We’re tooling down California Highway 62 on a rapidly warming Monday afternoon. The fine dust and grime of three days’ worth of camping at Joshua Tree National Forest cakes my skin, adding a couple notches to the temperature. We roll past the Joshua Tree Inn, and I catch a glimpse of an acoustic guitar sculpture propped underneath its roadside marquee. “That’s the place where Gram Parsons died of a drug overdose!” I exclaim.
This tidbit of info is all my wife can stand after hearing me periodically name drop the country rock pioneer for the past 72 hours. “Honestly, I’m perplexed,” she blurts out. “Why you’re so fascinated by this guy?”
It’s a valid question. From a musical standpoint, it doesn’t make any sense whatsoever. I’m not a big fan of Parsons or his groundbreaking band, The Flying Burrito Brothers. I don’t dig on the genre he created, nor do I care for The Eagles, Son Volt, Wilco, or any of the other bands that draw inspiration from its seed. When The Eagles come on the radio, I’ve been known to grouse a certain line from “The Big Lebowski” before quickly changing the channel. I could say I grew up listening to him, which is valid – my parents played the hell out of the duet record he made with Emmylou Harris – but hat that won’t suffice. Thankfully, my response has nothing to do with his songs.
“Weirdness,” I reply. I’m not wrong, either. Parsons’ saga is one of the strangest in rock history, country rock or otherwise. It’s also one perfectly befitting the Southern California’s enchantingly odd high desert.
Gram Parsons did indeed die of a drug overdose at the Joshua Tree Inn. He did so in room 8 on September 19, 1973. He was just 26, one year away from the immortality that surrounds the likes of Hendrix, Morrison, Joplin, Cobain, and Winehouse. His demise was deemed morphine’s fault, but his insides were also well-lacquered with the barbiturates and whiskey he ingested nightly while traipsing around the high desert. It was no surprise his last days were spent here – Joshua Tree National Monument had enamored Parsons since his days in the Flying Burrito Brothers. This fascination compelled the singer to confess to his road manager, Phil Kaufman, to scatter his ashes in the park if he were to die. This eerie request-cum-premonition sparked the bizarre.
Within hours of Parsons’ passing, Kaufman found out the body was headed to Los Angeles International Airport, where it was to be flown to New Orleans for its funeral. He rounded up his assistant Michael Martin and the Cadillac hearse Martin’s girlfriend happened to own, drove to LAX, and posed as funeral parlor workers sent to transport the body to a chartered flight at a smaller airport. The plan worked; Kauffman and company intercepted the cargo and raced back to Joshua Tree, intent on fulfilling the country rocker’s wishes.
They would have gotten away with it if it wasn’t for some meddling campers, who alerted park authorities to a fire burning where a fire shouldn’t burn. Rangers followed the flames to find roughly 35 pounds of the late singer left inside the casket. The men were long gone by the time the rangers came to the site, but were eventually done in by information authorities collected from various points on their journey. They were slapped with thirty-day suspended jail sentences and ordered to pay over $1,000 in fines and proper funeral expenses.
It didn’t take long for Parsons’ burial site to organically transform in to a makeshift memorial; one marked by bright graffiti, deposited guitars, scrawled rock-pinned notes, and the occasional jewel-encrusted bric-a-brac. I’d heard about this memorial several years ago, well after my musical introduction by parental proxy. The sheer absurdity of the tale charged my own need for a pilgrimage to Joshua Tree. The monument’s piled stones and alien yuccas appealed, but their allure became equal to the memory of a dead singer from a genre I didn’t dig. If I’m being honest here, the latter surpassed the former on most days. When plans for an October camping session in Joshua Tree were agreed upon by us and another family, the thought of finally taking the sojourn thrilled me.
Technology in a National Landmark can be a fickle bitch. I learn this the hard way when I arrive at Joshua Tree and my phone is rendered useless.
I should have known better. I contend I do know better. I’m a veteran of camping at Yosemite and the California Sequoias; two iconic slices of nature where 21st century forms of communication and information gathering are dreams. I know how nature works. Joshua Tree may not have gigantic trees reaching toward the heavens, but they don’t have any cell towers, either.
This is problematic. I’ve read the Parsons story several times before, but never assigned the specific locale of Parsons’ would-be burial ground to my brain. The week leading up to our Joshua Tree trip was so busy, I didn’t bother to activate my Google-fu to determine the site’s whereabouts. I rapidly conclude I’m an idiot. I feel like a guest to a housewarming that coldly shows up empty-handed. Thankfully, a few hours of setting up the campsite and quaffing some beers sends my mind to a place where I can enjoy the near-mythical surroundings of our campground. Walls of majestic boulders flank either side of the site, serving as a funnel for the gusty winds that occasionally rattle our free-standing gear. The biggest stone to our north have hooks embedded in its surface. “We may get visitors,” one of my camping companions notes. This is excellent news. If his semi-prediction holds true, the folks that drop by may have info on Parson’s makeshift burial site.
A middle-aged woman and a young man do arrive around 8:00 AM the next morning. The network of ropes, harnesses, and impressive yet unrecognizable gear clutched in their hands speaks to their advanced rock-climbing skill. They set up shop in front of the hook-studded boulder, about 10 yards away from where we’re enjoying coffee. It’s close enough for small talk. We quickly find out they’re locals, they love the outdoors, and the one doing the climbing inspired the name of the “Skinny Little Bitch” cocktail served up at one of the local inns. They sound dialed in to the community. To appropriately paraphrase U2, I’ve found what I’ve been looking for.
“Where’s Gram Parson’s old gravesite?” I ask.
The woman stares blankly. “Who’s that?”
“Mom!” the young man says, revealing their relationship. “You know! The Flying Burrito Brothers!”
“Oh, that guy!” mom replies. My faith in her sense of community is fully restored.
“They buried him at Cap Rock,” the son continues. “It’s part of a looped trail, where you go around the rock. It’s around the northwest corner. The park cleans up the area, but you should be able to see something if you know to look.”
I know to look, all right. An achievement is destined to be unlocked.
Southern California’s High Desert is codified for music. The Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival plays just south of the National Landmark at Indio’s Empire Polo Club, where millions of music fans have witnessed everything from Prince covering Radiohead to Tupac Shakur showing up in posthumous hologram form. Paul McCartney, fresh from a major league gig at 2016’s Desert Trip (read: Coachella for Boomers) played an impromptu intimate gig at the local Joshua Tree dive bar Pappy & Harriet’s. Several local musicians join Queens of the Stone Age frontman Josh Homme in Palm Desert every year for several days of collaborative jamming on heavy, sludgy grooves. The sub-sub-sub-genre of “stoner rock” – think metal meets psychedelia – emanates from the area. And of course, the weird plant that inspired the title of U2’s seminal album “The Joshua Tree” is abundant around here. Parsons’ fantastical story is but a song in the region’s never-ending concert.
It’s still a cool song, though. He paved the way for the likes of the Eagles and Linda Ronstadt; acts whose sounds could oscillate between rock and country as effortlessly as a California summer breeze. He discovered Emmylou Harris, one of country’s purest voices. He partied and palled around with Mick Jagger and (especially) Keith Richards during the recording of The Rolling Stones’ seminal “Exile on Main Street,” an album with more than its fair share of country rock DNA embedded in its grooves. (Rumors persist he’s on the record somewhere – Richards has acknowledged he’s probably on the chorus of “Sweet Virginia” – but nothing’s ever been substantiated.) Every act wedged between the radio-unfriendly vortex separating mainstream rock and country owe Parsons a debt, from Uncle Tupelo to the Zac Brown Band, forty-four years after his demise. Without him, there may not be a vortex to be wedged into.
If you know the high-desert’s musical history, you appreciate Parsons’ story, regardless of what you think of his music or his influence. If you’re staying in Joshua Tree National Monument, your brain also becomes an inadvertent regional jukebox as you walk through its weirdly majestic landscape. The QOTSA song “My God is the Sun” cranks up within my head every time I leave the campsite and trek down its adjacent dusty highway. I don’t mind. It’s a killer song, replete with a guitar riff that makes me feel like Eastwood’s Man with No Name I go mobile, even if I’m mostly just walking to the nearby outhouse to pee. That’s the magic behind this convergence of music and ethereal weirdness. You just need a song in your head and a need to urinate to feel like a badass.
One can only speculate how much of a badass Parsons felt roaming around Joshua Tree and the high desert despite – or because of – the copious amounts of drugs and alcohol he ingested. The songs the landscape would have inspired if he’d lived also remain as mysterious as his unfinished career trajectory. Would he have broken through to mainstream success? Would a life beyond 26 diminished his legacy? Only God and the high desert know for sure. Neither of them are spilling secrets, something that only adds to both the singer’s and the region’s musical mythos.
Cap Rock is the second trail on the day’s hiking agenda. We’re kicking things off at Barker Dam’s trail, an easy 1.5-mile route whose loop passes by an eponymous water barrier. It gives us a chance to get the blood flowing. It also gives us extra time to figure out Cap Rock’s exact location.
It’s not easy to find. There are several roads weaving through Joshua Tree National Monument, but the place is indeed where the streets have no name. This makes deciphering the National Park Services-approved map we have a hardcore challenge. Cap Rock is allegedly along the route to the Barker Dam Trail, but we see no signage pointing to its whereabouts. Its presence is a mystery, which feels appropriate.
We see a park ranger manning a brochure-laden pop-up tent at Barker Dam’s trailhead, and we approach him after completing the loop. After he helps us crack the map’s code, the question must be asked.
“That’s the Gram Parsons site, right?” I blurt.
The ranger pauses. “Who?”
“Gram Parsons!” I repeat. “The musician. Died in the early ‘70s. His buddies stole his body and buried him in Joshua Tree…”
“Never heard of him,” the ranger says flatly. This immediately strikes me as odd. Granted, the story’s over 40 years old, but it’s not exactly obscure around these parts. There’s freshness to the stories of graffiti-covered rocks and makeshift memorials within the park. If they weren’t, Skinny Little Bitch’s son probably wouldn’t have mentioned the park cleaning sessions. “That guy’s totally deflecting,” I tell my friend the moment we’re out of the ranger’s earshot.
“Maybe he really doesn’t know,” my friend replies. “Maybe he’s new.”
“There’s no way in hell he doesn’t know about Parsons,” I answer. “The story’s legendary. We can’t be the first people to ask him about it. I’m guessing the rangers are instructed to play dumb to discourage people from finding and vandalizing the spot. That’s really the only thing that makes sense.”
My friend shoots me a quizzical look. He’s probably right to do so. I haven’t veered completely into tin-foil hat country, but I’m gliding along its outskirts. I can only imagine what my fervor would be if I was a big fan of Parsons’ music. It would probably make me unbearable – more so than I already am. As we climb back into our rental van, my party is probably glad we’re finally headed to Cap Rock. Doing so will finally stop my yammering about encountering this memorial, which will undoubtedly be cool, colorful, and surreal – much like Joshua Tree itself.
There is absolutely nothing.
That’s not entirely true from a certain point of view. The eponymous Cap Rock is a gorgeous massive boulder. The flowers emerging from the pointy plants dotting the 0.4-mile loop trail add pops of natural color. We spot a couple of lizards chilling in their habitat and a drone daring to rake in the park’s pricey no drone fine. Normally, these would delight. Not at Cap Rock. The natural splendor highlights what’s missing.
There aren’t any pops of graffiti on the rocks. There aren’t any cheap guitars left behind, or crosses ensconced in the ground. There aren’t any photos or sketches of Parsons held in place by jewels worthy of one of his famous “Nudie suits.” I wander off the trail and traverse the rock’s backside, in the off chance I’m missing something. No such luck. The park’s cleaned things up, and have done so with extreme prejudice. We read every sign planted along the loop. They yield gobs of information about the flora and fauna calling Cap Rock home, but nothing about Parsons’ botched final resting place. I’m miffed.
I realize the selfishness of my reaction. This is a national park; a sacred space of beauty that should be untouched by the smear of human interference. This is the credo I hold dear in normal circumstances. Cap Rock is not a normal circumstance. The weirdness of Parsons’ makeshift burial makes normal feel impossible. To see his quasi-final resting spot unsullied makes it feel strangely vandalized. The lack of signage regarding the incident confirms my suspicions in my head, about the park wanting people to forget about the incident. I begrudgingly understand their rationale if that is their intent, but that doesn’t lessen my disappointment. The Parsons caper, and Parsons himself, deserves better.
A cleaned-up Cap Rock doesn’t diminish my love of Joshua Tree National Monument. The rest of the camping trip is spent exploring the landscape, chilling at the campsite, and absorbing a night sky unfettered by the scourge of light pollution. These things are too brilliant to experience just once, and I look forward to camping there again one day. Next time, I may even stay the night along Highway 62 before we enter the park. There’s a hotel on the road that caught my eye.