Standing in front of U2's iconic Joshua Tree

Finding the U2 Joshua Tree

The story behind the iconic tree, the images, and where it can be found (hint: not Joshua Tree National Park)

In the early 1980s, a quartet of Irish rock musicians traveled to Death Valley, California with Dutch photographer Anton Corbijn (Instagram) to create images of the group in the American west. The band had recently recorded a new album, and needed promotional images and album cover art for its release. Driving through the Mojave desert on a cold winter morning, Corbijn promoted the idea of shooting panoramic images of the group in front of a lone Joshua tree.

The rest, as they say, is history. The band, of course, was U2, and the album was Joshua Tree — one of the biggest rock albums of the 1980s.

Joshua Tree gatefold
Gatefold image from The Joshua Tree

The iconic tree seen in the album's gatefold and rear cover is unfortunately no longer alive. Joshua trees only live for roughly 150 years, and it's assumed this particular tree died of natural causes sometime around the year 2000.

(Note: the image above has an interesting easter egg — a square mirror in the lower left corner. This mirror was for the band to check their appearance, but was dropped on the ground and accidentally included in the image by Corbijn's wide panoramic camera).

Though it may be lying on the ground and broken apart, fans from around the world continue to come to this empty stretch of land in the Mojave desert to find the tree and share mementos, artwork, and other personal objects.

U2 Joshua Tree memento
Fan-made tile mosaic laying against the actual Joshua Tree
Metal suitcase full of U2 ephemera, photos, personal notes, etc.

One particularly ardent fan went to the trouble of creating a permanent brass plaque with an illustration of the tree and inscribed message ("Have you found what you're looking for") to forever mark the tree's location.

Joshua Tree marker
Joshua Tree custom, fan-made marker in poured cement

I was in high school when Joshua Tree was released and became an inescapable fixture of late 80s popular culture. In those pre-internet days, I never could have imagined seeing the tree and its surrounding landscape with my own eyes (including Zabriskie Point, the album cover's backdrop). And yet, here I was, decades later, standing in the same spot.

Finding The Joshua Tree video from my YouTube channel

In retrospect, the thing I now think about most from this experience isn't the band or their music, but the indelible power of symbols and images. According to an interview years later with the band, they spent "maybe 20 minutes" there with Corbijn, and didn't arrive at using the tree as the namesake of the album until after that photoshoot. After every song had already been written and recorded.

Yet today, it's practically impossible (for me anyway) to imagine the album differently. To hear those songs without visualizing that tree. To not see Corbijn's black and white images.

That's a big part of what draws visitors to this desolate stretch of highway in eastern California. The tree may be gone, but it still stands tall in the memories of those who visit it.