Joshua Tree: Unexpected Stories of Desert Living and Dying

One thing I found interesting about Joshua Tree National Park was its proximity to cities, its associations with people. Driving up to the gates, there are communities and houses right up to the National Park boundary.  I started this year thinking of the NPs as wilderness sanctuaries where humans play fourth fiddle as visitors who are not to disturb the wilderness… but the parks also have their own stories of how they came to be protected, and that story inevitably involves people who fell in love with the land and fought for its designation as a NP.In the case of Joshua Tree, its first champion was a wealthy socialite who lost her husband and son, and found solace and peace in the desert – creating in her a strong advocate for the preservation of this place as a sanctuary for us all.  But part of Joshua Tree’s human story – and a longer part of its history – are the people who lived and worked in this desert, at a time when this land was farmed and mined, a source for human livelihood not a temple. Another side of that history are the artists inspired by the beauty of the land, including one who had determined it would be his final resting place.  I had expected to learn all about the Mojave desert and rocks while here (and I did – thanks Rangers!), but unexpectedly I also heard so many human stories.  Seeing how others found inspiration or built a life out here among the giant boulders and rocky gardens created in me a different appreciation for the land.
Joshua Tree is a vast desert, and its hard to think of settlers in this harsh landscape before the modern conveniences of running water and air conditioning. But we did a tour of the Keys Ranch, a century-plus old farm settlement tucked way up into a valley of rocks, and it brought to life the stories of the family who had lived in this corner of the desert for over a hundred years. Their history included con men and cattle hustlers, a backyard shoot-out and a murder, and a constant struggle for water in this little inhospitable corner of the world.

When we first walked up, it seemed inconceivable that a prospector lived here, not to mention with his wife and seven kids. But immersing ourselves in their story, wandering slowly around the remnants of their orchards and the recycled junkyard, seeing the small schoolhouse, general store and vacation cabins, a vision of what life might have been like here a hundred years ago became more real.  And more admirable. To be that first settler who built upon a natural dam in the valley of rocks and took a chance to build a home and future here. To be a stonemason who knew how to use wooden pegs, water and time to split open huge blocks of granite to build that dam.  To make a living anyway possible, whether reselling the goods of homesteaders that gave up on the desert and went home, or renting out a single-stamp drill to prospectors and rebuilding ancient Mack trucks to haul masonry. As a Joshua Tree old-timer said, we modern folks are weaklings. In my comfortable Airstream with indoor plumbing and heating, I pretty much have to agree.

That’s one story about living in the desert. We then heard one about desert dying. It feels like a world away, but Joshua Tree is less than an hour from Palm Springs, which was the posh holiday playground for the LA rich and famous. While it doesn’t have the same comforts, the isolated beauty of the desert landscape and star-laden night sky takes your breath away, and Joshua Tree was a favourite hang out for artists and musicians back in the 60s-70s. In those days, it was not yet a NP and most roads were unpaved and the lands open and free (though Joshua Tree now gets over 3 million visitors a year…).Gram Parsons of the Byrds (and the godfather of rock-country) and Keith Richards (yes, that Keith Richards) were buddies and frequent visitors to Joshua Tree from LA, and Cap Rock was their favourite spot for getting more than a little wild and crazy (although apparently Jim Morrison was brought there once and managed to get too wild even for these guys and was never invited back).

View from Key View

As the story goes, Gram was so moved by the beauty of Joshua Tree that he made a friend promise to cremate his remains and spread them over Cap Rock when he died – which he did shortly at 26 from an overdose.  Inspired by his promise, alcohol, or the call of the desert, his friends tried to do just that – they stole his body coffin and all from the Los Angeles airport and drove it up to Cap Rock, pouring a 5 gallon tank of gasoline over Gram and lighting up the sky with the flames.

Cap Rock, and the Stop Sign of Infamy

They fled before the deed was done fearing the police, and in the morning rangers found some 30-odd pounds of Gram Parsons stolen body smoking in the coffin in front of Cap Rock.  There ensued major news and drama about the rock star who was cremated at a national monument, and the legend of Gram’s midnight cremation lives on till today, though as Ranger George told us, most people don’t know the actual spot (off the road, by the Stop sign) and instead are inspired to decorate/desecrate the back side of Cap Rock in Gram’s honor.So there you go. In a week of learning about the Mojave and Sonoran deserts, taking dozens of pictures of actual Joshua Trees and in daily awe of the amazing rock formations throughout Joshua Tree, what stuck with me the most were these human stories of people living and dying here.
It’s beautiful really, to learn how these human stories are woven into the stark desert landscape, and are in many ways part of what has formed this National Park as much as the ancient geological activity, weathering and erosion that created the amazing landscape. But that is another story of rocks – elderly pinto gneiss and youthful manzogranite, volcanic eruptions and continental shelf crashes – to save for another day.

Three parks down!

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