The Urge to Disappear:
How a Poet Lost in the Desert Became a Little Part of Large Things

by Ellie Robins

Ed Rosenthal shouldn’t really be alive. He spent six and a half days lost in Joshua Tree National Park in September 2010, before being rescued from a canyon by its search and rescue team, whose members had worked through the night to trace his footsteps. To put that in context: he’d been gone for so long that those volunteers were disobeying orders in even continuing the search effort. So how did Ed survive? What did he do right?

I felt it was a blessed place. I felt like it was instructing me in acceptance.

Ed’s a real-estate broker in downtown LA who’d been coming to Joshua Tree for years. The day he got lost, he was celebrating a big deal with a solo hike on one of his favourite routes, one he’d taken nearly ten times before. The desert was his go-to for such celebrations: “My experience in commercial real estate is crowded with people,” he told me. “Very competitive, stressful, and urban. But the desert is wide open, you’re mostly by yourself, it isn’t competitive, and it’s very comfortable.” He set off from Black Rock Canyon to Warren Peak—about a five-mile round trip—with a tomato and a peanut butter sandwich, along with essentials such as a Swiss Army knife, a silver survival blanket, and some rope. Oh, and a Camelbak containing about an inch and a half of water, which he didn’t refill from the large bottles in his car because he expected to be back within a few hours. He enjoyed the view from the peak while eating his tomato and his sandwich and then set off back to his car, but soon after turning back, he realised he had lost the trail. After a while, he jumped about six feet into an arroyo that went in what he thought was the right direction, but then he reached an even bigger drop-off. Soon, he was walking along a hillside so steep he could barely stand, trying to grab onto cactuses for support. He walked for miles that day, down what was in fact a dry waterfall, but found no civilization.

The other thing to know about Ed is that he’s a poet. In fact, before he got lost in the desert, his claim to fame was as the “poet broker” of Los Angeles, known in real-estate circles for moves like clinching a redevelopment project with a “Poetic Request for 30 day Extension of Contingencies.” That poet’s sensibility seems to explain something remarkable that happened on that first day. Soon after realizing that he was really and truly lost—a moment at which you might expect him to be in a wild panic—he says:

I stumbled into this blissful purple canyon. The rocks were pink and lavender, the walls were pretty high, the sand was very soft, and I felt it was a blessed place. I felt like it was instructing me in acceptance.

He’s since published a volume of poetry about his experience, The Desert Hat, named for the hat on which he scrawled messages and funeral instructions to his wife and daughter when he thought he wasn’t going to make it. In these poetic reflections, he compares this canyon to a favourite schoolteacher, who gave him a lifelong desire to “become a little part of large things.” After passing through it, he says, he felt like “a child clinging to his mother.”

The epiphany had a substantial effect on Ed’s behaviour. Having accepted his powerlessness, he made the most of whatever shelter he found, namely a conifer on his second morning and then, when the conifer proved uncomfortable at night, a different small canyon on the third. He crawled inside and slept, befriended a horsefly, wrote messages to his wife and daughter, hoping that someone would find him—knowing that they probably wouldn’t, but that he had no chance of conquering the landscape and getting out alone.

Sheltering like this is the best thing he could have done. Survival experts advise that if you get lost in the desert, you should conserve your sweat but not your drinking water. That means finding shelter, walking only at night, and avoiding exertion wherever possible. Ed spent most of the first day doing the exact opposite: walking through the heat. The crazy thing is that the means of survival came to him instinctively, in a flash of poetic inspiration in that canyon. That seems particularly fortunate when you consider that it was probably that same poet’s sensibility that brought him out here in the first place—on which more later.

If you do get lost here, the extremity of the climate and the environment means you’re in real trouble.

At this point I should say that Joshua Tree National Park actually runs relatively few search and rescue operations: Grand Canyon National Park, for example, has been known to run more than ten times as many some years. But if you do get lost here, the extremity of the climate and the environment mean you’re in real trouble. Three quarters of the park is designated wilderness. And in case this isn’t clear yet: this is the desert. Not just any desert, but the Mojave, the country’s most famous arid region. The same desert that contains the infamous Death Valley, where the hottest known temperature on earth was recorded in 1913: 134F, or 56.7C. Joshua Tree is a couple of hundred miles away, and high up, rather than way down deep in a basin, so it’s cooler than Death Valley, but temperatures frequently soar above a hundred degrees in the summer (as when Ed was here, during a late-summer heatwave), and there’s very little water or large vegetation in the park besides cactuses, parched creosote bushes, and angular Joshua Trees. And good luck finding much shade or comfort underneath one of those.

If all that sounds daunting, that’s because it can be, though daunting’s too pinched a word for this landscape. The art historian and critic John Charles Van Dyke put it better in 1901: “In sublimity—the superlative degree of beauty—what land can equal the desert with its wide plains, its grim mountains, and its expanding canopy of sky!” Van Dyke is one in a long line of visitors to the Mojave who have found inspiration in those plains, those mountains, and that sky, and of all towns in the area, Joshua Tree has attracted the most artistic attention; U2 are only the most famous and the least interesting in this tradition. To namedrop a few others famously associated with this place: musician Gram Parsons took mind-expanding trips out to JT, notably the one that ended his life; artist Andrea Zittel has been living in Joshua Tree for fifteen years, working and overseeing High Desert Test Sites art installations in the area; the town’s Rancho de la Luna recording studio has attracted an impressive list of the more interesting rock stars of recent years, including P.J. Harvey and locals Queens of the Stone Age.

It was worth dying to have my experience, and I had the bonus of living.

These days, some artistically inclined visitors seek the town out because of this established narrative of inspiration; it’s almost the town’s brand by now. That brand is also fed by geographical factors: a wilderness on the doorstep of a creative capital like Los Angeles was always going to get its fair share of pilgrims. But beneath all that, for many people the seed of longing for this landscape seems to be something like an urge to disappear. Part of the desert’s appeal for Van Dyke is that here, you can have no doubt that nature “cares nothing for the individual man or bird or beast”. You’re on your own, in all the degrees of meaning that phrase can convey, and that fact combined with the monumental scale of your surroundings makes you keenly aware of the fragility of your own existence. And for many visitors to Joshua Tree, that’s precisely the reason to come here.

The modern-day patron saint of wanderers, Rebecca Solnit, calls this process of shrugging off your everyday self and seeking out the unknown “a voluptuous surrender”. In such moods and such landscapes, she says:

One does not get lost but loses oneself, with the implication that it is a conscious choice, a chosen surrender, a psychic state achievable through geography. That thing the nature of which is totally unknown to you is usually what you need to find, and finding it is a matter of getting lost.

Which brings us back to Ed. Of course, Ed didn’t come here hoping to spend nearly a week alone, dehydrated and fearing for his life in the wilderness. But the kind of experience he and many others seek in Joshua Tree means flirting with the abandon to solitude that’s so much a part of this landscape. The only problem is that in this environment, you can’t afford to flirt too much; if “losing yourself” passes out of metaphor and into reality, you might well die.

Ed knows how lucky he was. Reflecting on his experience, he says:

Recently I went back, and the person who took me up told me that it was known that the way I had gone up was a very easy way to get lost, and that people avoided it. And my reaction to that was, “Oh, thank God I didn’t know that. Thank God I got lost.” I constantly tell people it was worth dying to have my experience, and I had the bonus of living.