weather icon Clear

Fans still find what they’re looking for at Joshua tree made famous by U2

Updated April 9, 2017 - 12:06 am

DEATH VALLEY NATIONAL PARK, Calif. — No signs mark the way to the world’s most famous Joshua tree.

To locate this fallen piece of rock music history, you’ll need some help from the Internet and your favorite satellite-based mapping tool. If you still haven’t found what you’re looking for, check your GPS coordinates.

U2’s top-selling album “The Joshua Tree” officially turned 30 years old last month, but the actual tree pictured in the liner art never made it to the milestone.

The remnants of the plant rest in the dirt about a thousand feet from California Route 190, 9 miles west of Death Valley National Park, where devoted fans of the Irish rock band have established a small, strange shrine to the desert-tinged album and the now-dead tree that inspired it.

“It’s become this sort of pilgrimage for U2 fans like us,” said David Tokaji, who occasionally sings as Bono in a Los Angeles-based parody tribute act called the Title Trackers.

Instruments and a plaque

In the sand surrounding the fallen tree, visitors have arranged rocks to spell out messages to the band.

A cymbal and some broken guitars rest against one sun-bleached limb.

The most permanent tribute is a bronze plaque embedded in concrete and etched with a picture of the tree above the words, “Have you found what you’re looking for?”

For perhaps hundreds of U2 fans from all over the world, the answer appears to be yes.

Their offerings fill a metal suitcase and an old ammo box tucked against the dried-out trunk: personal notes, ticket stubs, framed photographs, CDs, autographed flags and concert T-shirts.

One pilgrim left behind a pair of military dog tags. Another carried a jar of soil from Moscow to the Mojave to commemorate the band’s 2010 show in Russia.

The dog tags belong to Alex Morrow, but he has no idea how they got there. The 34-year-old Army mechanic who now lives in Northern California said he was once stationed at nearby Fort Irwin, but he never ventured out in search of the famous tree.

“I’m more intrigued than anything,” Morrow said of his unwitting contribution to the shrine. “I’m a U2 fan, but I’m not like a follower or anything. I don’t think I’ve ever been to one of their concerts.”

From Las Vegas, the drive to the downed tree takes about three and a half hours — or roughly 4.2 “Joshua Trees,” if you have the record on repeat.

Tokaji and fellow Title Tracker Russell Wiener got lost the first time they visited the shrine in October 2015 to film a music video for what they called their “loving parody” of U2 called “Chopping Down the Joshua Tree.”

Wiener said he was struck by “how powerful it was to be out there,” once they finally found the place.

“It is hallowed ground,” he said.

The bronze plaque was Ernie Navarre’s idea.

“I didn’t sign it because I wanted it to be anonymous,” he said. “I just wanted to leave it there as something for people to ponder.”

Built in the dark

The Southern California artist said he was out of work and feeling uncertain about his future when he decided to go looking for the U2 tree in 2003. He wanted to mark the site with something permanent as a tribute to an album that meant a lot to him.

“One of the first CDs I ever bought was ‘The Joshua Tree.’ It really grabbed me,” Navarre said.

He couldn’t afford to have the plaque made, so he got a job at a foundry and made it himself.

After a few fruitless trips to Joshua Tree National Park in search of the tree, an Internet search led Navarre to the lonesome valley along Route 190, where he used the album cover to guide him the rest of the way.

He recruited two friends to help him haul the heavy bronze plates and about a dozen bags of concrete out to the patch of public land. They planned the job for the night of a new moon, when the desert would be at its darkest.

“I was kind of afraid of getting caught,” Navarre said. “I thought, ‘This can’t be legal.’”

Navarre, now 49 and employed at a guitar factory, said installing the plaque was a “fun adventure,” but there was also something disappointing about finding that old dead tree.

“I felt like I’d missed something,” he said. “What was I really looking for? I was just chasing the past.”

A lyrical landscape

Influential music photographer Anton Corbijn shot the album art for “The Joshua Tree” in December 1986 during a three-day road trip with the band across the California desert.

Lead guitarist David Howell Evans, better known as The Edge, describes the trip in the band’s official history, “U2 by U2.”

“It felt right to follow the music and lyrics into the landscape we had tried to conjure up,” he says in the 2009 book. “It was all fairly spontaneous. We kept driving along the road until we saw this big open hillside of these prehistoric-looking plants. We poured out of the coach, went down, Anton found a good one, and snap, snap. We shot for 20 minutes or so, climbed back on the coach and on we went.”

Corbijn’s panoramic image of the four sullen band members posed in front of the Joshua tree was used to decorate the album’s center gatefold. The distinctive yucca plant is also featured on the back cover and in silhouette on the labels for both the record and the CD, providing a logo of sorts for the band at the height of its popularity.

No trees appear on the front cover of “The Joshua Tree,” which shows the band clustered at the edge of another moody, black-and-white panorama, this one taken by Corbijn at Zabriskie Point in Death Valley.

“The Joshua Tree” would go on to sell more than 25 million copies worldwide.

Bono and company will mark the 30th anniversary of their most popular creation later this year by playing the album in its entirety during a series of shows across Europe and North America. The tour starts in May and includes 33 dates — none of them in the desert.

Contact Henry Brean at hbrean@reviewjournal.com or 702-383-0350. Follow @RefriedBrean on Twitter.

Don't miss the big stories. Like us on Facebook.
Entertainment Videos
Heavier traffic expected from EDC festival attendees
Electric Daisy Carnival attendees began to vacate the Las Vegas Motor Speedway starting before 5 a.m., the majority heading south on Interstate 15.
What it's like to skip the lines and fly by helicopter to EDC
What it's like to skip the lines and fly by helicopter to EDC. (Janna Karel Las Vegas Review-Journal)
DJ Steve Aoki visits Las Vegas comic book store
DJ Steve Aoki visits Torpedo Comics in Las Vegas Friday, May 17, 2019, for a signing for his new comic book series "Neon Future." (K.M. Cannon/Las Vegas Review-Journal) @KMCannonPhoto
Las Vegas Smith & Wollensky opens at The Venetian
After 18 years, the Smith & Wollensky location on Las Vegas’ south Strip closed in 2017, to be re-born two years later with a rib-cutting — instead of a ribbon-cutting — in The Grand Canal Shoppes at The Venetian. (Heidi Knapp Rinella/Review-Journal)
Colin Cantwell, Creator Of Iconic Star Wars Ships Visits Vegas
Colin Cantwell, who created and designed such "Star Wars" ships as the X-Wing fighter, and Death Star, met fans at Rogue Toys in Las Vegas today. (Mat Luschek / Review-Journal)
Beauty & Essex in Las Vegas makes an EDC Wonder Wheel
In honor of the Electric Daisy Carnival, Beauty & Essex at The Cosmopolitan of Las Vegas makes its Wonder Wheel party-worthy. (Heidi Knapp Rinella/Las Vegas Review-Journal)
Giada talks Vegas Uncork’d
Giada De Laurentiis talks during Aperitivo Hour, a Vegas Uncork'd event, at her Caesars Palace restaurant, Pronto, May 10, 2019. (Al Mancini/Las Vegas Review-Journal)
Scenes from Vegas Uncork’d 2019 on the Las Vegas Strip
The 13th edition of Vegas Uncork’d by Bon Appetit brought four days of food, wine, celebrity chefs and parties to town, May 9-12. (Heidi Knapp Rinella/Las Vegas Review-Journal)
Three ingredients Gordon Ramsay can’t live without
Bon Appetit's Andy Baraghani interviews the "Hell's Kitchen" chef during a Vegas Uncork'd event at Caesars Palace, May 11, 2019. (Al Mancini/Las Vegas Review-Journal)
Vegas Uncork’d launches wiith bubbles and a blade
Dozens of chefs representing some of the Strip’s top restaurants gathered Thursday at The Cosmopolitan of Las Vegas to launch the 2019 edition of Vegas Uncork’d by Bon Appetit. (Al Mancini/Las Vegas Review-Journal)
Bunky the Clown at the clown convention
Bob "Bunky the Clown" Gretton talks about his life as a clown and the Clown Convention which was in Las Vegas at Texas Station this week. (Mat Luschek / Review-Journal)
Frying soft-shell crab at Lola’s in Las Vegas
At Lola’s: A Louisiana Kitchen in Las Vegas, soft-shell crab is breaded and fried and served either as an appetizer, po’boy or platter. Heidi Knapp Rinella/Review-Journal
The Stove in Henderson makes Pecan Pie Pancakes
At The Stove in Henderson, chef/partner Antonio Nunez stacks buttermilk pancakes with pecans and dulce de leche and tops them pie crust crumbs. (Heidi Knapp Rinella/Las Vegas Review-Journal)
Vinnie Paul remembered at Count's Vamp'd
The late rocker's favorite table at one of his favorite clubs in Las Vegas. (Jason Bracelin/Las Vegas Review-Journal)
4DX movie experience at Red Rock
4DX movie experience during a demo reel at Red Rock. (Christopher Lawrence/Las Vegas Review-Journal)
What To Do On May The 4th
There are plenty of events going on May the 4th this year around Las Vegas. Celebrate Star Wars and Comic Book Day all at once. The Rogue Toys, the 501st, Rebel Legion and Millennium Fandom Bar are all hosting fun events to help celebrate your geek-dom. (Mat Luschek / Review-Journal)
Las Vegas Water Sports Introduces New Attraction At Lake Las Vegas
Las Vegas Water Sports will debut its new aqua park attraction at Lake Las Vegas Days this weekend. (Mat Luschek / Review-Journal)
Making the Space Invader at Greene St. Kitchen in Las Vegas
Lysa Huerta, pastry cook at Greene St. Kitchen at the Palms in Las Vegas, starts with angel food cake, Fruity Pebbles ice cream and strawberry sorbet to create a space creature engulfed in flashing lights and swirling mists. (Heidi Knapp Rinella/Las Vegas Review-Journal)
Las Vegas Pools
The M, Park MGM and NoMad are just a few great pools in Las Vegas. (Mat Luschek/Las Vegas Review-Journal)
Jose Andres explains Iberico pork
(Al Mancini/Las Vega Review-Journal)
Inside Life is Beautiful
Craig Asher Nyman explains how Life is Beautiful festival is booked and talks about this year's line-up. (Jason Bracelin/Las Vegas Review-Journal)
Tattoo'd America Pops Up In Vegas
Tattoo'd America, a new pop-up attraction on the Linq Promenade, had their grand opening Friday. The attraction is dedicate to the culture of tattoos. (Mat Luschek / Review-Journal)
Jose Andres gets key to the Strip
Chef Jose Andres was presented with a Key to the Las Vegas Strip and a proclamation declaring April 26 Jose Andres Day in Clark County by County Commissioner Tick Segerblom on Friday. The ceremony took place at his restaurant Bazaar Meat in the SLS Las Vegas. (Al Mancini/Las Vegas Review-Journal)
Sadelle’s in Las Vegas makes a grilled cheese with an inverted bagel
Michael Vargas, executive sous chef at Sadelle’s at Bellagio in Las Vegas, inverts an everything bagel and grills it with Swiss, cheddar and Muenster cheeses to make the Inverted Bagel Grilled Cheese. (Heidi Knapp Rinella/Las Vegas Review-Journal)
Learn how to make China Poblano's Salt Air Margarita
Learn how to make China Poblano's Salt Air Margarita (Janna Karel Las Vegas Review-Journal)
Tattoo'd America invites you to have fun and take pictures
Kassandra Lopez at Tattoo'd America invites you to have fun and take pictures. (Janna Karel/Las Vegas Review-Journal)
Prime rib is carved tableside at Lawry’s The Prime Rib in Las Vegas
Dave Simmons, executive chef of Lawry’s The Prime in Las Vegas, which plans special cuts for National Prime Rib Day, demonstrates the restaurant’s service from rolling tableside carving carts. (Heidi Knapp Rinella/Las Vegas Review-Journal)
Making gluten-free pizza at Good Pie in Las Vegas
Good Pie owner/pizzaiola Vincent Rotolo makes his gluten-free pizza.
Rockabilly fans enjoy Las Vegas weather poolside
Viva Las Vegas Rockabilly Weekender runs Thursday, April 18th through Sunday, April 21st with a huge car show on Saturday featuring The Reverend Horton Heat, The Delta Bombers and The Coasters. (Michael Quine/Las Vegas Review-Journal)
Brownie sundae at VegeNation in Las Vegas is completely vegan
Donald Lemperle, chef/owner of VegeNation in Las Vegas and nearby Henderson, NV, makes his sundae with ice cream made with coconut and almond milks, a brownie made with coconut flour and oil and organic sugar and cacao, and fresh fruit. (Heidi Knapp Rinella/Las Vegas Review-Journal)
Officials raid 247 Colorado homes growing black market pot

Authorities said Friday they raided hundreds of black market marijuana operations in Colorado that flouted the state’s cannabis law by growing tens of thousands of plants in Denver-area homes and selling the drugs out of state.

Family of woman mauled by lion seeks for new regulations

Months after the mauling last December at the Conservators Center in Burlington, North Carolina, the family still questions the sanctuary’s safety protocols.

Police seek suspect after explosion in French city of Lyon

France’s counter-terrorism prosecutor said an investigation has been opened for “attempted murderer in relation with a terrorist undertaking” and “criminal terrorist association.”