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His last performances showcase a voice even bigger than his gut, where you cry real tears as the music messiah sings his tired heart out, turning casino into temple. -- Bono, in a tribute to Elvis Presley, 2004

Column: Off the Record...Vol. 20-785

Finding U2's Fallen Joshua Tree: My Last Travel Adventure Before Virus Lockdown

OTR off the record 2019 1200px

I’m a nomad. Merriam-Webster defines nomad as “an individual who roams about.” Google’s definition: “A person who does not stay long in the same place; a wanderer.”

I’m a law professor and a writer—two vocations I love. My current home is in Brooklyn. But my spirit, my soul, is on a plane. My four greatest personal joys—in equally deep measure—are U2, boxing, writing, and traveling (preferably out of the country).

Whenever I can, I combine #1 and #4.

In Fall of 2015, worn out by pre-election drama, I yearned to escape NYC and avoid Thanksgiving dinner politics. Reflecting on my happiest moments earlier that year, three U2 shows topped the list. I Googled the band’s tour schedule. They were scheduled to play a show in Dublin on Thanksgiving Friday. I’ve never been to Ireland! I booked a plane ticket. I bought an overpriced concert ticket from a resale outlet. It arrived FedEx and I guarded that gem with my life the entire flight over the Atlantic, not sleeping a wink.

I landed in Dublin, hopped on a local bus to town, dumped my luggage at my hotel in Temple Bar, and scampered off to a U2-themed bicycle tour. The guide and I pedaled to U2’s Windmill Lane studio, the Bonavox Hearing Aid shop (where Bono got his nickname) and bars where the boys played their first gigs. In drizzling rain, I snapped pictures of Bono’s handwriting on a pillar near the Oscar Wilde statue in Merrion Square. I added my name to the graffiti on the door of the Hanover Quay Studio.

The bike tour complete, I scurried back to the hotel, slept off my jetlag for a few hours, and then found a bar called The Church. The menu offered U2-themed cocktails, but I opted for wine, settling into my element staring at posters of The Edge. Two American girls approached and asked, “Hey, are you here alone?” Within seven minutes, I learned that these girls—Michele and Renee—had been attending U2 shows together for decades, since college in Louisiana. Within ten minutes, they introduced me to the drummer in a Dublin U2 tribute band (John). Within fifteen minutes, they scored me a face value ticket to the Saturday U2 show that weekend.

I had met my tribe.

Over the next few days, I met U2 fans from around the world. We meandered the streets of Dublin, buying vintage records, bar-hopping, listening to tribute bands. We peppered conversations with “circling back to the band for a minute,” bonding over our collective ability to steer any dialogue back to a song lyric or a concert memory.

Since that weekend in 2015, I have met up with Michele, Renee and other U2-obsessed friends for many shows—in Boston, New York, Minneapolis. I spent one sleep-deprived summer vacation hopping from Berlin, Rome, Barcelona and back to Dublin—seeing many familiar U2 faces in each airport.

In 2018, Michele and Renee inducted me into the General Admission experience: we slept in Michele’s car outside the L.A. Forum, LAX planes flying over us, so we could be front row on the stage rail. Being so physically close to the band, I experienced momentary paralysis every time Bono made eye contact. I was afraid to make any sudden movements, lest the spell break.

This year, Michele’s birthday fell on President’s Day weekend. My tenure vote—the culmination of fifteen years of practicing and eleven years of teaching law—was scheduled for Tuesday earlier that week. Itching for a getaway, I booked a flight from JFK to LAX. Michele lives in an L.A. suburb, and Renee planned to fly in from Louisiana. Michele proposed a pilgrimage: a quest to find U2’s Joshua Tree. The tree from Dutch photographer Anton Corbijn’s photo shoot that shaped the cover art of the band’s 1987 album.

I love a good road trip.

I flew to L.A. and took an Uber to Michele’s house. That night, we watched U2 videos and “circled back to the band” every five seconds—much to the chagrin and extreme tolerance of Michele’s college-bound son and friends. Drinking wine outside by Michele’s fire pit, we mapped out our expedition.

Our first surprise: the tree is not actually located in Joshua Tree National Park. Also, it’s dead. The tree fell in 2000 due to high winds.

Michele researched the geographical coordinates of the tree; it rests in the desert along Highway 190 on the way into Death Valley National Park.

Early the next morning, armed with Starbucks lattes, road trip snacks, and Michele’s ten-hour playlist, we set out on our adventure. We caught up on our respective lives, we sang, we reminisced about Dublin. Sitting in the back seat of Michele’s SUV, I once again felt deep appreciation for these two strong women who embody unconditional acceptance, realness and unbridled zest for life.

Three hours and six different versions of the song "One" later, we reached Highway 190.

The two-lane highway was stark. Cacti, shrubs, and Joshua trees zipped by the windows of the SUV. Renee read aloud map directions from a U2 fan’s website. We scoured the landscape for mile markers; many were missing. Using Michele’s odometer to clock mileage instead, we finally spotted a dusty, unmarked, half-moon turnout on the shoulder of the road.

We passed it. Michele pulled a U-turn, and parked the SUV.

Standing on the side of the highway, staring toward a far-off mountain range, we saw nothing but sand, dried-out vegetation and the occasional Joshua tree. Not our Joshua tree. We stepped into the open expanse of desert. Sand and thorns invaded our boots. The sun beating down, I took off my cheesy, burgundy, polyester 2017 Joshua Tree hooded sweatshirt I had bought out of necessity at the Berlin show, when rain poured and Bono sang "Singin' In The Rain" as a prelude to "Bad." I tied the sweatshirt around my waist and kept walking.

“Let’s fan out,” Renee suggested. Michele veered left, I walked straight, and Renee aimed right. We scanned the panorama for signs of…anything.

Then, a shape. A contour. We squinted into the sun. Is it?

We ran towards a shadow.

The tree lay on the ground, still somewhat in its original shape, its bark gray. It wasn’t the deadness of the tree that silenced us. It was the signs of life, of everyone who had been there before us.

So much life.

Desert rocks positioned to spell "Pride," "U2" and "Love."

A time-worn, greenish, bronze plaque set in concrete by a fan in the middle of the night that read “Have You Found What You’re Looking For.”

Two sun-dried guitars. A cymbal left by fans from Belgium, perforated with holes spelling Larry Mullen, Jr.’s name. Drumsticks.

And then we noticed the suitcases. Three pieces of silver luggage bearing labels of “U2” painted in black within a heart.

Do we open them?

It almost felt irreverent, sacrilegious, somehow like a violation.

Michele played "With Or Without You" on her iPhone. We stared at the tree. And then it became even more clear: the memorial was alive. It was alive because of the interaction of the fans who made the trek to visit it.

We opened the suitcases. Found notebooks. We took turns writing our own messages. Favorite lyrics. Wishes to future fans. Gratitude.

The suitcases contained photographs, wristbands, album covers, light bulbs, notes…evidence of collective love by fans from all over the world for these four guys, these songs, shared journeys, one another.

Michele staged a cool album cover of our own—three 50-something girls in the middle of the desert paying homage to an ossified tree, mountains in the distance, sun on our faces, sand dusting our skin.

We returned the memorabilia to the suitcases and left the tree as we found it, with slight additions: our words in the notebooks, our footprints in the sand. Evidence that we were there, part of this unifying experience.

We took a last look and quietly walked back out of the desert the way we came.


Obviously, travel is a luxury and a privilege. We’re all grounded right now, some of us isolating alone, others sharing confined space with others.



We can’t roam, explore, wander…for who knows how long. But we can reflect and imagine.

I travel a lot for work, giving presentations all over the country. For fun (and to replenish), I venture overseas solo, preferably where I don’t speak the language, or where I don’t speak it well. Whenever I start to feel agitated in my “normal” life, I know two things: I need to write, and I need to move.

I want to run.

Usually, when I feel a bristling of disquiet, of resistance, of restlessness, I book a plane ticket and I calm down. Instead, right now, I’m going to have to explore my own space, my own shelter.

Ordinarily, when I return from trips, I eventually unpack (after stepping over my discarded suitcase in the foyer for days, sometimes weeks). My travel mementos end up in a box, or a drawer, or a closet. Routine life naturally overshadows my memories of that sip of Vermentino I savored after a crispy bite of fried artichoke at a trattoria in Rome…the crack and crackle of ice walls shifting in the distance on my hike in Patagonia…the rain smacking my face as I jumped up and down with my eyes closed, belting out lyrics with strangers at the U2 show in Berlin.

Sheltering solo, I have to admit I’m a little nervous about how I’m going to navigate another 30 days (or more) of isolation and solitude, though I usually love being alone. So, here’s my new plan: each day, I’m going to seek and rediscover travel talismans and souvenirs that have faded into the wilderness of my tiny apartment.

I’ve completely neglected my collection of graffiti and street art pictures from trips to Puerto Rico, Belfast, Barcelona and Melbourne. I’m going to dig out the random currency—euros, pounds, pesos—cluttering a junk drawer, and try to remember where I was when I pocketed them. It’s time to make some art out of my wrangled concert wristbands and ticket stubs from adventures across three continents.

I’m grateful that my last trip before this strange confinement was a simple one: a desert, a tree, a car, music and two impactful friends.

To my fellow nomads…we’ll get through this…we will roam again. Together, we will tear down the walls that hold us inside.

(c) @U2/Brown, 2020.