Pomona College Magazine
Volume 41. No. 1.
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Watch the sun set at Joshua Tree National Park.

The desert is a special place and Joshua Tree is a special desert.

On his first trip to Joshua Tree National Park, Bryant Cannon ’06 wound up with 250 tiny cholla cactus barbs in his arm after he made a wrong move playing Frisbee in the desert.

But the park didn’t just draw blood—it drew Cannon back again and again. Cannon, a native of Alabama, had visited Joshua Tree a dozen times by the end of his sophomore year.

“It has kind of an otherworldly effect,” says Cannon. “There are just Dr. Seuss trees in the middle of the desert.”

Beautiful and unpredictable, stark and yet strangely inviting, Joshua Tree is such a familiar destination for Pomona people that it’s simply known as “J-Tree” around campus.

Both academic endeavors and recreational adventures bring students to the national park that stretches 90 miles across the desert north of Palm Springs. Professors take students there to study the unique rock formations, mineral deposits and wildlife. On The Loose, the long-running student club devoted to the outdoors, holds its leadership training there. Weekends bring students to J-Tree for rock climbing, backpacking, day hikes or leisurely car-camping.

Rick Hazlett, professor of environmental sciences, has been taking students on field trips to Joshua Tree for nearly 20 years. He likes to drive students there on a Friday night. After slogging through all the weekend getaway traffic, they arrive in darkness at a site smack dab in the center of the park. Clutching flashlights, they hike one and a half miles to camp out in a rocky wonderland.

“When the sun comes up in the morning,” says Hazlett, “everybody’s mood is transformed and they’re just eager to explore.”

And there’s so much to explore. The park stretches across nearly 800,000 acres, incorporating rich contrasts in scenery, ranging from jagged mountains to flat lake beds. The southern section is lower, drier and dotted with the creosote scrub characteristic of the Sonoran Desert. Joshua Trees and pinyon pines thrive in the north section, part of the Mojave Desert, where snow falls at the higher elevations.

This desert is anything but dead. Five palm oases burst with wildlife. Spring showers bring a riot of colorful wildflowers. Then there are the famously funky Joshua Trees. The cholla cactus also gets students’ attention, as Hazlett explains how to avoid their barbs and brush them off with a comb if necessary.

Hazlett has noticed an interesting phenomenon among students he brings to Joshua Tree. At first, they talk in groups about their professors and majors and the overall college experience. Then the mood shifts from collective communication to personal meditation, and “almost everyone will go off on their own.”

Hazlett sometimes takes students atop a rock formation dubbed the “Astrodome,” where they get a stunning 360-degree view of the landscape. “Most of the time I’ve been up there, people become silent,” he says. “This is where a professor must cease to profess and let the resource do the teaching, let people soak it all in.”
 
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