The Ghost of Gram Parsons at Joshua Tree National Park
We are very fortunate – indeed blessed – here in the Western US to have a number of wonderful National Parks and Monuments. I grew up tromping around Arches and Bryce Canyon in Utah as a child, and my home here in California is literally walking distance from the southern border of Joshua Tree National Park. I often walk up to the edge of the town to a marker that delineates the park boundary although access to the park itself is about 20 miles away. The corner of the park near me and the portion on the mountains near my house that I look at from my back yard is in the back-country part of Joshua Tree.
But that doesn’t stop me from going hiking and camping in the park and taking visitors and friends up through the main section of Joshua Tree when I can. As often as I’ve driven through it or hiked its trails, I still always marvel at the wonderful rock formations and the forests of Joshua Trees for which the park is named (actually it’s a variant of the Yucca plant and not technically a “tree”). The Joshua Tree was named by early Mormon settlers who thought the upright arms looked like the biblical prophet Joshua.
My somewhat frequent posts on visits to Joshua Tree however prompted a former colleague and friend (and Civil War expert) from my days wandering the Washington State Capitol to ask me to chase a ghost for him in the park – quite literally.
It seems that the legendary guitarist and songwriter Gram Parsons – who played with such great bands as The Byrds and Flying Burrito Brothers, who toured with The Rolling Stones, and sang duets with one of my all-time favorite singers, Emmylou Harris, was rather enamored with Joshua Tree Park, and he died of a drug overdose at the Joshua Tree Inn just outside the park. To fulfill his last wish, he was partially cremated by friends in the park where he wanted his ashes scattered. And so, this past weekend my guy Eric and I decided to head up to Joshua Tree on a cloudy Sunday afternoon to chase the ghost of Gram Parsons and his story and see what we could find.
Just outside of the park entrance is the Joshua Tree Inn. It’s a wonderful small motel that does a good business – both because of its location and charm, and because of music fans paying tribute to Parsons. It even advertises itself as the “Home of Gram Parson’s Spirit”.
He died in Room 8 of the Inn. According to the manager who was kind enough to let us wander the property, there is nothing left inside the room from the day he died some 44 years ago – September 9, 1973 – except for a mirror on the wall. Fans can reserve that room specifically if they wish, and many do, as it's not available to walk up guests -- it was occupied the day we were there.
Outside of the room is a guitar shaped memorial, where fans leave mementos and comments and occasionally light candles.
When he was found unresponsive in his room, he was taken to the nearby High Desert Hospital where he was pronounced dead. His family wanted a funeral in Louisiana where he was from, but his manager and friends wanted to fulfill his last wish of being cremated and ashes scattered in Joshua Tree National Park. So, impersonating funeral home workers and driving a friends vintage hearse, they managed to convinced Western Airlines in Los Angeles International Airport to release the body which was waiting to be flown to New Orleans to them. They drove it up to the park, and in the middle of the night, doused the open casket with five gallons of gas and tossed in a match.
The giant fireball was noticed by nearby campers who called the police and park rangers who gave chase. The culprits ran -- in the hearse, and evaded police because, as they later said, "the police had the handicap of being sober." They were later arrested -- Gram’s manager and his accomplice friend – not for stealing the body, but for stealing the casket and destroying it, and fined $750 dollars for creating a nuisance. At least, as Arlo Gutherie would sing in Alice's Restaurant, they didn't have to "pick up the garbage" as well -- that being what was left after the fire was put out.
The story is that he was cremated at Cap Rock in the park – a large pile of boulders with one that looks like a “cap” on top of it. Now days it’s a popular climbing rock with a picnic area at the base.
However, the actual cremation – or partial cremation as the body wasn’t completely consumed and about 35 pounds of him was left once the fire was extinguished – took place in an open field a few hundred yards away from the rock. The National Park Service doesn’t advertise what happened here, and rangers are given the option of telling the tale or not when asked. It’s not listed on any of the park maps or brochures. A cement slab was put in by Gram’s fans shortly after the cremation, but the park service removed it and it now resides at the Joshua Tree Inn outside Room 8 and serves as the base for the guitar memorial.
Yet all the same, fans of the late musician build memorials in a little cove on Cap Rock’s base that people have mistakenly assumed is where the body was burned. They leave small crosses in the rocks, CD cases, carve things in the stone, and sometime even leave a bottle of Jack Daniels. And campers in the nearby Hidden Valley campground have said they’ve seen a mysterious fire in a field sometimes at night, and the Joshua Tree Inn is said to house his spirit and music sometimes can be heard from room 8.
But to me, Joshua Tree is magical not because of the ghost of Gram Parsons, or his music – but because of the wonderful trees and rock formations that are forever protected because of this National Park designation. At night, there are more stars than you’ve ever seen, and during the day, on quiet ones especially when it isn’t inundated by tourists, the desert here is wonderful, and I love walking among the boulders and rocks, looking at the fantastic Joshua Trees that grow only in this area, and enjoying sitting on a ledge staring out at the desert solitude.