Wednesday, November 15, 2006

A Parson's Tale

There is legend in the annals of rock'n roll about the death of Gram Parsons, founder of the Flying Burrito Brothers, one-time member of The Byrds, cohort of Keith Richards and unwilling father of the genre known as "country-rock." Gram was a country singer who lived like a rock star and influenced a whole generation of musicians with his encyclopedic knowledge of and unbridled love for country music. Bands like The Eagles, The Grateful Dead, Pure Prairie League and New Riders of the Purple Sage as well as countless musicians including Emmylou Harris, Neil Young, Linda Rondstat, Jonathan Richman, Elvis Costello, Sheryl Crow and of course Keith Richards drew much of their inspiration from Gram.

The legend, however, has to do with a pact made between Gram and longtime friend and road manager Phil Kaufman. The two were attending a funeral for a fellow musician and became disenchanted with the overly-ritualized ceremony. They decided that if either of them died, the other would take the body out to Joshua Tree and burn it in the desert. Two months later, Kaufman made good on his promise.

I had heard bits and pieces of this story before, but never really knew if it was true. So, the other day as I was driving back from Phoenix on Interstate 10, I saw I sign that said "Joshua Tree Next Right" and decided to go take a look.

I had been in Phoenix for the weekend visiting my sister Cindy, who was attending a conference on Multiculturalism in Education. I thought it was kind of timely considering the recent regime change in Washington. You never saw so many gray pony-tails or smelled so much patchouli in your life. Fortunately I avoided the conference altogether and spent my time in the gym and the pool and watching movies on HBO.

I dropped Cindy off at the airport on Sunday morning and started driving west. Since I had the whole day, I decided I would indulge my curiosity whenever the mood overtook me and stop off at any roadside attraction or natural wonder that caught my eye. I had glanced at a map and knew that Joshua Tree National Park was roughly halfway between the Arizona border and the outskirts of LA. I thought it might be nice to take a little detour.

I pulled off the highway onto a two-lane road that seemed to disappear into the desert. I followed the road for about ten miles until I reached a ranger station. There I received some maps and advice as to where I might want to go. I was pretty low on gas and asked where the nearest station was. Forty miles, in the town of Twentynine Palms. But if I went that way I would miss most of the coolest stuff. The next available gas was 72 miles away in the town of Joshua Tree. There was a fork in the road thirty miles north where I would have to make a decision. I would have to cross that bridge when I came to it.

Just as I was about to go, I remembered the legend and asked the ranger if she knew where Gram Parson's body had ended up. She gave me a funny look and then circled a place on my map called Cap Rock. And I was on my way.

I put a fresh CD in the player, "The Joshua Tree" by U2. It is no coincidence that U2 named the album that pays tribute to the American influence on their music after the place where Gram Parsons spirit was released into the desert. The combination of the unearthly scenery and the atmospheric music of U2 was pretty intense. I drove for miles in awe at the beauty and strangeness of the landscape, stopping frequently to hop out of the car and take pictures of sculpted rocks, spidery ocotillo plants and brilliantly haloed cholla cactus. It was a religious experience.

The first half of my drive crossed the low Colorado desert in the southeastern section of the park. Eventually, I reached the intersection where I had to decide if I should head for the closer of the two gas options. Feeling swept up in the adventure, I decided to press on and turned left into the high Mojave desert.

Almost immediately, I encountered a stand of Joshua Trees spread out across the landscape, captured in blazing silhouette by the afternoon sun. The trees were named by Mormons who likened them to Joshua because their uplifted limbs recalled the act of supplication to God. The illumined trees appeared to be engaged in a holy ritual that had been going on since time began.

I stopped for several minutes to appreciate the moment and take a few pictures. Then I drove on.

I passed countless bizarre formations of granite created by tremendous intrusions of molten magma combined with thousands of years of erosion resulting in impossibly gigantic cairns and towering monoliths. I stopped to take some pictures at one such outcropping. My gas gauge was all the way down to empty and my rechargeable camera batteries were dying. I switched to my backup set of batteries and spent about a half hour trying to look through the viewfinder while the stiff desert wind and low-angled sun conspired to rob me of my sight. My eyes were gushing water and it was all I could do to frame a picture and guess if it was in focus. It was also getting cold. And I hadn't eaten since breakfast. But I couldn't stop. I was in a heightened state. It was like a vision quest.

I got back in the car. The U2 CD was on its third time around. I munched some almonds, drank the melted ice from my morning tea and drove on. I passed a sign for a lookout called Keys View and realized I had about fifteen miles to go to get to the town of Joshua Tree and the nearest gas station. My gas needle was as low as I have ever seen it go. I figured I would just about make it. I kept going for about five more miles, then it hit me. I hadn't seen Cap Rock, the place where Gram Parsons was cremated. How the hell did I miss that?

I pulled over and looked at the map. Cap Rock was behind me, right where I had turned past the road to Keys View. Going back would add another ten miles to the trip, at least. And I wasn't sure if I had that much leeway. Plus it was starting to get dark. But I had to go back. I had come this far.

In the setting sun the rocks and trees and tumbleweeds took on a glorious amber tinge. Coming at them from another angle was like seeing them all anew. I spotted the intersection I'd passed before and there was Cap Rock just beyond. I pulled off the road and grabbed my camera.

I crossed the prickly terrain fairly quickly and spotted a group of rock climbers. They are everywhere at Joshua Tree. I confirmed that this was indeed Cap Rock and started searching for what would be the most likely place where Gram was released. I started circling clockwise around the gigantic rock, snapping pictures as I went. It was really cold now, but I didn't dare go back to the car for a jacket since the sun was almost gone and I didn't have much time. When I got to the western face of the rock, the last rays of the sun were just disappearing from the top of the "cap" -- a huge boulder that seems to have been set on top of the rock by some mischievous giant, just to make people wonder how it got there.

I came around to the northern face as the sun disappeared behind the San Bernardino Mountains. I noticed a strange outcropping of rock that looked like an massive stone lean-to. It was a slab that had broken off from the boulder and come to rest against two other rocks to form an alcove in the shadow of the granite wall. In front of the alcove was a cross laid out in rocks on the sand. And painted on the sides of the alcove were another cross and the words "God Bless GP". I had found it.

I began furiously snapping pictures as I got closer and closer. There were various items left on the stone cross, a bottle of tequila, a metal star, a copy of a Gram Parsons DVD. On the rocks that formed the sides of the alcove were written messages and song lyrics. Some folks had left guitar picks and coins and shiny stones in the cracks of the rocks.

I kept taking pictures, but now my back-up batteries were dying. And it was almost dark. I kept shutting down the camera and re-arranging the batteries trying to coax one more picture out of it. And somehow, it kept working. I took picture after picture, each time the camera would run out of juice and each time I would bring it back to life. Finally it died for good. But not before I got an amazing shot of the evening sky with the joshua trees reaching up to heaven and Gram's cross in the foreground

I went back to the car to try and warm up. I looked for another set of batteries, but by then it was too dark anyway. I did find an old toy compass I kept in my backpack and brought it back to the alcove to lay on the cross for Gram. Hopefully, he's already gotten where he needs to go, but I figured there might be other travelers who pass by this place that might be looking for a little direction.

As I went back to the car, a jackrabbit leaped out from behind a tumbleweed and shot across my path. As a spirit guide, the jackrabbit teaches us about fear. Although we do not want to allow fear to run our lives, the fact is, fear is always a part of our lives and we must learn to respect it if we are going to overcome it.

I got back to the car and crossed my fingers. Sure enough the engine cranked to life and I drove back up the road to the town of Joshua Tree. When I reached the ranger's station it was full-on dark. I was amazed I had made it with almost no gas, but then I learned I still had five miles to go. The ranger told me not to worry though, it was all downhill from there.

When Phil Kaufman learned that his friend Gram Parsons had died, he knew what he had to do. He borrowed a hearse, drove to the airport, hijacked the coffin (with Gram inside,) drove out to Cap Rock, doused the corpse with gasoline and set his friend on fire.

Phil was later charged with theft of a coffin and ordered to pay a $700 fine. There was no law against stealing a dead body. What was left of Gram was flown to New Orleans and buried in the family plot. Phil's escapades have become a part of music history and have even been made into a film starring Johnny Knoxville called Grand Theft Parsons. There is also a documentary about Gram called Fallen Angel that tells the story of Gram and Phil's last ride together.

Gram loved Joshua Tree and now that I have been there I understand why. He wanted his soul to be set free in that magical place and thanks to his pal Phil, he got his final wish. Now the story and the place have taken on their own meanings like all legends do. But I like the story and the place and will add them to my own mythology. And I will go back to Joshua Tree, because there is much more to learn and experience there. But I have to thank Gram for being the one to lure me out there in the first place. And maybe that is as good a reason as any.

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