On our journey through life, we may look for signs to tell us where we're headed. We may not find the signs we are hoping for. We may not find any signs at all. Or we may find a sign standing right in front of us in the middle of the road and not know what it means.
On New Years Day, I went back to Joshua Tree to further my exploration of both the Gram Parsons legend and the mystique of the Mojave desert. I had done some research on Gram following my last trip to Joshua Tree and learned there was one more place I had to see to get a more complete understanding of Gram and his legacy. So I booked a night in Room 8 at the Joshua Tree Inn.
Room 8 is the "Gram Parson's Room" at the Inn. It was the room Gram stayed in when he came to visit Joshua Tree and it is the room he was staying in when he died. It has become a bit of a shrine to Gram and a Mecca to his fans. When I mentioned it to my band, most of whom are big Gram Parson's fans as well as fellow songwriters, they all understood my plan. In fact, it is kind of a rite of passage among certain songwriters to write a song while staying in Room 8.
I had another plan in addition to visiting Room 8. I wanted to shoot some video for a song I wrote called "Somewhere in America". I am hoping to put together a music video for the song and put it up on the internet. I thought the unique and spectacular scenery of Joshua Tree would make an excellent backdrop for the song.
So I loaded up the car with my camera and tripod and my guitar and harmonicas and set out for the desert.
On the way out to Joshua Tree the highway cuts through the San Gorgonio Pass between Mt. San Jacinto on the south and the San Bernardino Mountains to the north. The ocean-driven winds blast through this pass on their way to the desert creating a gigantic wind tunnel. A wind farm covers the eastern slope of the pass with over 4000 windmills, each standing over 100 feet tall, that provide electricity for nearby Palm Springs.
I decided to get a shot of the windmills for my video so I pulled off the highway and set up my camera. Unfortunately, when I looked through the viewfinder, the image was distorted and discolored and looked terrible. I couldn't believe it, here I was in the middle of a wind farm hundreds of miles from the nearest electronics repair shop and now suddenly my camera goes on the fritz. I tried using the view screen on the side of the camera, but it was no better. I've always had a little trouble with the view screen, however, and I sometimes have to give it a little whack with the heel of my hand to get it to close properly. For some reason, this time when I whacked it, it started working again. At least long enough to for me to get my shot of the windmills.
I continued my journey to Joshua Tree and checked-in to the motel. The woman at the desk asked, "are you here for the Gram Parson's experience?" I said, "I guess I am."
Room 8 has been kept just the way it was when Gram stayed here, or pretty close anyway. There are pictures of Gram on the wall as well as some vintage concert posters -- including one for the infamous Rolling Stones Altamont show (where Gram appeared with his band The Flying Burrito Brothers.) The furniture and decor are all early seventies style and there is even a CD of Gram's songs in the CD player. There are also a couple of books for guests to look at. One contains news clippings and other reference material that tell the story of Gram's life and death. The other is a guestbook that is filled with names and messages from the thousands of fans that have stayed there over the years.
My first order of business was to shoot some video while I still had some daylight. I set up the camera and once again the picture was messed up. I tried gently whacking the side of the camera as before and that would fix it momentarily, but then it would go bad again. I was getting pretty frustrated, but I wasn't ready to give up yet. I tried squeezing the camera in the place where I had whacked it. Strangely that worked, too. But I couldn't squeeze the camera and be in the shot at the same time, so I tried wrapping the strap from the camera case around it. That didn't work at all. Finally I thought, maybe it just needs a really good whack. I looked around for something to hit it with and decided on a harmonica. It seemed like just about the right size and weight for the job. I gave it a sharp whack and sure enough, the viewfinder cleared up. I hit 'record', grabbed my guitar sat down in front of the Altamont poster and sang "Somewhere in America". Cool.
Next, I went to the liquor store to get some tequila, because no tribute to Gram is complete without a little of that. I stopped for dinner at the Crossroads cafe and headed back to the room. After a shot or two of tequila, I went outside to do a little exploring. Now, the weather in LA had been pretty mild, but up here in the Mojave it was quite a bit colder and the wind was blowing something fierce. I wandered out past the swimming pool to an old house that must have once been the owner's residence but is now overgrown with weeds and vines. I went through a broken gate and onto a dusty old road that led out into the desert. The moon was high and very bright and there were more stars than I'd ever seen. The night sky looked deep and immense but at the same time felt close and real. I stared up at the stars for several minutes until a strong gust of desert wind chilled me to the bone and I decided to head back.
As I went back through the broken gate I heard a rustling sound which I assumed was the wind. All of a sudden a pale white cat leapt out from the scrub and darted up the path in front of me. I know it's supposed to be bad luck if a black cat crosses your path, but what about a white one? Either way, he gave me quite a jolt.
Back in the room, I started looking through the book with the articles about Gram. There was a chapter copied from Marianne Faithfull's book describing a night she and Keith Richards and Gram went out wandering in the desert while on mescaline. At one point, they heard a lonely howling sound and Marianne got a little freaked out. Gram said, "it's all right darlin', just an old coyote."
I read through some of the messages left by the other guests that had stayed in Room 8. I was amazed at how many there were and where they had come from. The night before I was there, a couple had come from Liverpool. The night before that, a guy from Denmark. Before that, a girl from Arizona. They all had something to say to Gram and they all wanted to thank him for his music. I wasn't quite ready to add my comments yet. I still had a song to write.
I worked on the song for about an hour, thinking about all those people who had come to this place for the same reason and all looking for something. After I had about three verses, I decide to get the guitar and work out the chords. I sat at the desk, trying not to sing too loud since it was getting pretty late. The wind was whipping against the cinderblock walls and the little in-room space heater was creaking and groaning. Then I heard another sound. Scratching. At the back door. Scratch, scratch, scratch, then silence. A chill went up my spine. Then again: scratch, scratch -- scratch, scratch. The back door leads to a little walled-in courtyard. It was doubtful anyone would be back there. Unless it was a ghost. Unless it was Gram Parson's ghost!
At about that same moment, I remembered the cat. And almost immediately, I heard a soft 'meow' outside the door. Of course maybe the cat was Gram Parson's ghost. I'll never know, because by the time I got brave enough to go look, it, or he, was gone.
The next morning I copied my song into the guestbook and set out for Joshua Tree.
I spent the whole day singing bits and pieces of "Somewhere in America" into the video camera in front of various rock formations and mountains and stands of Joshua Trees. I had to whack the camera with my harmonica every damn time I turned it on. And every damn time, it worked.
At sundown I was sitting on a low wall overlooking the Coachella Valley and the San Jacinto Mountains. The sun was setting behind me as I tried to look into the camera and sing with icy cold forty-mile-an-hour winds whipping at my face. The camera was shaking on its tripod. What few other folks were up there must have thought I was nuts. I can't say I'd blame them.
As I drove back out of the park, the setting sun lent the evening sky an amazing purple hue. It was overwhelmingly beautiful. As the sky got darker, I saw a shape in the road, standing in the beam of my headlights. I stopped. It was a coyote. He just stood there looking back at me. Just the two of us surrounded by the empty desert and the purple sky. Finally, I honked and he trotted off.
As I headed home to LA, I thought about the coyote.
The coyote is sometimes known as the Trickster. He can appear to help us face the things we have been avoiding. We often trick ourselves by falling into traps of our own device. We think we are safe in those traps because they are familiar. But we are only fooling ourselves. When the coyote finds himself in a trap, he will chew off his own foot in order to be free again.
So what's the trap? How am I fooling myself? Is it this whole fantasy that I have allowed myself to indulge in, quitting my job, pretending to be an artist, tilting at windmills and running around the desert with a video camera making a movie that no one will ever see? Is that the trap?
Or is fear the trap? The last time I was in the desert I saw a jackrabbit. He teaches us about fear. When we are in fear, we dash to the safety of old familiar patterns. Six months ago I broke out of a familiar pattern which I had believed was safe, but was in fact preventing me from being free. I had to chew off my foot.
Now I have to face my fears and try not to fall into the same old traps.
Or maybe I am just fooling myself. It's not always easy to know how to read the signs.
Happy New Year.