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Chasing Gram Parsons

The sign for the Joshua Tree Inn is so unassuming that I managed to pass it three times and curse at my map twice before catching the sign’s faded lettering and easing my beat up station wagon into the steep driveway.

“Hi,” I say to the woman who greets me. “I called yesterday about Gram Parsons.”

“Oh, you’re the one,” she says, and leads me back to the room where Gram Parsons, on September 19, 1973, died at the age of 26.

Everyone has that one musician or singer with whom they connect on a level so deep it seems they had known every bit of their music before they heard even one note of it. We feel certain we would have written their songs ourselves if only they hadn’t beaten us to it.

For me, that singer is Gram Parsons, who in the late sixties and early seventies managed to blend country and rock in a way that no one ever had before and almost no one, I would argue, has managed since. His influence extended across a broad range of artists, from the Rolling Stones to his protégé Emmylou Harris, the lead artist on the 1999 Parsons tribute album Return of the Grievous Angel. That album revived interest in his music and brought him a new legion of fans, including myself.

Which is why I turned my car off Interstate 10 and onto the Twenty-Nine Palms Highway in the first place.

The first thing I notice when I enter the courtyard around which the Joshua Tree Inn is built is the silence. The Twenty-Nine Palms Highway, though not used nearly as much as the average Interstate, is still a four-lane thoroughfare that gets its share of traffic, most of it tourists on their way to Joshua Tree National Monument, which contains an astonishing number of the otherworldly trees.

But there is no sound of the highway once you reach that courtyard. The only sounds are those of the wind and the occasional rustle of wind chimes. There are just ten rooms in the motel, all of them small, all of them facing the courtyard. I take in the small pool, surrounded by deck chairs, rock and cacti, hardly believing that a place this peaceful exists less than two hours from the screaming buzz of Los Angeles.

Parsons himself came here regularly to get away from the whole L.A. music scene. Joshua Tree then was not so different from how it is now. It’s a desert town, and visitors, even those who come to see the monument, are fairly rare. Those who do come through don’t often stay for long.
Within the first minute of arriving, I realize why both he and I needed to come here. This is the most perfect hiding place I’ve ever seen.

“Would you like to see the Gram Parsons Room?” asks the manager.

“Please,” I say.

I had set out one month before from my home in Flagstaff following my graduation from Northern Arizona University. This trip was my post-graduation present to myself; one last run through the western United States and Canada before heading off to live with my girlfriend in Chicago. I brought a friend along with me to help split costs and set off less than twenty-four hours after receiving all the handshakes and back slaps that go with graduation.

I had purchased my car two months before from a Phoenix pastor and therefore felt it deserved a biblical name. I called upon my friend Brent, leader of a regular Bible study group on the campus, who sized up the vehicle.

“How about, ‘The Whale?’” he offered.


The Whale started off admirably, covering Yellowstone Park, the Bitterroot Mountains and the Pacific Northwest without any hang-ups. But in southern Oregon the clutch locked up, and by the time we reached Eureka it smelled like the world’s most wretched barbeque.

This only added to the growing tension of the trip. What had started out as a great adventure was beginning to feel like a babysitting gig. I did not have the money to fix the car, having already loaned my traveling companion three hundred dollars, which he would never bother to pay back. Only last second help from my grandfather had allowed us to get any further without panhandling.

A few days later, in San Jose, my traveling companion nearly got arrested when, half-drunk, he stepped out in the middle of the street and held his hand up to stop a police car, then started talking back to the officer.
So when I said I wanted to make the detour to Joshua Tree for the day, it was not so much a request as a trade offer. Just let me visit Gram Parsons’ ghost for a few hours and I’ll pretend I’m not mad at you for the last few days of the trip.
There are conflicting reports over the exact room in which Parsons died, whether it was room seven, where he was registered, or room eight, where he was supposedly rushed after he overdosed on tequila and morphine while lounging beside the pool.

Whatever the truth, room seven remains the Gram Parsons Room, featuring pictures of him on the walls and a journal beside the bed, where visitors write about, and occasionally to, Gram Parsons. This particular journal is about half full and, according to the manager, will soon join the other filled journals in the office. 

Once alone, I take a second to look at the other entries in the journal, but this quickly feels invasive. Some people have left drawings and photographs, song lyrics and poems. I turn to the first blank page I can find and am totally unable to write anything.

“Well, Gram,” I say out loud. “Thanks.”

This is totally unsatisfactory. I know it even as I’m saying it. But what do you say when you meet your heroes, even if they are ghosts?

I sit in the room for a moment and try to absorb it. Gram Parsons died here, I think. This was the last place he ever saw. This was his last place on Earth. I wonder if he knew it was ending, or if he just faded out. I walk back out to the pool, sit down, and cry.  A few minutes later, I join my companion by the car and we drive away from the motel and into the park.

Joshua Trees, which stretch off in every direction inside of the park, look like short, anorexic palm trees. Their trunks don’t seem to be living, and their leaves appear more like fat porcupine quills than any kind of foliage. They are perfect symbols for this landscape, which is so dry and desolate you can go for hours hearing nothing but wind.

A few minutes inside the park, we encounter Cap Rock, the scene of the final, and most bizarre chapter of Parsons’ life.

Parsons’ road manager Phil Kaufman always claimed that Gram had wanted his ashes scattered at Cap Rock. Parsons’ stepfather, however, made arrangements for him to be buried in Louisiana, with none of his friends invited to the proceedings. Kaufman and another friend named Michael Martin, armed with phony paperwork and a rented hearse, stole Parsons’ body from Los Angeles International Airport, drove it out to Cap Rock and lit a funeral pyre. Both were arrested and Gram’s remains were eventually buried in New Orleans.

Needless to say, this is not a story the park rangers generally feel compelled to share with park visitors, and Cap Rock, which does not have a sign anywhere near it, saw the tail lights of my car several times. Finally I park on the side of the road and, along with my traveling companion, make my way up to the monument, both of us being careful for snakes.
It’s nearly sunset, and I want to get out of the park before dark. I stroll around the rock a few times, then turn to go. I’d had my moment, and although I am not looking forward to the next couple of days, I feel calmer. I put Parsons’ version of “Wild Horses” on the CD player and start out of the park.

We are approaching the Arizona state line when my traveling companion says that he has something for me.

“What?” I ask, wondering if this is going to put even more distance between us.

He reaches into his bag and pulls out a small, thick stick. A dead piece of a Joshua Tree. It looks parched and twisted and feels as hard as iron. It’s unbelievably beautiful. “When did you get this?” I ask.

“While you were looking at the rock,” he says.

I smile, and all of a sudden the trip is perfect again. I don’t mind that the money is gone. I don’t mind the run in with the cop in San Jose. I just look at my piece of Joshua Tree and listen to Gram Parsons on the radio and I’m glad for the time being that I took this trip with this person.

The Mojave Desert goes past the window, and the wind outside sounds like a familiar voice.

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