We have been on a road trip for a couple of days where I managed to get the flu and black out and bash my head on the motel bathroom wall! It’s okay – I am recovering but have a few odd bruises and a grazed elbow. Talk about being disaster prone. We drove down to Palm Springs, a purpose built community in the desert catering to retirees who spend their days on one of the 110 manicured golf courses or spend their money in shops selling overpriced glitz and tacky glamour for the thousands of millionaires who live here. Or perhaps they check in to the Betty Ford Centre for a quick spot of re-hab which is also based here. God knows why, I didn’t get it at all. Frank Sinatra and Lucille Ball and hundreds of other Hollywood stars made this their home back in the 50’s to escape the smog and crowds back in Los Angeles, but none of the gamour of those days exists now and it all looks jaded and decidely unappealing. Most of the stars are dead or have moved on to Palm Desert about 20 miles down the road leaving behind a walk of fame of stars set in the pavement and a retail hell dressed up in Spanish styled adobe structures that all look identical. Try as we did – both of us pretty much hated the place and couldn’t find anything appealing about it, least of all the overpriced restaurants charging over $40 for a steak! However the surrounding snow capped mountain range is awe inspiring and the motel room was great and we were perfectly placed to visit nearby Joshua Tree National Park and Pioneer Town.
Dave shows off his muscle car in Joshua Tree, a brand new Dodge Charger. Don’t worry, it’s a hire car he hasn’t gone mad…..yet!
The landscape in Joshua Tree is absolutely stunning and changes constantly with moving clouds influencing the way the light falls across the barren plains and twisted trees. We took a 2 hour driving route through the park and within minutes witnessed the sky turn from brilliant blue to almost black before sliding back in to the blue again…with the two often overlapping and creating amazing shadows and light.
It’s situated where the higher Mojave meets the lower Colorado Desert and covers almost 800,000 acres which have been set aside to protect the area and its freaky looking trees.
The Joshua trees are only found in the northwestern part of the park, set against a surreal backdrop of monzogranite boulders. This one below is known as Skull Rock. These boulders are giant rock piles actually pushed up from the earth by the movements of the Pinto Mountain Fault which runs directly below the park. Some are over 100 feet high and all have been weathered and smoothed by thousands of years of wind and flash floods.
The Joshua trees aren’t actually a tree but are in fact a Yucca, a type of agave plant and member of the lily family. Some are over 300 years old and they were named by Mormons traveling through the area in the 1850’s who likened their outstretched branches to the arms of Joshua leading them to the promised land.
Joshua Tree was made famous by the 1987 U2 album of the same name and by the more relatively unknown country/rock star, Gram Parsons. In 1973 he overdosed on drugs in room 8 of The Joshua Tree Inn aged 27. His body was taken to Los Angeles Airport where it was to be flown on to Louisiana for burial. However, Gram’s road manager Phil Kaufman and a friend got drunk and decided to honour Gram’s wishes to be cremated in the Joshua tree desert which Parsons visited regularly during his lifetime. They borrowed a broken down hearse and drove to LAX airport where they showed false papers, signed for the body and drove it back to The Joshua Tree Desert, stopping to buy more beer and a container of gasoline. They took Gram’s body into the desert, poured gasoline over it and set it on fire. The two were arrested several days later and fined for stealing and burning the coffin – it wasn’t against the law to steal a dead body. Gram’s body was only partially burned; his remains were recovered and laid to rest in a cemetery near New Orleans. The boulder below marks the scene of the makeshift cremation and is known as Cap Rock.
The area has recently been cleaned up and the former shrine to Gram Parsons has mostly been removed. Some graffiti on the rocks remains but a lot of it appears to be new and the small concrete plinth marked with ‘Gram – safe at home’ disappeared in 2003, probably stolen by a fan or ebay bounty hunter or removed by the National Park. The site is not mentioned on any of the park’s maps or brochures. To find it head for the start of Keys View Road to the Cap Rock parking area and the site is just off the side of the road on a well marked trail set back amongst the rocks.
The Joshua Tree Desert is like a furnace in summer with temperatures reaching 125 degrees F, but when we visited it was bitterly cold with a fierce wind blowing across the open landscape. We were forewarned by Danny and therefore prepared and wrapped up warm!
Pioneer Town is en route to Joshua Tree. It’s an old wild west styled town built in the 1940s for the filming of movies and TV series. We thought it was going to be very Disneyfied but were pleasantly surprised to find it totally deserted, very authentic and looking practically untouched since it was created. There’s no official entrance and no entrance fee to pay and absolutely no-one around. A bitter wind whipped through it and Dave and I hung out on our own near wagons, boxes of fake dynamite……… and I got incarcerated in the town jail.