High Desert Gothic I: Artifacts

It all started with a mistake. In the 70s, when we lived in Los Angeles and worked against deadline, we often spent weekends at Joshua Tree National Monument, as it was then called. The park was quiet, with sparkling vistas, beautiful and barren, and a person could walk virtually anywhere — and, as we discovered, sleep anywhere. Pick a patch of sand; lie down.

Mostly, though, we stayed in a fetchingly ramshackle motel at the edge of 29 Palms. It too was quiet, with identical whitewashed bungalows heated by wood fires. There was an attached restaurant for dinner, where lots of Marines from the nearby military base  spent the weekend drinking. It was funky and lovely and just a bit weird. The desert is a bit weird too. That’s why I love the desert.


Stuff has changed since 1981. Joshua Tree (now a national park) is the fastest growing park in the system. People from L.A. have caught the fever. You gotta make motel reservations pretty far ahead during flower season.

And here’s the mistake. Somehow the name of the odd bungalow motel where we stayed in our youth became transmorgified  from 29 Palms Inn (its actual name) into Joshua Tree Inn, in the town of Joshua Tree. That inn was where we were in fact going to stay. It was a one-story stucco-and-exposed wood building along the highway and unprepossessing from the outside. We looked at each other. “I’m sorry,” I said.

My heart sank, but Tracy bravely marched in. She’s good at bravely marching.

Enter motel.  Look around. Some kinda plaques on the wall, really a lot of plaques. Woman asks about our help-related needs. Reservation, see your credit card? Then, yes, here it is; the Fred Astaire suite. (Yeah, I got a suite. I’m too old not to get a suite if that’s what I want. I can afford it. I can’t afford a BMW X2, but I can afford a larger room in a still sleepyish desert community. What is it with you? Nag, nag, nag. That’s my inside voice).

“You know that this is the place where Gram Persons died.”

She just kind of tossed it out there. My experience, admittedly limited, is that hotels tend to cover up the fact that famous people died in them. Might make the place look, I dunno, raffish. The Beverley Hilton is mum about which room Whitney Houston died in; the Hard Rock Hotel in Florida does not reveal precisely where Anna Nicole Smith met her end. We do know that Oscar Wilde died in room 16 of the Hotel D’Alsace in Paris, where his last words were reported to be, “Either this wallpaper goes or I do.” Not perhaps the best advertisement for the hotel, but he probably didn’t say it then, or at all.

“It’s room 8,” said the clerk cheerfully.

So the story, as augmented by some Actual Research: Parsons, having completed an album and celebrating a period of relative sobriety, did what many addicts would do: Went to a motel in the desert, drank a lot of tequila and overdosed on heroin. His body was stolen at LAX by his manager, Phil Kaufman (not that one) (nor that one), who had pledged to Parsons that he would cremate him in Joshua Tree Park.

It was done, but not well: Some 35 per cent of Parsons remained, and it was taken back to New Orleans and buried there.

And yes, right outside the door of number 8 was a memorial, a metal sculpture in the form of a guitar, a bunch of plastic flowers and beads and predictable memorial knick-knacks. On the ground  was a piece of concrete with the words “Safe at Home,” the name of an early Parson album.


We passed it by every morning on our way to breakfast. “You’re in the desert now,” it murmured.

I partially grew up in the desert. (I also partially grew up at the seashore. I’m a California lad.) I was enraptured by its landscape. It has hardly any reality at all, so every juxtaposition is unexpected. It is oddly comfortable with death; even life in the desert exists in the margins, doing all the work of living during the dawn and twilight hours. And the people who choose to live there want to live their way, surrounded by whatever possessions make them happy. And there’s lots of real estate to work with; property lines are notional at best. Even the park is open 24 hours a day, because it would be fruitless to do it any other way.

Artists love the desert, partly because it’s such a large  canvas, partly because you can do almost anything that doesn’t hurt farm animals. And, in an odd way, that makes everything about either art or death or both. So a memorial to a dead rock singer on the grounds of the motel where you’re staying: absolutely normal.

And so, that very evening, following a travel strategy we call “taking suggestions,” we went to the Noah Purifoy Outdoor Museum, a few miles north of town but still essentially unfindable without Mr. Google sitting in your lap. It’s out beyond the scruffy Joshua Tree suburbs, where every yard looks like it might have artistic intent.

Noah Purifoy was an interesting dude. An African-American, he first came to attention with a series of works that he carved, sometimes literally, from the ruins of the 1965 Watts Riots. For 20 years he was active at the intersection of art and social justice.

Then he had a moment (I assume), and moved to Joshua Tree and started Noah Purify’s Desert Museum. He made art out of the bountiful harvest of the desert: tires, refrigerators, cafeteria trays, beer kegs, automobile springs, radiators, water fountains, computer monitors, large pieces of plywood, televisions, etc.  True desert beings, we went at twilight, when the light and the temperature were perfect. Not so perfect for taking photographs, but Tracy did find one usable image:


And there are plenty more here. We wandered around until it was too dark to see the ground, sitting in the “rooms,”  entering the “doorways,” wandering backstage at the “theaters.” There were three other people there, all French (because: perfect) who were, I believed, envisioning the end of the world and quite liking it.

Every day was like that; heck, all my days in the desert, in Pear Blossom or Palmdale or Indio or Pahrump, have been tinged with surrealism. Sitting in the sunset, looking at a merest sketch of the world, sans water, sans leaves, sans crops, sans animals, sans almost everything except the will to survive. When survival meets landscape, we got some primordial stuff going on.

But I am holding something back. On this trip to the desert, I lost my mind. Stay tuned.


Photography by Tracy Johnston

Useful tech stuff by Michelle Mizera







32 thoughts on “High Desert Gothic I: Artifacts

    1. We did an old person’s version: We took two days to get there. Benefit: I discovered the Padre, an old refurbished hotel in downtown…Bakersfield. Certainly the priciest place in town, but nice beds and access to food and drink. Plus lobbies, the bathroom off the lobby, an old hotel stuff.


  1. I wrote this in a workshop a while ago in response to the prompt “Honey, I know a thing or two about _______”

    Honey, I know a thing or two about the desert. I’ve chased those rainbows, seen the crumbling shacks and windblown signs and settling adobe walls. I don’t know as much as the people who live here, but I know they wouldn’t live anywhere else. Or maybe couldn’t. I know there’s more to the desert than you can see driving through. I like rocks, and the desert has good ones, and you can see them from your car window if you feel like looking, but if you get out of your damn car you’ll see that there are people and critters that live here. That are dug in here, where it’s dry enough for their lungs or quiet enough for their minds or big enough for their egos. This is a big place, and if you feel small you may as well leave. People come looking for gold and stay for the place, come looking for emptiness and find all kinds of rusted-out gear and desert sun amethyst and horned toads and desert rose–desert rose, that’s rocks, the flowers out here ain’t roses, they are cactus flowers, prettier than roses or lilies, bold and tough like flowers should be, not wimpy. Pebbles, glass, sand, thorns, all hard stuff but it all gets soft as feathers in the dawn light. You fall in love out here. You fall in love with the earth. Mother earth mother-naked, no redwoods, no oaks, no invasive dried-up grass and thistle, just pure sagebrush, well spaced, been growing here since dinosaurs, I guess, and if you are lucky you see dinosaur bones too. Everything out in the open. Except water. That’s hidden, mostly, down in the ground. I remember going to Old Woman Springs with my folks. I remember standing on the tan-brown-red desert and looking down in that hewn hole, that blue-tinted rock and water deep down in the ground like a different world, but it’s all one world, all the desert. 

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      1. Why, thank you. I seem to be on a roll. Yesterday Malcolm Margolin said of my new book, Occupella: Singing in the Lifeboats, “That’s the best damn book I’ve read in years!” May I send you a copy?


    1. Thank you, Nancy. I learned to approach the desert on the down-low, getting my face down where the action is. And what I loved most about my voyaging night—just me, no entheagens—was the sense that the desert can kill without malice, without love, it’s so immense that you just have to love it without needing to feel it knows you’re there. There was something hugely comforting about that.

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  2. Maybe ten years ago I asked a desert-savvy friend to go with me and keep me safe during a “vision quest.” We thought we’d be at Joshua Tree, but it was already too crowded and commercialized, so we drove on. Near Twenty-Nine Palms we branched off on a dirt road, taking a chance that we’d find somewhere good. We did, a perfect mini-mesa way off-road with a 360-degree panorama of the basin and range system. It was 115 until night, but then perfect. I lay flat on my back on a big warm rock with nothing between my skin and the stars and it was worth the agony of the day before. Not until much later did I discover that we were illegal trespassers on military land, which explained why we heard “thunder with no clouds. Whew. — Elizabeth Fuller

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    1. First you’re dying in a hospital; now losing your mind. Jon, get a grip. Good thing you got Tracy. Speaking of whom, that last pic is breathtaking. Wish I had a copy.

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    2. How great. We hiked into a few places in the 70s. 49 Palms oasis, we slept there — not permits, no nothing. And I was awaken by the vivid smells of cactus flowers, pumping all their scents during max fertilization season. And then: Bees.

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  3. GRATE story…for the record…and the musicologists…and Ben Fong-Torres…it’s officially GRAM…back in 2012…on our way to my college radio reunion in Redlands…(Joshua Tree was prime Acid Land in those daze)…we stayed in Room EIGHT…I asked when we made our reservations and it was surprisingly available…I downplayed all that for my wife to minimize the spookiness…the guest book in that room documents lots of strange events…but nothing showed up for us…I think the only original item still left from Gram’s Last Night is the wall mirror…which I have a photo of somewhere…

    Sent from my iPad


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  4. Yes. Exactly. I was raised in 29, back in the day, the day being 1955-1973. You’ve captured the place percectly, which is why it keeps calling me back. You’re wrong about 29 Palms Inn though. It’s still there, the best restaurant in town. Thanks for this.


  5. Wonderful, thank you for this.

    For you desert, for me mountains.

    As I look at the shadows I never see the same mountain twice. It is the same with a poem, all is affected by mood, by experience, by age.

    Thank you again.

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  6. When you were editor of New West, you booked the Inn in the winter of 1978 and held the first (and probably the most wonderfully bizarre) editorial conference there. None of us will ever forget. Thank you, Jon. When I lived in CA, I would go back almost every year. Last time, alas, was 2 years ago.


    1. I absolutely do remember that “retreat”; I remember certain city-loving staffers being afeared of tree-dwelling rattlesnakes or herds of stampeding gila monsters. It was so wonderful. And hey, come west, come west. Revisit the desert!


  7. “not done well. 35% remained…” My god that sounds like a story in itself. What did they do Pull him from the inferno?

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    1. It’s harder to completely burn a human body than you might imagine. I’m not sure now why I know this, but I do.


  8. Magnificent photo! I’ve only been to Joshua Tree once, and have not spent nearly enough time in deserts. This is a wonderful reminder to get going.

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  9. You lost your mind! Oh, Jon. Love your wild and crazy rambles. Believe it or not I used to live in Indio, California in about 1970 or 1971. It is definitely surreal. Huntington Beach where I hung out a lot was much, much better. Stunning sunset image Tracey! Thank you both.


  10. My niece got married here last year. It started with a sandstorm and an invasion of caterpillars. Literally, a carpet of caterpillars; folks had to scrape them off their shoes. Fortunately the wind died down the day of the ceremony and the caterpillars moved and we had a spectacular hike the next day. Joshua Tree has magic, if you can avoid dying there.


  11. Just thought of the Untied Way that you promoted. Used airbnb to send a random amount of money to a random person in Ukraine. No idea if he could read my note wishing him well, but did get a thank you with praying hands emoji. Hope you are well. Sue D

    On Wed, May 2, 2018 at 11:39 AM Jon Carroll Prose wrote:

    > joncarrollprose posted: “It all started with a mistake. In the 70s, when > we lived in Los Angeles and worked against deadline, we often spent > weekends at Joshua Tree National Monument, as it was then called. The park > was quiet, with sparkling vistas, beautiful and barren, and a pe” >


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