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 transmogrified 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 percent 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.)
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Jon Carroll is a former columnist for the San Francisco Chronicle.
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