Joshua Tree – where it turns out the streets do have names after all (Chris)
A new blog from Chris. We’ve arrived in Joshua Tree from LA. The action starts in room eight of the Joshua Tree Inn:
Body clock still running fast, I woke up at 5.30 a.m. for the third day in a row despite a concerted effort the previous evening to give myself a fighting chance of sleep – by staying up late and getting drunk on the Coronas we’d bought at the Canyon Country Store. I should have known better. Here of all places I was never going to get more than a few snatched hours. After all this was no ordinary motel room. It was room eight of the legendary Joshua Tree Inn, the very same room where Gram had his last fix, put one last notch on the bedpost (possibly not in that order), and then drew his last breath. Sleeping wasn’t why Gram came out here, and it wasn’t what brought me here either.
Aside from all of that, Joe and I were sharing a bed. We had agreed in advance that, despite there being only one queen-size double in room eight, it would be better for the project (and for our wallets) if we ‘shared the experience’ in every possible sense. We had done this once before when I found myself without a hotel room or tent to doss down in at Reading Festival. We were sure we could manage it again. So after much manly posturing and strategic placement of pillows, Joe nodded off as usual and left me to contemplate the spirit of Gram Parsons wafting through the rafters.
Next day, instead of wasting the dawn lying awake in bed next to the perpetually slumbering Joe – technically a lie-in and therefore definitely a little weird with someone you’re not shagging – I chose to get up and photograph the motel in the gentle light of the desert at daybreak. It was a treat to have the place to myself for an hour or two and take my time over-writing the version which had occupied my head for the past fifteen years. The creeping morning light made for a beautiful photo of a silhouetted Joshua tree by the pool, another showing a warm glow through the window diffused by the fading orange curtains, and a very cheesy shot of Joe waking up underneath a picture of Gram looking dazed, confused and faintly stupid with his new cockduster moustache.
Breakfast was cereal and muffins in the reception area of the inn, a cosy dining space hung with maps of the National Park, local artwork and leaflet displays. Pictures of Gram competed for space alongside photographs of Bono and friends, but despite the colossal profile of the latter compared to his lesser-known wallmate, this place, for the hundreds of fans who pass through each year, will always be linked to Gram and Gram alone. Margo the matronly innkeeper gave us directions to Cap Rock, Gram’s favourite spot in the desert for getting high with friends (Keith Richards among them) and the place where his manager Phil ‘Road Mangler’ Kaufman had whisked and then flambéed the body, having stolen it from the airport hours before.
The approach to the Joshua Tree National Park – Quail Springs Road – is littered with drooping, ramshackle cabins that desert dwellers apparently call home. Cacti, the like of which I had seen only in Road Runner cartoons, line the roadside like Venice Beach muscle-men flexing their biceps for an all-over tan. Anxious not to miss anything, I jumped in the back of the now topless Sebring and shot some film of the junkyard of rusty rock formations and Joshua trees that scatter the Mojave landscape. This was our first taste of the in-through-the-nose-and-relaaax kind of driving we had envisaged before we arrived, a welcome decongestant spin after the asphyxiating rush-hour choke of LA the day before. We shot endless reels of passing roadside, figuring they would make great general views (or ‘GVs’ in telly parlance, daaahling) should we ever need voice-over material for a proper programme.
Cap Rock was easy to spot. A barn-sized yellow outcrop sitting lonely in a wide expanse of desert with nothing but Joshua trees for company, it takes its name from the flat, rounded boulder which glints on top of it like a cap perched on the scalp of a balding, sweaty trucker. We pulled off the road and embarked on what we supposed would be an arduous search for the sacred spot of Gram’s cremation, where the rock is scribbled with fans’ dedications to commemorate his passing. I had noted down the complicated directions given to us over breakfast: ‘Start from the car park and proceed in a north-north-westerly direction (NO trail), turning left at the fourth tree past the heart-shaped rock after the weeping cactus.’ It all sounded fantastically esoteric.
In the event it was disappointingly easy to find. Margo could have saved herself the trouble (‘It’s on the opposite site of the rock to the car park’ would have sufficed), but we were learning that there are many minor and harmless embellishments to the GP legend that serve to make the trail that little bit more satisfying in the pursuit.
We arrived to find two people already there. One was a lean and lithe rock climber type with a bewildering capacity for meaningless chatter and inappropriate candour, preparing to embark on a ‘Gram Parsons Memorial Hand Traverse’, as tradition has it for the more outward-bound among GP pilgrims. This involves hanging with your fingertips from the uppermost edge of one of the smaller rocks, swinging your legs sideways over a clutch of thorny bushes which crouch menacingly beneath your rear, then sliding your hands along until you can negotiate another foothold. This you repeat until you’ve made your way along the entire length of the rock, before dropping several feet onto the sand below. All in the name, apparently, of showing Gram just how much he means to you.
I had planned on completing a memorial traverse of my own, but quickly realised I was woefully unprepared. For one thing I was wearing all the wrong clothes. Our rock climber friend was decked out in all manner of technical gear, including fingerless climbing gloves and rubber-soled pumps that stuck to the rock like Spiderman. Despite this, and his possessing the physique of an Olympic gymnast, he still looked like he was having difficulty, made worse by the fact that he was attempting to hold a conversation with an onlooker as he went. In between grunts he relayed to the second Parsons pilgrim, a bald but bearded, matchstick-chewing biker, the details of his disastrous personal finances and the demise of his last relationship.
‘It all started to go wrong for us – ooh, ouch – when I lost my job. Cindy was the kind of girl that liked the finer things in life, you know?’
‘And when I couldn’t provide the material things for her any more – whoa! nearly lost it there – things started to go downhill in our sex life too.’
‘We were arguing a lot anyway, which was worse when Cindy got her period – man, she had really heavy periods – and I think the job thing was the last straw, you know?’ His left buttock was suspended inches above a nest of thorns.
‘That was when I started to hit the booze real hard – ooh! ah! – and Cindy took off with a guy from work…’
And so it continued, the climber ever more generous with the depressing details of his personal life, the biker always monosyllabic in reply, until finally the climber completed his traverse, dropped onto his feet and with a ‘Nice talkin’ to ya!’ was gone.
I lingered and read the dedications scrawled onto the rock. Many quoted lyrics from GP songs, often incorrectly, but if the grammar was a little out the sentiment was still there, even in the tribute from one touchingly misguided fan of ‘Graham Parsons’. But, as I was later to write in the guest book at the Joshua Tree Inn, we came in search of the spirit of Gram Parsons and found it written all over Cap Rock. We made a quick, unsuccessful attempt to clamber to the top before returning to the car park, where we found the rock climber unburdening himself of some recent health scares to a family of day-trippers. He’s fine now though, so don’t worry.
Lunch at Denny’s before a haircut at Twentynine Palms’ famous Barber Judi, the only hairdresser I have ever visited who faces the customer away from the mirror as they are being shorn, presumably so that (a) your travelling companion can wince theatrically and suck through his teeth as she goes about her toil and trouble, as Joe did now, and (b) you have ‘a nice surprise’ to look forward to at the end of the whole terrifying experience. Proudly boasting marine-style grade fours, we returned to the Joshua Tree Inn. It was at this point that the day took a turn for the unexpected, if not for the truly inconceivable.
To watch a short tour of the Joshua Tree Inn’s legendary room eight – and marvel at Chris’ brutal shearing at the hands of Barber Judi – click here.