Just west of Death Valley, along a grimy string of semi-active mining settlements and the empty scrublands where the Navy tests explosives, right off the road, there’s a mounted bronze plaque and a dead tree. The plaque asks, “Have you found what you’re looking for?” The dead tree would just be another dead Joshua tree if it hadn’t graced the cover of one of the best-selling albums of all time. Yes, that album. Yes, that tree.
“Have you ever reached a point in your life where, y’know, everything was going along fine and you thought things were going great … and then something happened, something big happened, where you felt kind of lost, and you felt like you really didn’t have any direction to go?” asks Ernie Navarre. Navarre is a soft-spoken man with a slight desert twang and a deliberate speaking style. He carries himself like a chilled-out rock yogi.
He’s the guy who put the plaque by the dead tree, marking the spot where U2 posed for the iconic gatefold photo that graces their bestselling album, The Joshua Tree. He’s the guy who spent a few years of his life trying to find meaning behind a place, a tree, and the album it honors.
What is it about the places and detritus that bands leave behind that captures the imagination of their most zealous fans? Are they hoping to actually gather that dirt and rubble to rebuild those works themselves? Or are they just living out their own small mono-myth in a world where most of the questions of place and geography have been answered and only tiny, idiosyncratic mysteries remain? Or are they just fucking nuts?
Ernie Navarre probably isn’t nuts. Probably.
Millions of people have been a little crazy about The Joshua Tree since it came out in 1987. It became a mainstay of square-lawned American households like it had been issued through the mail wrapped in the Penny Saver. It infected the tape decks and hi-fi systems of all those suburban dads and kids who were burnt out on glam, prog, metal, new wave, and whatever else filled their Reagan-addled ear holes that year. But four Irish dudes with a Canadian producer delivered the exact thing those rock fans needed: an American folk- and blues-influenced album that romanticized America's past and thumbed its nose at all of America’s present shortcomings.
On its cover, Dutch photographer Anton Corbijn splayed out large format, black-and-white landscapes reminiscent of iconic WPA photos — those kind of images you find in books about great generations of Americans doing great American things. The band, in ponderous youth, stood in the middle of it all, looking very serious — the jumping-off point, some would say, into the void of the annoying self-seriousness that would come to define them. Even Corbijn once said of his photo, “I guess people felt they took themselves too seriously. It was definitely the most serious, I think, that you can photograph a band. You couldn't go any further down that line unless you start photographing graves.”
In 1988, the band and those images took hold of Navarre. At his home in North Carolina as an early twenty-something, he would listen to the album on headphones at night on a lakeside dock near his family's home. “I could feel the gentle nudge of waves moving the dock to and fro,” he writes on his website. “The Joshua Tree album served as a perfect soundtrack. Songs that spoke to my youth of the endless possibilities in a star-filled sky. As years passed I came to see the Joshua Tree album as an extraordinary work of art.”
But it wasn’t until almost 13 years later that he returned to it with a renewed sense of urgency. “In 2001, of course we all remember 9/11, and that really shook everyone. How everyone was feeling very insecure and very vulnerable — well, I was feeling a lot of that in my personal life.”
Navarre had just lost his job at Dreamworks in Los Angeles and had to move in with his cousin in San Diego. Being far from his friends in L.A. and gripped with loneliness, he’d begun to dig into his old albums. “Of course, The Joshua Tree was right there,” he says. His cousin noticed that he was really into the album and mentioned that the places referenced in a lot of those songs weren’t a long drive away. Naturally, Navarre took off to see them.
“Y’know, I just started to feel powerful getting in my car and going out to the desert. I’d never been to the desert and it was completely foreign to me,” he says. But it was that tree, seen in several of the album photos, that held his imagination the most. “It felt completely refreshing to go out and just look for this tree, so I made a mission out of it.”
“We kept saying the FBI should send him to find Bin Laden,” says Navarre’s good friend Shelly Dyer, noting that he’d taken to the task with more and more intensity on each trip.
Overall, his tree hunt took four trips over four consecutive weekends. Using a copy of the album as a reference, he tried to match the photo to the actual skyline of the Coso Range, but something just wasn’t connecting him to the actual tree. He knew he stood in roughly the right area, but there wasn’t a specific spot that called to him. “So I said, ‘OK, the tree’s dead, so I’m gonna make some kind of a memorial for it.’ I wanted to do something that said, ‘Hey U2 fans, you’re in the right area,’” Navarre recalls.
That’s when he got a job at a bronze foundry and spent the next year and a half learning bronze-casting. Like one does.
OK. So maybe Ernie Navarre is a little nuts.
Once he’d done his casting and produced the plaque sometime around 2003, he needed a location. Two of his friends had agreed to help him out, but he wanted to mark the actual spot on his own. Again, with no tree, he’d really just have to wing it. ”I went out the night before to see just where I was gonna put this thing … and then …
“I found the tree.”
Lying on the ground, he found the corpse of that magnificent, 200-year-old tree — which, as all Joshua trees eventually do, had collapsed under its own weight. Navarre initially hid his fortuitous discovery from his friends. “I walked out with them and just let them discover the tree for themselves.”
Three men, under the darkness of a new moon, shared a crestfallen moment that they had found what they were looking for, just not in the state that they’d hoped. ”We were all in shock, we really were. There were a lot of things that went wrong that night,” says Navarre.
But they went to work anyway, digging a hole, building a form for the concrete out of two-by-fours, and shuttling 12 massive, 94-pound bags of concrete from the roadside, half a mile away from the spot. “It was probably two in the morning before we even got started … and we managed to get the concrete poured and everything cleaned up just as the sun was coming up,” he remembers.
As to the inscription and the profundity of it all, Navarre explains, “It was mainly a question to myself … but it’s also a question for everyone else who goes out on that treasure hunt to find that tree. Have you found what you’re looking for? What are you really looking for when you’re looking for something like that? To me, it was looking for … looking to get my life back, to have a win, to have some power in a situation where I didn’t have that much power.”
Since then, Navarre has placed a large tube out by his plaque for others to share their memories or poetry or whatever. He even left a notebook with a pen, and in the following months and years people have filled it with thoughts and feelings that echo his own. He stewards the site a little bit with respect to the notebook, but has mostly left it to its own devices. Prior to appearing at an event with local band and fellow U2 fanatics The Title Trackers earlier this month, he had never even publicly identified himself as the plaque's creator. His interview with L.A. Weekly is the first press he's ever done on the subject.
“My involvement with the plaque and the tree has become like a handshake with the past,” he says on his website.
OK. Maybe we’re all a little nuts, and maybe Ernie Navarre found the perfect way to regain some sanity. Even if it involved a crazy quest and a nearly 30-year-old album.
If you want to make your own pilgrimage to the Joshua Tree plaque, this website lists the exact coordinates, and this website gives pretty good driving directions. Or you can just print out this Google
Street Desert View image of the site and drive along CA-190 between Keller and Darwin until you see it.