The Right Stuff In The Right Place At The Right Time

Timing is everything and it seems that the Right Stuff happened in The Right Place at the Right Time to create a very historical location in the Mojave Desert. This blog is mostly about the recent history of the Edwards Air Force Base with an accompanying map of points of interest.  Some of these places can be explored in person, others you can explore from your computer.

Here is a link to the ESRI-GIS Story Map created especially for DesertUSA.com that shows the many interesting spots in and around Edwards Air Force Base.  Zoom in and out of the aerial image on the right to see more detail.

Click here to open the map in its own window. You will see more details.

Let’s provide a brief history of its ancient past.  The Mojave Desert is a parched landscape today but about 10,000 years ago you might have called it the land of many lakes; there were also many abundant animals. Some animals went extinct after the last ice age and some, like the pronghorn antelope, still reside in the surrounding area in small herds. As this last ice age began to retreat, glacial melting, cooler temperatures, and higher precipitation produced a situation in which lakes could form and maintain their levels. There was a long chain of large lakes which ran from Nevada, even Death Valley, all the way down through the Mojave Desert. The remnants of these large lakes are known today to desert dwellers as “Dry Lakes”.

Antelope
Antelope

The humans of this period led a relatively simple life moving randomly up and down the string of lakes hunting the large animals that frequented the area. One of these lakes, Rogers Dry Lake, is where Edwards Air Force Base is located.

There were many explorers to this area in the first half of the 1800’s. Jedediah Smith entered the area in 1827, even Kit Carson camped here in 1844. Edward Beale introduced his camels to the valley in 1857.

We all think of the 20-Mule Team Borax image when thinking of this area, this is because borax mining rapidly grew in this area to become one of the leading industries of the Mojave Desert from 1883 to 1889. The borax industry and the gold and silver industries combined to make the town of Mojave a very important place in the late 1870’s and 1880’s. In 1884 the Southern Pacific Railroad route was joined by the Santa Fe line at Mojave, providing even greater access to supplies and markets. There were some ranching and farming efforts in the valley but most failed.

In 1910, Ralph, Clifford and Effie Corum built a homestead on the edge of Rogers Lake. When a post office was commissioned for the area, they named it Muroc, a reversal of the Corum name, because there was already a town named Corum. At this time there was another colorful character that joined the Edwards’ history, a woman, Pancho Barnes, built her famous Rancho Oro Verde Fly-Inn Dude Ranch (aka: Happy Bottom Riding Club) that would be the scene of many parties and celebrations to come, known as a place that test pilots would hang out until it burned down in 1953. The bar at this location was featured prominently in the movie The Right Stuff. The dry lake was also the base of hot rodding with racing on the dry lake. In fact the runway that the Space Shuttle landed on follows the route that hosted racing in the 1930s.

The first flight activity occurred at Muroc in 1937 when the entire Army Air Corps participated in a large-scale maneuver, and from that point on the bombing range grew in size. The attack on Pearl Harbor led to the designation of the Muroc Bombing and Gunnery Range, Muroc Lake; later the name of the facility was changed to Army Air Base, Muroc Lake, then in 1942 it became Muroc Army Airfield.

In 1942 the volume of flight tests in Ohio was one of the factors driving a search for a new site where a top secret airplanes could undergo tests in secrecy. After examining a number of locations around the country searching for good weather and a more secure location, they selected a site along the north shore of Rogers Dry Lake about six miles away from the training base at Muroc.

The success of these programs attracted a new type of research activity to the base in late 1946, rocket powered aircraft. The rocket-powered Bell X-1 was the first in a long series of experimental airplanes. In 1947 Captain Charles “Chuck” Yeager flew the small bullet-shaped airplane and became the first human to exceed the speed of sound.

Early Aircraft
Early Aircraft

Four months later the site was re-designated Muroc Air Force Base; then in 1949, Muroc was renamed Edwards Air Force Base in honor of Captain Glen Edwards, who was killed a year earlier in the crash of the Northrop YB-49 Flying Wing.

In 1947 the decision was made to build a missile test facility on the base. A ridge east of Rogers Dry Lake on Edwards AFB was chosen for the facility that was to be named the Experimental Rocket Engine Test Station.

In 1951, Scott Crossfield became the first man to reach Mach 2. Just nine months later, Major Arthur “Kit” Murray flew to a new altitude record of 90,440 feet. in 1956, Capt. Iven Kincheloe became the first man to rise above 100,000 feet, to an altitude of 126,200 feet, just weeks later Capt. Mel Apt became the first to exceed Mach 3. After attaining top speed he tumbled violently out of control and Apt was never able to recover.

Throughout the 1950’s, American airplanes regularly broke absolute speed and altitude records at Edwards, but after 1961 new programs got underway and Major Robert M. “Bob” White became the first man to exceed Mach 4. Three months later he reached Mach 5, then months later he exceeded Mach 6. Major White also became the first man to fly an airplane in space when he climbed to 314,750 feet in 1962.

The x-15
The X-15

On December 10, 1963, while testing an NF-104A rocket-augmented aerospace trainer, Chuck Yeager narrowly escaped death when his aircraft went out of control at 108,700 feet (nearly 21 miles up) and crashed. He parachuted to safety at 8,500 feet after battling to gain control of the powerless, rapidly falling aircraft. In this incident he became the first pilot to make an emergency ejection in the full pressure suit needed for high altitude flights. This was also featured prominently in the movie The Right Stuff.

In 1967 William J. “Pete” Knight reached Mach 6, a speed that remains to this day the highest ever attained in an airplane.

In the late 1980’s, Edwards saw the first giant flying wing to soar over the base in nearly 40 years. After President Nixon announced the Space Shuttle program in 1972, Edwards was chosen for Space Shuttle orbiter testing. The prototype Space Shuttle Enterprise was carried and released in a test landing; in all 13 test flights were conducted at Edwards.

After Space Shuttle Columbia became the first shuttle launched into orbit in 1981, it returned to Edwards for landing. The immense lakebeds were an important factor in its selection and it continued to serve as the primary landing area for the space shuttle until 1991. Edwards continued to serve as backups for the duration of the shuttle program. Space shuttles landed at Edwards as recently as 2009.

The Shuttle Flying Piggyback Back to Florida
The Shuttle Flying Piggyback Back to Florida

The movie, The Right Stuff , documents the beginning of the American space program at Edwards Air Force Base. It’s an excellent and entertaining true story for those that want to watch it. (3 hours duration)

The area is now also the center of activity for private spaceflight ventures. The Mojave Spaceport is located just north of Edwards as well as several proving grounds for car companies.  You might even grab a bite to eat at The Astro-Burger, a highly rated burger joint.

This website documents the many crashes on and around Edwards Air Force Base:
http://www.latimes.com/business/la-fi-mojave-crash-hunter-20130531-dto-htmlstory.html

The following link was created for this DesertUSA blog, it highlights many interesting things on and around Edwards Air Force Base:
http://arcg.is/1HPdh0H

Take It Easy – Mojave

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The Joshua Tree Southern Railroad Museum and Narrow Gauge Railroad===== All Aboard…..

In the Mojave Desert, on the south side of Joshua Tree, just a half-mile or so from the main road that leads to the Joshua Tree National Park, tucked away in a canyon, almost hidden from the one million plus visitors that drive by every year sits a very interesting, inconspicuous place. It is the Joshua Tree Southern Railroad Museum and Narrow Gauge Railroad.  Miles away from any existing or historical railroad sits a railroad museum in Joshua Tree – which makes it quite unusual.  Over the years I’ve seen some of these trains sitting against the mountain and often wondered how they got there. When I got the chance to go on a field trip with the Morongo Basin Historical Society, I jumped on it.  It was a beautiful Saturday warm winter’s morning in February, in the mid 60’s and we all met up at the Rail Road Depot.  Inside was a vast assortment of railroad memorabilia. This museum has a different kind of charm than most, it is run and maintained by many volunteers without any large financial backing.  Everything you see looks old, feels old and smells old. In other words, it is not a fancy schmancy museum where every piece is restored to its original condition, it has original pieces in their elderly condition.  The museum and railroad are maintained by the few volunteers that give their time and love to keep this place running.

The Railroad Depot/Museum
The Railroad Depot/Museum

 

We were told that this all started in 1969 on 330 acres in Joshua Tree that was supposed to be developed into homes. The homes fell through due to complications so the land was used for the railroad instead.  It was first started by only a few people but today they have over 110 members.  People with 15″ gauge and 7/1/2″ gauge come from all over the world, bringing their own trains to ride the 1.7 miles of tracks in the Mojave Desert.  Similar to off-road vehicle enthusiasts bringing their off-road vehicles out to the desert to ride, these enthusiasts need rails to ride.  Train hobbyists bring their trains to this site to take them out for a spin in the beautiful Mojave Desert.  My first realization that this was a hobby when I was younger, was seeing pictures of Walt Disney riding his train at his Holmby Hills home near Los Angeles before he built Disneyland.

Walt Disney Entertaining Guests In His Back Yard
Walt Disney Entertaining Guests In His Back Yard

 

There are even more people today that take part in this hobby than in the days of Walt Disney.  There were no narrow gauge trains running the day we were there but that fact made me want to come back.  Before we started the tour, we were told the story about how this place has become what it is.  To get the full sized railroad cars up on the hill they had to be hauled by road.  I was told that it took three semi cabs hooked together to get some of them up there.  We were told that they used a big crane to get the wheels on the track.

Picture From JTRR Website
Picture From JTRR Website

 

After we left the museum we had a tour of the property.  With only 20 acres being used and 330 available I realized that this project might span many lifetimes.  Among all of the tracks of 15″ gauge and 7 1/2″ gauge rail was also a G-Scale model railway.  Many people build these at their homes; some have them inside and others outside, thus the nickname “garden railway”.  We saw the full sized railroad cars and got to see the insides of a few.  We also saw the campsites for those bringing their trains up to the Railroad Museum, they can camp for the weekend, run and ride on their trains. This is the Glamis of train enthusiasts.

The Garden Railway
The Garden Railway

 

The rest of the tour pretty much speaks for itself in the pictures, please enjoy them and read the captions.  I have also included a picture from their website of a herd of Bighorn Sheep spotted on the ridge above the compound recently.

They are not open on any regular schedule. If you want to know about their scheduled events, or if you want a tour, or to book a wedding you must call first. Contact Terry Watson at (760) 366-8879 or check out their:

Website at:  http://www.jtsrr.org/browsers/home.html

Blog Site at:  http://jtsngrr.blogspot.com/

Map to Museum

Take It Easy – Mojave

 

 

 

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George Washington’s Nephew in the Mojave Desert?

Imagine trying to make a name for yourself when your uncle is referred to as the Father of our Country.  Colonel Henry Washington did a pretty good job of making a name for himself and also for naming many places in California. I guess you could call him the father of our County, actually many counties in the State of California for that matter.

In the early 1850’s Colonel Washington was paid to survey many areas of the Country including Florida, Colorado and California.  The history of this baseline dates back over 160 years to November 1852. At that time, Colonel Henry Washington was the deputy surveyor under contract with the U.S. Surveyor General of California.  He was given the task of establishing an Initial Point of all future surveys, where the baseline and meridian would intersect at a highly visible point in Southern California.

USA Baselines
USA Baselines

The general location of that Initial Point had already been established just the year before and after a four-day hike into the mountains from San Bernardino through very rough territory.  Washington and his team of 12 assistant surveyors established the Initial Point at a location approximately a half-mile west of Mt. San Bernardino at an elevation of 10,300 feet.  This was not the highest point in Southern California but it allowed anyone in the San Bernardino Valley a view of the point.  Washington erected a monument on the site of his Initial Point that still stands atop San Bernardino Mountain to this day.

Washingtons Survey Monument in 1852
Washingtons Survey Monument in 1852
Washingtons Survey Monument Today
Washingtons Survey Monument Today

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Little did Colonel Washington know that his monument would become the point of beginning of every piece of private and public property owned by over 25 million inhabitants of Southern California.

Baselines of the Southwest
Baselines of the Southwest

Washington also traveled north to Death Valley, and south through Temecula to the Mexican border; he noted “Indian Villages” in the vicinity of Temecula.  He was paid to survey the Coachella Valley and during this survey he is credited with naming Cathedral City in 1855.  During a survey of the Colorado Desert, he reportedly stood in Cathedral Canyon and said the rock formations looked like a European cathedral – the name stuck.

When one travels through the heart of San Bernardino today, one of the main streets that you might see is Baseline Avenue. This street is actually on the baseline set by Colonel Washington.  This street exists west of the meridian line but if you go east of the meridian line you travel through the mountains and down into the Mojave Desert.  Colonel Washington was one of the first non-native people to record his visit across the Mojave Desert.

Baseline Street
Baseline Street

Today as you follow the baseline to the east you travel through downtown Yucca Valley, then as 29 Palms Highway curves north the baseline follows Yucca Trail, which then turns into Alta Loma Drive in Joshua Tree.  At the termination of Alta Loma Drive there is a mountain of boulders with a canyon headed south.  While on his survey of the baseline in 1855, Washington noted this canyon, and at that time he also noted this huge rock mountain.  He mentioned petroglyphs on the rocks and the hole at the end of the canyon dug by coyotes to reach shallow water, thus he named the canyon, “Coyote Hole Springs”.  There is also an ancient Native American “work circle” in the area, you will find it if you explore the area thoroughly.

Mountain of Boulders on the Baseline in Joshua Tree Looking East
Mountain of Boulders on the Baseline in Joshua Tree Looking East
Coyote Hole Springs
Coyote Hole Springs
Petroglyphs
Petroglyphs
Native American Work Circle
Native American Work Circle

After this point he went around the rock mountain and proceeded to survey the baseline east to 29 Palms and beyond.  Eventually he found an oasis with Native Americans living amongst the palm trees, thus he named it Twentynine Palms (we will use the term 29 Palms in this blog).

29 Palms Mural of Henry Washington
29 Palms Mural of Henry Washington. In this 17 by 80-foot rendering, Chemehuevi Indians gather and work in and near the water, a woman offers the exquisite baskets for which the tribe was known and first surveyor Colonel Henry Washington in 1855 is depicted. This mural was painted by Ron Croci of Honolulu and Robert Caughlan III.

The community of 29 Palms has many murals and one of its many murals commemorates the visit of Colonel Washington; it is officially known as Mural #2.  29 Palms was known as the Oasis of Mara by the natives. The life-giving springs of the Oasis of Mara supported Native Americans and early settlers, and its famous fan palms were the source of the 29 Palms name.  The year after Colonel Washington’s visit a deputy surveyor reported that “near the springs the land has the appearance of having been cultivated by the Indians”.  He counted 26 palm trees at that time but the name “Twentynine Palms” was already recorded.  He further stated “there are Indian huts in section thirty-three, the Indians use the leaf of the palm tree for making baskets, hats, etc.  Around the springs there is a growth of cane of which the Indians make arrows for their bows.”

In 1855 Colonel Henry Washington headed north with his survey and came through the then unnamed Johnson Valley.  Near the west end of the valley he found two elderly Indian women alone at a spring, thus Colonel Washington appropriately named it Old Woman Springs, and the name was recorded for all to ponder.  The two Indian women may have been left there to watch young children; the rest were probably in the nearby mountains gathering pinon nuts and hunting, as hunter-gatherers were known to do.

Old Woman Springs
Old Woman Springs

For more information on Old Woman Springs check out this blog from last year:

http://www.desertusa.com/dusablog/i-have-always-drove-by-and-wondered-what-that-place-looks-like-old-woman-springs-ranch.html

 

I was surprised how difficult it was to find personal information on Colonel Washington’s life but I did find a website that was helpful in finding old surveys:

http://www.glorecords.blm.gov/default.aspx

 

I was also able to obtain a sample of Colonel Washington’s field notes from the San Bernardino County Surveyors Office and I downloaded some maps from the above website. I inserted them on Google Earth and the land features lined up really well.  I will post many of these maps and notes below for you to enjoy.

Take It Easy – Mojave

 

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UPDATE 9/28/2014: Gram Theft Burrito or Gram Theft Byrd – You Decide?

UPDATE 9/28/2014

This particular blog about Gram Parsons has been interesting to say the least, intended to only be one story has now turned into three.  After I first wrote the first leg of this story about a year later I got the crime-scene-photo from a friend, then I updated this blog with the pixelated picture only to remove it later at the family’s request.  We found the exact same rock that was in the 1973 crime-scene photo in 2014, then somehow I ended up in contact with Phil Kaufman and had plans to meet him and give him a copy of the photo which my friend Brad was to give to him.  Tonight I had that meeting and I was thrilled to have met him but also moved by what I saw.

Mr. Kaufman was in touch with my friend Brad , after waiting all day for the call he called, he had arrived and was staying at the Joshua Tree Inn, the same place Gram had died over 40 years ago.  We were to have a change of plans, on the phone Phil said to meet him at Pappy and Harriet’s in Pioneertown instead of the Joshua Tree Inn, I was hoping to get pictures at the Inn so I was a bit disappointed but in the end what transpired was much more thought provoking.

We got to Pappy’s, Hank Williams III was performing that night and he was doing his sound check.  All of us, my wife Kerry, Brad and his wife Deb and I looking and waiting wondering if we would recognize him.  I walked around then there he was, when I saw his shirt with many name on the back of recording artists like Emmylou Harris I figured it was him. Wearing shorts I could see his iconic rooster tattoo on his leg, this was my verification that it was him.  I said Phil, he turned around and said “yes”, then quickly said “well only if you’re not a cop”.  He was graceful and kind and generous with his time. He sat at the table with us outside and we talked just like old friends.  Brad presented Phil with the photos of the crime scene and I could see Phil looking at it, I could almost imagine how those 40+ years ago must have felt like yesterday, I felt bad for him but I also know that he must be proud that he followed through with his friends wish, from all my research I came to the conclusion that this is what Gram would have wanted.  Gram did not want the normal funeral, he stated that, Gram always strived to be immortal in the sense of being famous and Phil helped him with his wishes.

The Hi-Desert has grown a lot, much of which was caused by stories like this, also many movies were filmed here and also being only 2 hours from Hollywood it became a quick getaway, all of these stories being a thread in the history of the area. Tonight Pappy and Harriet’s was booming all because of people like Phil.  One of the originators of the fame of our area, one of the oldest threads was sitting at Pappy and Harriet’s and no one recognized him, chatting with us gracefully, Hank Williams III playing in the background, young “hipsters” from the Los Angeles area wandering around, listening to Hank and none of them knew the importance of this man to Pappy’s, other local businesses and the culture of the area.  Countless Gram Festivals have been held here, a local home grown band, a favorite of this area is Gram Rabbit, in part named after Parsons.  I found it quite ironic.

Mr. Kaufman, you look great for being 79 years old, thanks for signing my book, I look forward to meeting you again and thank you for your kindness.  I think Gram would be proud of his buddy fulfilling his wish.  Gram’s fame will live forever thanks to his music and thanks to you, but not just Gram, you and Gram will live forever through local legend and lore.

Looking at Photo
Looking at Photo
Phil and I
Phil and I
Phil Kaufman "Road Mangler Deluxe"
Phil Kaufman “Road Mangler Deluxe”

 

UPDATE

Out of the blue a friend of mine told me that he had a old police photograph of the Gram Parsons crime scene in the Joshua Tree National Park from the day of the incident.  He soon emailed me a scanned copy of the 1973 photo which seems to be authentic and I have no reason to doubt.  We will not be showing you the crime scene photo out of respect for the family.

In Mr. Kaufman’s own words from his book “We looked up and the flame had caused a dust devil going up in the air. His ashes were actually going up into the air, into the desert night. The moon was shining, the stars were shining and Gram’s wish was coming true. His ashes were going into the desert”.  Mr. Kaufman also stated that even though they used to visit Joshua Tree National Monument (now a National Park) regularly, he was drunk when he did this and he just pulled off to a wide spot in the road, a place to turn around, so this spot, “Cap Rock” was chosen only by coincidence.

After looking at the photograph I saw the rather unique rock sat right next to the burnt casket and body.  I called my buddy and we set out to find this one rock, only about a half-hour from our homes.  From 1973 to 2014 much has changed in the area, roads have been widened and paved, areas that you could drive your car close to “Cap Rock” have been blocked and previously paved areas have been abandoned and gone back to nature.  We still wanted to try to find it, after searching the area for quite a while we had a few suspect rocks but none were an exact match until we started walking back to the car.  I saw a rock that had the distinctive right angles, we walked over expecting it to be similar but not exact just as the other rocks we had seen.  We rolled it over my buddy saw it first, all the notches in the rock in the photograph were on this rock exactly.  WE FOUND IT!

We could not find the other two rocks but I will now leave you to examine the evidence, we just happened to find the rock by chance and I do believe it was moved from the original location by a few hundred feet or even yards due to changes in the area and construction.  I will not reveal the location of this rock but I do ask that if anyone else finds this rock please leave it in place, it is a Federal Crime to remove anything from our National Parks, please leave it for others to ponder in the future.

Take It Easy – Mojave

This is the Rock from the site in 2014 and 1973
This is the Rock from the site in 2014 and 1973

The Strange Tale of Gram Parson’s Funeral in Joshua Tree

Gram Parsons was considered a pioneer of the country rock movement of the late 1960’s into the 1970’s until his death on September 19, 1973 at the age of 26.  Though Gram achieved some success in his lifetime, he was never a superstar — but he did influence many bands including The Eagles and The Rolling Stones.  He was a member of two country rock bands, The Byrds and The Flying Burrito Brothers; he later became a solo artist, and often performed with Emmylou Harris. In the years after his death he has become a legend.  You may ask, why is this a DesertUSA blog and what does Gram Parsons have to do with the Mojave Desert?  Keep reading to find out a small part of the interesting life story of a Byrd and a Burrito named Gram Parsons and how it is related to the Mojave Desert.

In the late 1960’s, the Joshua Tree National Monument, later to become a National Park, became the hangout for many celebrities and musicians because this out of the way haven was only a few hours drive from Los Angeles.  Gram Parsons was introduced to the Mojave Desert around this time and would frequent the Joshua Tree area on the weekends, often accompanied by his road manager, Phil Kaufman, and Keith Richards of the Rolling Stones; in-fact, some of Gram’s country influence can be heard in music of The Rolling Stones at that time, in the early 1970’s.  Gram loved the Hi-Desert and did many photo shoots in it. He used to hang out at local bars and would often stay at the Joshua Tree Inn.  He would visit the National Monument at night looking at the stars and searching the heavens for UFOs.

During a friend’s funeral in 1973, a few months before Parsons’ own death, it was discussed between Parsons and Kaufman that if either of them were to die prematurely, they wanted their body taken to the desert at Joshua Tree. They were to have one last drink with the corpse and then burn the body in the desert.  This was the pact that led to the events I will now describe.

A few months after this pact had been discussed Gram checked into room 8 at the Joshua Tree Inn on September 17th, 1973 for a couple days with a few friends.  During this visit Gram consumed alot of drugs and alcohol. Kaufman was not there on this trip, and  after two days of heavy partying, on the 19th Gram overdosed on both morphine and alcohol.  As Kaufman was Parsons’ road manager and good friend, he was immediately called but by the time he got to the Inn, Gram’s body was already removed and was in the morgue of the hospital in Yucca Valley.  Kaufman gathered up Gram’s belongings, cleaned up any drug evidence and headed back home to Los Angeles.  After a day of drinking and thinking about their pact and remembering Gram’s dislike for his step-father in Louisiana and also thinking of his words at the friend’s funeral a few months earlier that he had not wanted a long, depressing, religious service with family and friends, Kaufman went into action.

Kaufman called the mortuary in Yucca Valley and found out that the body would be driven to the Los Angeles International Airport and then flown on Continental Airlines to New Orleans.  He called the airline’s mortuary service and found out that the body would arrive that evening, then recruited several friends that knew about the pact and borrowed a hearse that was used for camping trips. It had no license plates and several broken windows, but he thought that it would do.  They tried on suits, but decided they looked so ridiculous that they changed into their tour clothes, Levi’s, cowboy boots, cowboy hats, and jackets with “Sin City” stitched on the back.  They loaded the hearse up with beer and Jack Daniels and headed for the airport.

Kaufman and his friend Michael Martin arrived at the loading dock just as a flatbed truck rolled up with the Parsons casket.  A drunken Kaufman somehow persuaded an airline employee that the Parsons family had changed its plans and wanted to ship the body privately on a chartered flight.  While Kaufman was in the office signing the paperwork with a phony name a policeman pulled up blocking the hangar door.  Seeing this Kaufman was sure that he would be caught but the officer suspected nothing, he just sat there.  Kaufman walked over toward him and waved his copies of the paperwork and said, “hey, can you move that car”?  The officer apologized and moved the car and then actually helped him load the casket onto a gurney and into the back of the unlicensed, liquor filled hearse.  Martin got in the hearse and attempted to drive out of the hangar only to run into the wall on his way out.  The officer observed all this, and commented, “I wouldn’t want to be in your shoes now”, then he left.  The two drunk body snatchers left the airport with the body of their friend; they stopped at a gas station in Cabazon near the Interstate 10 dinosaurs in the years before Casino Morongo existed.  They filled a gas can and they headed back to Joshua Tree with the body of Gram Parsons.

They reached Joshua Tree and drove until they were too drunk to drive any farther.  They stopped at Cap Rock in The Joshua Tree National Monument, a landmark geological formation, and unloaded their friend’s coffin, then Kaufman saw car lights in the distance and concluded the police were coming.  He quickly opened the casket, played a personal joke on the dead Parsons that they used to do to each other in life, doused Gram with the gasoline and threw a match in the casket.  The two watched as a giant fireball rose from the coffin, the skin on Grams naked body began blistering, the ashes rising into the desert night.  As the headlights in the distance got closer the pair quickly drove off and headed for home in Los Angeles.

After a trip home filled with close calls, Kaufman and Martin laid low.  The morning after their return, the newspapers were full of the story of the rock star’s hijacked and burnt corpse, speculating that the amateur cremation may have been a satanic ritual.

Kaufman knew the police were looking for him, so after a few weeks, he and Martin just turned themselves in. They appeared in Court on Parsons’ 27th birthday, November 5, 1973.  At the time there was no law against stealing a corpse and since a corpse has no intrinsic value, the two were charged with misdemeanor theft for stealing the coffin and given a slap on the wrist, $708 in damages for the coffin, and a $300 fine for each of the body snatchers.  A few years after the incident, Kaufman ran into Keith Richards and Keith thanked him and said “I heard that you took care of our pal”.  Kaufman’s adventure has been legendary in rock and country music circles ever since.

Over the years there have been books, movies and many discussions of this incident that began in Joshua Tree, continued in Los Angeles and ended up back in Joshua Tree.  There are yearly concerts and have been many tribute albums to Gram Parsons.  People visit and intentionally stay in room 8 at the Joshua Tree Inn, even holding seances in the room.  The cremation area at Cap Rock in Joshua Tree National Park still has people visit the spot but being a National Park all personal monuments to Gram are removed by the Park, so the site always looks different as fans make pilgrimages, leave items, paint on the boulders to leave some kind of remembrance, then they are removed by the Park and the cycle begins again.  What became of Gram’s famous rhinestone studded Nudie suit?  It resides in the country music hall of fame in Nashville Tennessee.  I suppose you can say that Gram became larger than life after his young life ended as happens to many musicians that die at a young age.

Now you know the story of the theft of a Burrito and the theft of a Byrd that are actually one and the same, about the theft of Gram Parsons in 1973.

Take It Easy – Mojave

 

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I Love the U2 Album “The Joshua Tree”, Do U2? Let’s Trek Across The Mojave And Find Out About Their “Harmony”

This blog, The Mojo on the Mojave is about things that are located or happening in the Mojave Desert, part of this story lies outside the Mojave’s reaches but we will touch on the entire bus trip that the Irish rock band U2 took before they released the album that was destined to be called “The Joshua Tree”, we will mainly focus on the portions of that trip that lie within the Mojave Desert.

Let’s start with what we know for sure, in 1987 U2 released an album called “The Joshua Tree”, before the album was released they traveled from Reno to Joshua Tree with a few stops in between to take pictures.  Later they would return to film videos in Los Angeles and Las Vegas after the album was released.

They well knew of the story of Gram Parsons and how he died, his body was stolen and burned, all centered in the Mojave Desert, link: www.desertusa.com/dusablog/gram-theft-in-joshua-tree.html .  The band U2 were aware of  the mythology of the Mojave Desert, this is part of the reason they used it as a backdrop to their album.  According to the designer of the album sleeve, Steve Averill, the band rented a coach in Reno, Nevada, at the time the cover was shot, The Joshua Tree album was tentatively titled “The Two Americas” with another alternate name being “The Desert”, the band wanted to capture the part of the United States where “nature and industrialization meet”.

Steve says the end photos for The Joshua Tree were the result of a “happy accident”, we had stopped and shot at a ghost town in Nevada (actually Bodie, California), and their photographer, Anton Corbijn wanted to shoot at Joshua Tree National Monument (now a National Park) next.  After the Bodie shoot they drove toward Joshua Tree National Monument, along the way they stopped at Zabriskie Point in Death Valley National Monument (also a National Park today) and shot the cover photograph, then on Highway 190 just outside Death Valley they saw a lone Joshua Tree in the distance, it was then that the band began thinking of The Joshua Tree as a possible name for the album.  They got out of the coach there and then and shot the inside sleeve photograph, all in all they were there about 20 minutes in the early morning cold weather.   This famous session with the Joshua Tree became the back cover and the inside sleeve of the album which was released on March 9, 1987.

A friend and myself decided to drive to find this elusive tree that actually fell down from natural causes in the year 2000, we found the fallen tree on July 3rd, 2014.  We assumed that it would be hot and we knew it was about a three hour drive without any big stops.  Joshua Trees only grow at higher elevations because they need below freezing winters to reproduce so we knew it would be not quite as hot as the lower reaches of the desert.  We found the spot to stop on the road near the infamous tree rather quickly, at about 4700 feet above sea level the site was quite a bit cooler than nearby Death Valley, our temperature was only about 100 degrees.  I decided to try my new 4wd vehicle and we went down some fairly sandy washes, in the end we walked about 3/4 of a mile to find this iconic monument to an Irish rock band in the middle of the Mojave Desert.  After being at the site for about 15 minutes and taking pictures we walked the 3500 feet back to the car.  I would recommend parking on the main road and walking 1300 feet to the site, its much easier than driving off road, the wash was very soft and parking on the paved road is a relatively short walk and if you are a true fan of U2 this is the way that the band traversed to the tree from their rented coach.

Back to 1987, I believe that it was later that same day that they ended up at The Harmony Motel in 29 Palms for another photo shoot and stayed in the Motel for at least a night.  While at the Motel it is rumored that they rented all of the rooms at the Harmony Motel but room #4 was rented as a group meeting place to congregate.  If you visit the Motel ask for Ash the owner, she knows alot about the U2 stay back then, she is the current owner but she has contact with the person that owned it in 1987.

On a side note, my buddy that helped me find “The Joshua Tree” fallen in the desert is recently retired from United Parcel Service.  He actually delivered packages to the Harmony Motel one of the days that they stayed there, when he made his delivery the owner at that time told him they were there in the Motel, so finding the fallen tree was kind of like coming full circle.

The Bodie, Zabriskie Point, Joshua Tree and Harmony Motel photographs were used to promote the band forevermore at concerts and on their memorabilia.

Anyone can visit these places if you know where to look:

Bodie is a state park in California, here is the link:  www.parks.ca.gov/?page_id=509

Zabriskie Point is in Death Valley National Park, here is the link:  www.nps.gov/deva/planyourvisit/furnacecreekarea.htm

The iconic Joshua Tree is on Highway 190 at coordinates:  36°19’51.00″N, 117°44’42.88″W

The Harmony Motel is in 29 Palms, it is rumored that they rented the entire motel but the gathering place where they all met was in Room #4, here is the link:  www.harmonymotel.com

On a side note another Irish band called Snow Patrol also stayed at the Harmony Motel in 2010, following in the footsteps of their Irish brethren.

On our way home we visited the ghost town of Darwin, we also stopped in Lone Pine and drove up Whitney Portal Road to get a closer look at Mount Whitney.  We then visited the Lone Pine Movie History Museum www.lonepinefilmhistorymuseum.org and learned alot about the movies that were made in this area including one of my favorites, “Tremors”.

Please be careful if you make this journey, summer is hot and winter is cold but you can always end your long day at the Harmony Motel just like U2 did.

Take It Easy – Mojave

 

Read more about U2’s Joshua Tree

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