rounds of cornhole, cooling down come afternoon in the private in-ground pool, then warming up at night around the fire pit or in the hot tub. The comfy couches around the gas fireplace provided the perfect nook from which to start the brisk mornings, watching the desert wake up with a cup of French press coffee from the fully stocked kitchen. There's also an adjacent casita, equipped with an outdoor shower, kitchenette, bed, and pull-out sofa to accommodate even more guests.
Though these amenities were enough to fill our days, the property works with a local team that can set up everything from guided hikes in the desert to private chef-prepared dinners, massages, sound baths, and yoga and meditation sessions in home.
"We have built a company that prides itself on knowing these communities deeply so that we can be knowledgeable hosts for guests," said Dave McAdam, founder of Homestead Modern, the rental company that manages a collection of homes in the area, including Black Rock.
Mollie B. Casey, the company's COO, added, "We think of our homes as being part of a boutique hotel offering, with management and oversight as rigorous as any high-end hotel. Unlike a hotel, our guests are able to have a completely supported stay without having to physically interact with another person if they do not care to."
And during a pandemic, it doesn't get any better than that. We basked in the remoteness of the Mojave — unfettered by the stresses and demands of the times. "I could get used to this," I said to my husband, as we watched the watercolor sunset paint the sky in shades of rose, orange, and lavender from the poolside loungers.
The national park — just a mile from Black Rock — felt hushed, too, as if someone has pressed the mute button on real life. Despite the line of cars queuing up at the entrance, we were mostly alone on hikes, including the eight-mile Boy Scout Trail, boulder-studded Wonderland of Rocks, and Cholla Cactus Garden, occupied by a maze of spiny cacti. Popular areas, like Keys View, which overlooks the sprawling Coachella Valley, and Skull Rock, a natural formation that mimics a skeleton's face, were a bit more crowded with selfie-snapping visitors.
During our days in the park, we walked through the jumble of Joshua trees — a sight out of a Dr. Seuss book — stopping every now and then to clamber up a few precarious boulders piled to form a staircase. Squeezing our hands through the crevices, we'd pull ourselves up to survey the surrounds. Other times, we'd watch in awe as seasoned, harnessed-in rock climbers scaled hundreds of feet, wondering what the view was like from up there. Deceptively bare, the desert is home to lots of life: rabbits, coyotes, chipmunks, and plenty of species of birds. There's a real mystical magnetism to the place — and it becomes even more apparent after dark.
Joshua Tree is a certified International Dark Sky Park — and coming from New York City, a place largely illuminated by an artificial glow, we found ourselves looking forward to nightfall.
Back at our rental, dangling in hammocks under the cover of blankets, we watched the final beams of sunlight drop behind the horizon. The darkness crept in slowly, eventually enveloping the entire landscape with its star-splattered canopy. Gazing up, we gabbed about which constellations we thought we spotted and what shapes the stars were forming — I made out a dancing frog, while my husband discerned a map of India and a bearded man with a dog. A shooting star quickly whooshed across the inky tapestry and we both gasped in synchrony.
Then, as the night carried on, there it was — the Milky Way, announcing itself with psychedelic ribbons of glittering pinpoints smeared across the pitch-black canvas drifting overhead. Spellbound, my words got stuck; our mindless chatter stopped.
The desert's silence fell around us once more, and what a luxury it was — not only to see something so magnificent that it left us speechless, but to find peace and quiet amid the nonstop noise — both mental and physical — beyond the desert's boundaries. An absence made into presence.
Alisha Prakash is Travel + Leisure's senior digital editor. A New Yorker through and through, she's caught in a love affair between big cities and the great outdoors. Follow her adventures on Instagram @alishaprakash and Twitter @alishasays.