Wandering in the desert

Joshua tree
Joshua tree
Oh, and I remember something you once told me
And I’ll be damned if it did not come true
Twenty thousand roads I went down, down, down
And they all lead me straight back home to you.


The Joshua Tree wilderness in the Mojave Desert may have been the home Gram Parsons was singing about. Like many, he was drawn to the barrenness of the desert for inspiration and renewal.

He asked to be buried there.

The Mojave is considered high desert, its elevation over four thousand feet. It is a harsh and dangerous place, containing both the driest location in North America and the hottest spot on the planet.

A walk quickly reveals its flora are armed to the teeth with needles, thorns, and spines. And its animals are the stuff of nightmares: tarantulas, scorpions, rattlesnakes, bats, kangaroo rats, coyotes, bobcats, and mountain lions.

Mojave National Preserve CA
Mojave National Preserve

At forty-eight thousand square miles, the Mojave ranks bigger in size than eighteen American states. Most of it lies in California and Nevada.

Within its borders are several cities, including Las Vegas, and three national parks, Mojave, Joshua Tree, and Death Valley. (For more on Death Valley National Park, please see “Death Valley days.”)

On my way out of the park, high winds buffeted the car. Sand swirled across the road. I headed south through Shoshone and into a landscape even more mind-numbingly empty than what I had left behind. Five hours’ worth. Desolation measured out in time, not miles.

Pipe-cleaner trees

I passed the massive and dusty Dumont Dunes, some fifty stories high. Then, east of Baker, Joshua trees made their first appearance on the landscape.

Mojave National Preserve CA
Mojave National Preserve

Joshua trees look like illustrations by Dr. Seuss. They have furry-looking trunks and rooster-tail leaves. Their branches reach in every direction, like confused signposts.

According to legend, the tree’s arms appeared to Mormon pioneers as the prophet Joshua pointing the way to heaven.

They are not cacti, but agave. Native Americans used the leaves to make baskets and sandals. Ranchers used the trunks for fencing. Mojave National Preserve has the largest forest of Joshua trees in the world. Thirty years ago, U2 featured a photo of one on the cover of its album, Joshua Tree.

I drove through Nipton, a restored ghost town founded in 1885. A few miles out of Searchlight, traffic had to stop for two long, slow trains. I arrived in Needles, a strip of hotels, fast-food restaurants, and gas stations on old Route 66. Every business, old and new, leverages its tie to the route.

Mojave National Preserve CA
Mojave National Preserve

Tortoises and trains

I spent the next day driving the preserve’s dirt and gravel roads. At twenty-five hundred square miles, Mojave National Preserve is the third largest national park in the forty-eight contiguous states. Its topography varies between mountains, valleys, mesas, domes, canyons, sand dunes, cinder cones, and lava flows.

One of its “roads” is the Mojave Trail, the traditional path used by Native Americans, Spanish missionaries, and settlers during the 1700s and 1800s. It runs for 150 miles across the desert from the Colorado River to southern California. Four-wheel drive is necessary on most of it.

I drove past the Kelso Dunes, a forty-five-square-mile dune field. The tallest are seventy stories high.

A sign in the park advises drivers to watch for tortoises. Tortoises are attracted to the park roads after rainstorms because asphalt holds standing water better than sand. The Ivanpah Desert Research Facility on the preserve is helping desert tortoises, a threatened species, survive in the Mojave.

Kelso Depot, Mojave National Preserve CA
Kelso Depot, Mojave National Preserve

Another species—human beings—have survived in the Mojave Desert for over twelve thousand years. The area inside the park was once inhabited by two tribes, the Chemehuevi and the Mojave.

The Chemehuevi lived on a diet of prickly pear, mesquite, roasted agave blooms, deer, and bighorn sheep. The Mojave traveled as far as the Pacific Ocean to trade.

The first European known to enter the area was Padre Francisco Garces in 1776. He was followed by miners, ranchers, and railroad workers in the 1800s. I visited the ghost town of Kelso, once a thriving Union Pacific railroad depot.

The fancy depot, opened in 1924, was an important stop between Salt Lake City and Los Angeles. After the end of World War II and the closing of a nearby mine, the station fell into disuse. In 2005, after restoration, it reopened as the visitor center for the preserve. The depot and the town are on the National Register of Historic Places.

Drove uphill through the park to the Cima Dome, which rises fifteen hundred feet above the desert. It is home to the world’s largest concentration of Joshua trees.

Amboy CA

Grievous Angel

Next morning, I drove the back roads to the town of Joshua Tree.

Along the way, I stopped in Amboy to take photos at Roy’s Motel and Café. Amboy, now a ghost town, is on both the National Trails Highway and Route 66. Roy’s was famous for its Jetsons-esque architecture and signage. The location has been a favorite of movie and TV producers looking for sets representing the 1950s.

Just past Amboy is Bristol Lake, where salt has been harvested since 1858. Then, Wonder Valley, a sprawling development of “jackrabbit” homesteads on a desolate plain. Hundreds of derelict shacks, surrounded by chain-link fences and individual water tanks. I thought it was a community of survivalists, but it is instead a colony of artists.

I checked into Room 5 of the Joshua Tree Inn—just three doors down from where Gram Parsons ODed in 1973.

Parsons' Memorial, Joshua Tree CA
Outside Room 8

Parsons was a member of the folk-rock group, the Byrds, long enough to mastermind the band’s 1968 album, Sweetheart Of The Rodeo. The recording is considered the first country-rock album.

Parsons then left the Byrds to form the Flying Burrito Brothers. A friend of Keith Richards, Parsons also influenced the Stones.

Musical descendants, such as Emmylou Harris, Townes Van Zandt, Steve Earle, Ryan Adams, Wilco, and Sturgill Simpson, among others, consider Parsons the godfather of what today is called alt-country.

Parsons regularly retreated to Joshua Tree, before it was a national park and when it was less developed. Unfortunately, his abuse of substances killed him at age 26. His album, Grievous Angel, was released posthumously.

The lobby of the Joshua Tree Inn is decorated with his album covers and concert posters. In the courtyard outside of Room 8 is a memorial to Parsons—a guitar-shaped stone and a collection of tokens, including candles, guitar picks, cowboy boots, flowers, bandanas, incense, and so on.

For the morbidly curious or the oblivious, Room 8 may be booked at the same rate as any other room at the motel.

Chimney Rock, Joshua Tree National Park CA
Chimney Rock, Joshua Tree National Park

Jenga Giant

Rained hard the next morning. I talked to a Parsons’ fan and guitar maker in the lobby, on his way to the National Association of Music Merchants’ trade show in Anaheim.

The streets in the area were flash-flooded.

As I ate breakfast at Crossroads Café, a complete double rainbow appeared. The customers and staff ran outside to take photos.

The sun emerged and I headed into the park. The ranger at the entrance station looked at my ID and exclaimed, “I’m from Columbus too!”

Joshua Tree National Park covers an area of over twelve hundred square miles, slightly larger than the state of Rhode Island. The park includes parts of two very different deserts—the high-desert Mojave and the low-desert Colorado.

The Mojave portion is stacked with granite boulders, jumbles of stones as big as boxcars and as rounded as marshmallows. Many look as though they are on the verge of toppling. Joshua Tree has been described as the playground of a giant child.

Joshua Tree National Park CA
Joshua Tree National Park

The formations were created more than 100 million years ago, as water filtered through joints in rock outcroppings and smoothed the corners and edges. The park is popular with climbers and boulderers.

The juxtaposition of the boulders, piled helter-skelter, and the Joshua trees, limbs askew, is surreal. Joshua Tree looks like a cartoon world.

I believe the National Park Service completely botched the naming of these parks. Mojave, with the largest population of Joshua trees, should have been called Joshua Tree National Preserve. And Joshua Tree should have been named Gigantic Heaps of Big Boulders National Park.

I hiked the loop at Barker Dam, hoping to spot bighorn sheep. The stream bed was dammed by cowboys to water their cattle. No sheep, but a few jackrabbits and roadrunners.

Skull Rock, Joshua Tree National Park CA
Skull Rock, Joshua Tree National Park

Then I hiked the Hidden Valley loop. Hidden Valley is bound by rock formations, a natural corral. A narrow gap into the box canyon allowed cattle rustlers to conceal stolen cattle and horses.

In the late 1870s, the McHaney Gang used the valley to graze and rebrand stolen stock, before selling it out-of-state.

The weather grew windier and colder. I headed to Cap Rock to wait out the rain.

Funeral pyre

Another rainbow emerged. At Cap Rock, I walked to Gram Parsons’ unofficial memorial and found graffiti on the rocks, “Miss you, Gram.” According to Phil Kaufman, Parsons’ manager and record producer, he and Parsons made a pact regarding their respective funeral wishes.

Following Parsons’ death, Kaufman and a friend convinced airline staff at LA International Airport to release Parsons’ body to them. They drove it to Joshua Tree and, upon reaching Cap Rock, attempted to cremate the corpse by pouring gasoline into the coffin and throwing a lit match inside.

The two were arrested several days later. As there was no law against stealing a dead body, they were only fined for stealing the coffin. The remains of the remains were eventually buried in Metairie, Louisiana. This bizarre, macabre story was told in the 2003 movie Grand Theft Parsons.

Barker Dam, Joshua Tree National Park CA
Barker Dam

At Cap Rock, fans leave tributes, which are regularly removed by the park service.

The downpours continued. Next day, I left the high-desert for a low one, driving down the mountain through heavy rain and poor visibility into Palm Springs, where the streets were flooded.

Tinseltown East

In the 1920s and 1930s Hollywood stars came to Palm Springs for the sunny weather and the privacy. They built homes, resorts, nightclubs, casinos, and golf courses.

Their playground in the desert attracted many celebrities, including Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, Sammy Davis Jr., Bob Hope, Bing Crosby, Kirk Douglas, Cary Grant, Lucille Ball, Marilyn Monroe, Elizabeth Taylor, Clark Gable, Elvis Presley, and presidents Dwight Eisenhower and Ronald Reagan.

A bronze statue of former mayor Sonny Bono sits along Palm Canyon Drive, but the Rat Pack moved on a long time ago. Today, Palm Springs is a city of retirees and tourists. A program has preserved many of the desert-modern-style homes, built during the town’s hard-partying days.

Joshua Tree National Park CA
Joshua Tree National Park

The same day as I arrived, the Obamas flew in from DC, fresh from the inauguration. Their plane was unable to touch down due to the inclement weather. Instead, they landed at a nearby military base.

They probably stayed at Sunnylands, “the Camp David of the West.” Formerly the Annenberg Estate, Sunnylands has hosted eight presidents, Queen Elizabeth II, Prince Charles, and Margaret Thatcher.

I stayed, instead, at Casa Cody Inn, the oldest hotel in Palm Springs. It was founded in the 1920s by a cousin of Buffalo Bill Cody. The buildings, nestled against the San Jacinto Mountains, are surrounded by mature citrus trees and bougainvillea. Charlie Chaplin used to be a frequent guest.

Desert flood

On average, Palm Springs has seventeen rainy days per year. I experienced three of them. I went to the Palm Springs Art Museum—what one does on rainy days.

Palm Springs Walk of Stars CA
Palm Springs Walk of Stars

The exhibit, Go West! Art of the American Frontier, featured works by American, European, and Plains Indian artists. 

Paintings and sculptures by George Catlin, Frederic Remington, Charles Russell, Albert Bierstadt, and N.C. Wyeth helped shape how Americans perceive the West, rightly or wrongly.

I stopped in at the historical society to see its exhibit on the Palm Springs-lifestyles of Frank Sinatra and other celebrities.

It rained non-stop. The town’s storm sewers were overwhelmed. The streets were underwater. Passing cars plowed through, hubcap-deep, spraying pedestrians. Water lapped over the curbs onto the sidewalks. At dinner time, the water was nearly to my knees.

I removed my shoes and socks, rolled up my pant legs, and waded to dinner in the desert.

3 thoughts on “Wandering in the desert

  1. Bet you made sure you didn’t run out of gas or drinking water too.
    Bring scorpions back in jars for exhibit at the bar in Figlio. 😉

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