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