Millennials, especially millennial women, aren’t supposed to care about obscure country rock musicians who overdosed on morphine in 1973. But I suspect that the woman ushering me reverently into the room where it happened—Room 8 at the Joshua Tree Inn—one Tuesday in October, is different. As in, if I were to explain how my college boyfriend got jealous and broke up with me because the romantic leads in all of my short stories suspiciously resembled the long-haired, guitar-strumming, dead hippie cowboy angel known as Gram Parsons, she would casually dismiss him as the crazy one.
“That’s the original mirror,” she says. The frame is gold, reflecting the burgundy and copper of the room. Desert tones that almost give a glow to the cold cement walls. “So I hear,” I say, my voice quavering, and she smiles and closes the door.
I grew up in a road trip family. I’d seen 48 states by the time I was 18, but due to my anxiety, I didn’t actually learn to drive until I was in my 30s and moved to the 12-mile-long island of Tortola in the British Virgin Islands. American roads, with their aggressive drivers, state troopers, and perilous hairpin curves, seemed like too much for my sun-baked island girl groove.
But Parsons himself was a roadtripper, making the trip along Interstate 10 from Los Angeles to the desert, drinking tequila and looking for UFOs. Room 8 at the Joshua Tree Inn had turned into a shrine to Parsons in the years since his fatal overdose—after which his road manager stole and burned his body in the nearby state park. Ever since my father put Gilded Palace of Sin (Parson’s first album with the Flying Burrito Brothers) in the CD changer when I was 14, I knew that someday I’d be knocking on that “gold-plated door” outside of Room 8.
Gram’s golden mirror
At the San Diego Airport, the clerk at Alamo talks me into upgrading to a Volkswagen Tiguan with Oregon plates. And although my hands are shaky on the wheel at first and I spend an hour programming my GPS, by the time I get out of city limits (I programmed my route to avoid freeways, mostly because I was terrified but also because I’d hoped it would be more fun), I’m in the middle of Southern California wine country. I’m about to head up into the San Jacinto Mountains on the Palms to Pines Scenic Byway, when I pull over at the Julian Pie Company for coffee and a cider doughnut. Who is going to stop me? My parents aren’t here. And I can listen to whatever music I want.
When the woman at the front desk ushers me inside, I know that on the other side of the mirror are messages and lipstick prints from a generation of Parsons pilgrims, but I don’t turn it over yet. Nor do I look into the glass. Slowly, I remind myself: I’ve got all night—but just one.
Parson’s first solo album, GP, is of course already in the CD player. My hands shake as I open the bottle of Jose Cuervo Silver I’d picked up in a dispensary in Palm Desert, along with limes, salt, and two pre-rolled joints. I breathlessly open the fridge, where there’s ice ready to be dropped into my glass. He’s here. I don’t really want to leave the room. But he’s not only in the room, I remind myself. He’s also in Joshua Tree National Park, and I only have one night. That’s probably why I don’t get gas before I drive into the park around 8 p.m., which is a big mistake.
My destination is Cap Rock, the site of Parsons’ impromptu funeral pyre, which looks like the hide of some prehistoric pachyderm looming out of the star-bright sky. People describe the Joshua trees as Dr. Seussian, but at night, they’re even more primitive and bizarre looking, like a child’s drawing. The desert isn’t supposed to be this cold. The silence is primeval; I’ve never seen so many stars, except, perhaps, out at sea.
But when it’s time to leave Cap Rock, the car won’t start. I curse myself. Only an idiot from an island would think she could drive through a 700,000-acre national park in the middle of the night on a few gallons of gas and not wind up frozen stiff. I haven’t seen another car since I entered the park. There’s no light except from the stars and the moon, which are, thankfully, almost bright enough to see by. I try to calculate what percentage of my body can freeze over before I start to lose consciousness. The tie-dyed San Diego Zoo sweatshirt that had been enough for a chilly night in the city is totally inadequate for Joshua Tree, and I hadn’t thought to pack any warmer clothes.
I try the ignition, once, twice, hands icy on the gears. A second time, a third time.
The console lights up like a honky-tonk bar. I breathe. He’s here. But I don’t have time to think about it. I still have to get out, and with no GPS. I feel like I’m not only lost in space, but lost in time. I grope for the gear shift and start back the way I’d thought I’d come, knowing that the more time I lose driving the wrong way will further increase my risk of getting stranded, gasless.
I watch the merciless gas gauge, convinced I’m being led further and further into the park. Skull Rock, Barker Dam—none of the names on the signs have any meaning to me, and feel vaguely menacing. It soon becomes clear that I hadn’t passed any of them before, and my worst nightmare has been realized. I’m in tears when I finally see the sign for Twentynine Palms, about which I know nothing, except that it’s a town and it’s outside the park.
I don’t realize it at the time, but I’ve driven through the entire park. I’m too busy celebrating at the sight of the Texaco sign. As I pump gas, I feel like I’m planted on a space station, a spinning gravity ball offering shelter in the shadow of an indifferent array of neon bodies. The universe is just one big desert, after all, with a few green shoots scattered here and there. Back at the Joshua Tree Saloon, I wolf down a beer and a meal I don’t remember. I don’t have time to linger.
I have a date with Parsons.
Paranoia and the paranormal
The Inn, which during the day had been soaked in golden lamplight, is cold, dead, and utterly silent. The paranoia has started to creep up on me, and I can’t help but think of ghosts—not only Parsons’, but everyone who’s expired out in the desert since the dinosaurs roamed. I’m terrified that I can’t find my keys and that I’ll freeze to death mere inches from my door. There’s no one on duty at night, just a hastily scribbled note with a phone number on it to call for help.
I flip on the light and hop under the covers fully clothed, shivering, heart pounding, trying to get my core temperature back up. I turn some music on to cut the stone cold silence. I should sleep, but I don’t know if I can. There are 6 hours before daylight and it’s below freezing. There’s a thump outside, and I jump. Why did I think I could do this on my own?
The door rattles as if someone has kicked it. I stiffen like a corpse in the bed, which has suddenly turned even colder. “Gram, is that you?” I whisper. I don’t need to ask. For a few frozen seconds, I almost regret coming. And then, suddenly, it’s okay. We go way back, Parsons and I. I’ve loved him longer than I’ve loved any man other than my father. I burrow down into the blankets and feel a warmth radiating up from the foundations of the room. From where I lie, the golden mirror glimmers cheerily. The memorial outside Room 8 includes flowers and guitars on a slab above the painted words “Safe at Home.”
I’m far from home, but for the moment, I’m safe—and right where I’m supposed to be.