rock and roll pilgrimage

Monday, August 20, 2007

Fallen Angels & Joshua Trees – A Trip to California

The second rock n roll pilgrimage of my holiday in my home state of California was out to the high desert, to Joshua Tree, where we stayed at the infamous Joshua Tree Inn. It was here, in Room 8, that Gram Parsons, the founder of country rock, died.

He played with The Byrds and The Flying Burrito Brothers, and was famous for his work with Emmylou Harris. They toured together in a band known as Gram Parsons and the Fallen Angels. Since his death in 1973 the inn, or motel, has become a magnet for rock fans.

The motel is a great place – probably one of the last few of its type, with breeze-block walls, ceiling fans, tiled roofs and a large courtyard filled with cacti and the ubiquitous Joshua trees. It has a wonderful pool, which I thoroughly enjoyed, managing at last to shed the fine layer of grit acquired while exploring the national park nearby. We had the Emmylou Harris room next door to the notorious room, but failed to experience any ghostly disturbances.

Luckily it wasn’t particularly hot, for that place at that time of year, only the low 100s. The landscape is difficult to describe – it was like nothing I’d seen, haunting and alien looking, but beautiful. Staggering rock formations that looked liked they just been tossed to the ground by a bored giant, the strange Joshua trees everywhere, and a silence when we stopped that was all-enveloping. At one point I waited in the car while people with better ankles went for a short hike, and sat there listening to the intense quiet, the only sound the occasional cry of an unseen bird, and the ringing in my ears from the damage sustained by many a garage band rehearsal in my youth.

We went up to a viewpoint to watch the sunset, which created huge shadows across the wrinkled hills, and inevitably depressed me because the smog pouring in through the mountain passes obscured much of the view below. There was an information sign explaining about the vast amounts of smog that come into the valley from the surrounding cities, and that they are studying the effects it’s having on this previously pristine wilderness.

When I was little my grandparents lived out in the Palm Desert, and we made regular treks out to visit. On the way we would always stop at Hadley Fruit Orchards shop. They are known for their dried fruit, local dates a speciality. They also have a great selection of candy and nuts. On this return trip from Joshua Tree we made a point of stopping there, and I made sure to get a small tub of dates. They also serve banana and date shakes, which is much better than it sounds. I recommend it.

I have to say I was a bit surprised as we were driving through this area – I remember it as being Hadley’s, then a strange family restaurant called the Wagon Wheel, and behind it two dinosaurs. Now it’s preceded by an absolutely enormous casino and hotel. Cabazon is expanding along with the rest of the state. An LA Times article tells me there are big development plans for the Coachella Valley, the desert we drove through to get to Joshua Tree. Guess they’ll have to fit the condos around the wind turbines…

Ah, yes, the dinosaurs. As a child, I loved spotting the familiar t-rex and er, brachiosaurus (?) out the window as we passed – it meant we were getting reasonably close to our destination, and it was just so incongruous seeing giant dinosaurs in the middle of the desert. Now they’re slightly obscured by petrol stations and more restaurants but they’re still there. I was delighted when my sister’s husband announced we would be stopping to get some pictures of them. We never could get my dad to stop there. I don’t suppose he could see the point, really.

So imagine my horror to find that the dinosaurs have been taken over – the gift shop has been transformed. The people that now own them are Creationists, believers in Intelligent Design. And they have co-opted the dinosaurs to help explain their views to passing tourists, replete with explanations of how the dinosaurs walked in the Garden of Eden with Adam and Eve, and that Noah took them aboard the Ark in the Great Flood. Apparently. I do want not to get into religious differences of opinion in my blog, but, well, this was a bit much. I was angry that they’d high-jacked my childhood memories along with the dinosaurs. How dare they? Those dinosaurs should belong to everyone driving that dusty highway through that desert, not just the people that share their beliefs. And they had the cheek to charge $2 to go in and be told about all this. I was outraged. I refused to pay, but took some pictures outside anyway. It’s just a step too far.

The drive back, though interesting, further deepened my suspicion of satellite navigation systems. The one in my sister’s new Jeep got a bit confused on the way out of the desert and couldn’t seem to quite match us up with our actual location. But it was fun watching the display as we apparently drove straight through the middle of a rather large lake…

So it was a good holiday. Good to see the family, catch up with some friends and to spend time in places that I normally wouldn’t (the desert) but deeply enjoyed. As usual didn’t get to spend enough time at the beach. Might have to risk offending the family and actually go stay somewhere on the beach sometime. It was good to see that everyone seems healthy and happy, to celebrate the fact that my parents have stuck by each other for 50 years despite everything, and to see my niece is even more grown up. I got a reasonable tan (really strong sunblock), saw some interesting places, and despite wild bird poop, religious dinosaurs, smog and traffic, really enjoyed myself. We’re already thinking of what we’ll do next time – the Getty villa, the Hollywood Cemetery, the lake near Ojai. But first there are some cool, green places to visit – hoping to get to Wales next… when I’m fully recovered from my operation and I can walk again, that is.

Kathie Touin



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October 2007


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