JOSHUA TREE – Deep in the desert, searching for enlightenment at a spot called Samuelson's Rocks that is unmarked on any map, all I find are shaggy, gnarled trees that give this area its name, bulbous monzogranite rock formations and the triad of cholla, creosote and prickly pear that scar my legs and test my resolve.
Wait a moment. Did I just say all?
Have I, after a mere four days at Joshua Tree National Park, become so inured of these wondrous surroundings that I have ceased appreciating the geologic and floral delights to be experienced?
Perhaps. And that's a shame. Because, if a visit to Joshua Tree teaches you nothing else, it should foster an abiding affection for the hidden natural abundance in what the uninitiated may see as a vast and arid open space bereft of possibility.
This connection to the landscape is why the multitudes come to the high desert: to climb and to hike, to camp and worship at nature's altar, to seek spirituality and artistic inspiration, to trade the claustrophobic city for a bigger piece of sky.
I am trying – really, I am – to become such a seeker.
I have spent two nights in Room 8 of the Joshua Tree Inn, the place where country-rock pioneer Gram Parsons overdosed on alcohol and pills in 1973 and where musicians and fans still gather to pay homage.
I have trekked deep into the Wonderland of Rocks, where forests of Joshua trees exist peacefully amid mounds of monzonite quartz stacked so precisely, if precariously, that even the staunchest atheist might suspect it as the work of an unseen hand.
I have driven beyond the galleries to the fringes, where "outsider" artists have assembled found-material sculpture "environments" that incorporate the land itself as both canvas and object.
Yes, I have done all that. But here I am on my last morning, wandering in the desert, looking for a small cluster of rocks upon which a Swedish immigrant in the late 1920s named John Samuelson carved philosophic messages.
Somehow, the trip will seem incomplete without finding these stone tablets, even if (or maybe especially because) they were the work of a crank with ideas far outside the mainstream.
Joshua Tree, after all, is that kind of place. It brings out a guy's contemplative and quirky sides.
The Grievous Angel
The story is one of those wonderfully macabre rock 'n' roll death-scene legends.
On Sept. 19, 1973, Gram Parsons, later hailed as the godfather of Americana music, had retreated to his favorite hangout, the Joshua Tree Inn, with a stash of morphine and tequila before embarking on a national tour.
After his overdose in bed in Room 8, his body was sent to Los Angeles International Airport to be shipped to his native Louisiana. Parsons' agent stole the body, drove it back to the desert and cremated it (or tried to, at least) atop Cap Rock at Joshua Tree.
Since that day, Parsons' fans have made pilgrimages to Cap Rock and left offerings, which National Parks rangers have routinely removed. So several years ago, fans switched focus to Room 8.
It is, by far, the most popular room at the Joshua Tree Inn, said worker Marsu Wild, as he handed me the key and walked me along an outdoor corridor.
Not 3 feet from the door is the unofficial memorial, consisting of a 4-foot granite acoustic guitar with "Safe at Home" carved along the neck and a beneficent sun at the sound hole. Pilgrims have added totems ranging from tequila bottles to corn-cob pipes to flowers, crosses and candles.
"The guitar just went up last year," Wild said. "A local sculptor did it. We had no idea it was coming. One morning, we came by and it was there. We just saw footprints leading to it. But this is a good place for it."
Indeed, the Joshua Tree Inn has become something of a haven for rockers and their minions. Wild pointed to the room abutting Parsons'.
"That's Emmylou's (Harris) suite," he said, referring to Parsons' paramour. "Next to that is where Donovan used to stay before he got a house out here. That's Robert Plant's favorite room. Oh, and Lorne Michaels conceived the idea for 'Saturday Night Live' out by the pool."
Room 8, though, is not so much a hotel room as a mausoleum, sans corpus. Framed posters from Parsons' stints with the Byrds and the Flying Burrito Brothers have been accessorized with guitar picks, ocotillo crosses, tequila labels, signed drumsticks, scrawled love notes and red lipstick traces from kisses.
"That mirror over there is the only artifact left from when Gram died here," said Wild, sensing my relief that they've changed the bed since 1973.
"A lot of musicians like to stay here. They leave their music behind. We have them sign the guest book."
A woman from Toronto writes that she named her son Gram. A man named Michael writes that he brought an old-fashioned turntable and played records of "songs you'd like and hope I did you proud." The Fuller Family wrote: "Gram, we drank, were merry and flooded your floor. We always have a good time here."
Out near the pool, Philip Miller, a Parsons fan from Los Angeles, said he always stays at the inn when he visits. He likes to hike the trails and take photos of the rocks, the sunsets, the stars.
I found him taking photos of Parsons' shrine.
"This is why I originally came out," Miller said, "for the lore, the legend of Gram Parsons. I just read Keith Richards' autobiography, and he said he used to go cold turkey from the heroin with Gram in bed here. They'd get clean and then eventually go back to it. Gram was an interesting character. I'm going up to Cap Rock again tomorrow to shoot that."
Rock legends all around
Don't even try in a week's stay to cover all 794,000 acres of Joshua Tree, 70 percent of it designated as wilderness. Instead, pick your spots based on your interest.
Many come to climb the big rocks. The most popular and challenging spots are at Hidden Valley, about 14 miles southeast of the visitors center, with climbs ranging from relatively easy to difficult.
"Hidden Valley is the climbers' place," said Gary Chandler, who through Joshua Tree Outfitters sells and rents climbing and camping equipment. "There are hundreds of climbs within walking distance of the campground. The farther you go, you get to what's known by climbers as the real Hidden Valley – the best climbs."
Climber Les Walker of Idyllwild had just rappelled down a rock face, preparing to take a group of novices for a session.
"Joshua Tree gets some of the world's best climbers," he said. "But there also are a lot of great rocks for people just getting into it. You don't want to have a novice try Intersection or Old Woman first time out."
Hiking, however, is relatively easy for most, provided you bring ample water (yes, even in the early spring, when the temperature hovers just under 80). Trails range from as short at a half-mile to as long as the 37-mile Riding & Hiking Trail that extends from the Black Rock Canyon entrance to the Oasis Entrance.
Many of the trails are flat with soft, sandy surfaces, but some killer climbs await.
Perhaps the most popular route, the Boy Scout Trail, combines flat, sandy stretches and challenging but not lung-busting climbs with views of the Wonderland of Rocks. It's a 16-mile out-and-back, but many choose to camp along the way and make it an overnight excursion.
Hiker Lynne Tremkilbach of Akron, Ohio, chose that option.
"I've never backcountry-camped before, so of course, I chose to do it by myself in the desert," she said, laughing. "I camped out last night, and it was wonderful. It's just so beautiful out here. This is so not Ohio."
Art blooms in the desert
On a 7 1/2-acre parcel about 5 miles north of town, where the roads cease to be paved and handsome houses give way to shacks that give way to trailers, one of Southern California's famous "outsider" artists has created a world unlike Ohio or any other state.
It's called Noah Purifoy's Outdoor Desert Art Museum, and it's a trip. About 40 art pieces, some as small as a refrigerator, others as massive as a building, dot the landscape. From found metal, burned or decayed wood, old tires and pipes and discarded electronics, the late Purifoy built elaborate, often politically pointed, outdoor sculptures here from 1989 until his death in 2004.
His work has been exhibited at mainstream museums such as the Getty, Whitney, Oakland and California African American museums, but Purifoy had said the proper place for his sculptures is the desert, where the process of decay becomes part of the work.
Installations range from the silly to the sublime, often touching on social issues. One of his more famous works is "Kirby Express," in which old vacuum cleaners, baby carriages, smudge pots and swamp coolers are affixed to bicycle wheels and placed upon railroad tracks. It represents, according to the Noah Purifoy Foundation, "a symbol of hope and progress for the well-to-do, built by the poor (symbolizing) lost hope and dreams."
Purifoy's may be the most famous of the desert's art installations, but it is far from the only one. Among the pieces belonging under the umbrella organization called "High Desert Test Sites" is Sarah Vanderlip's piece that welded two aluminum discs together to shine like a crystal egg amid the boulders; Shari Elf's "Art Queen" gallery in town that features outdoor work, and the kitschy "World Famous Crochet Museum" inside an old Fotomat-type building.
Even some of the hotels are as much art projects as commercial dwellings. Two San Francisco exiles, Mindy Kaufman and Drew Reese, have turned a five-room motor lodge into a gorgeous throwback called Spin and Margie's Desert Hide-a-Way, with handmade tile floors and walls, as well as artwork in rooms and in the courtyard.
"We wanted it to be fun and reflect what we loved about road trips, which is fun and kind of quirky, like us," said Kaufman.
Quirkiness, it seems, blows through this town like a tumbleweed.
"Artists move here, well, maybe because it's not expensive," Elf said. "And a lot of us love having the freedom to do what we want with (our) property, do all sorts of crazy things."
Sometimes, the art pops up at you unexpectedly.
While driving on a dirt road way northwest of Joshua Tree, near the settlement of Pipes Canyon, my eye caught a glint in the desert. I pulled over and followed the shiny light. It was a giant orange arrow, at least 30 feet in height, pointing down into the sand. Next to it was this message, nailed to the post: "You Are Here."
No direction home
But I am not there – meaning, I have not yet found Samuelson's Rocks. The morning has worn on, it's warming up, and my water bottle is running low.
I was warned it's not easy to find the rocks – it's not an official National Park site, so there are no directional signs and no trail – and 45 minutes into my search, I'm getting mighty frustrated.
I try to remember what Chandler, the Joshua Tree Outfitter owner, told me.
"The reason the park won't tell you is because it's a private in-holding, but there are a couple of pullouts on the road about two miles from Quail Springs (picnic area)," he said. "Head southwest and you'll see a dark mound a couple of miles across the desert. It rises about 200 feet. Walk toward that."
I have done as told, but I'm lost. Three separate rock clumps have proved absent of inscriptions. Somehow, I have gotten turned around. Amid my wanderings, I've scraped my knee on a yucca plant and rivulets of blood run down my leg.
I'm just about to admit defeat when I decide to walk another 100 feet and see another rise in the landscape. I squint and spot marks on a boulder. I run through rocks and prickly pear and find them.
There are seven stones with chiseled rants against God and man, Herbert Hoover and Henry Ford, as well as other deep thoughts. It's akin to 140-character Twitter messages, sans spell-check, from a previous generation.
One of Samuelson's all-caps ramblings strikes me as relevant, especially to a Joshua Tree visitor. I take out my smartphone and capture it for my screensaver:
STUDY NATURE OBEY THE LAWS OF IT YOU CAN'T GO WRONG
IT PAYES COMPOUND ENTEREST FOR LIFE AND NOT ONE PENNY ENVESTED.
Directions from Sacramento: Take Highway 99 south to Highway 58 east in Bakersfield to Highway 395 in Born. Go south on 395, turn left on Air Base Road, then right onto the National Trailways Road, continue to Highway 18 for 23 miles. Continue on Old Woman Springs Road for 41 miles, then turn left on Buena Vista Drive, then a right on Yucca Mesa Drive. Make a left on Highway 62/Twentynine Palms Highway and go 2.5 miles to the town of Joshua Tree.
Crossroads Cafe: 61715 Twentynine Palms Highway, Joshua Tree. www.crossroadscafejtree.com. (760) 366-5414.
Pie for the People (pizza): 61740 Twentynine Palms Highway, Joshua Tree. www.pieforthepeople.net. (760) 366-0400
Ricochet: 61705 Twentynine Palms Highway, Joshua Tree. www.ricochetjoshuatree.com. (760) 366-1898.
Natural Sisters Cafe (vegan): 61868 Joshua Trail, Joshua Tree. (760) 366-3600.
Joshua Tree Saloon (live music): 61835 Twentynine Palms Highway Joshua Tree. www.thejoshuatreesaloon.com. (760) 366-2250.
Joshua Tree Inn: 61259 Twentynine Palms Highway, Joshua Tree. www.joshuatreeinn.com. (760) 366-1188.
Spin and Margie's Desert Hide-a-Way: 64491 Twentynine Palms Highway, Joshua Tree. www.deserthideaway.com. (760) 366-9124
Entrance fee: $15 day use, good for seven days.
Campsites: Black Rock, Cottonwood and Indian Cove campsites: $15 per night; Belle, Hidden Valley, Jumbo Rocks, Ryan and White Tank: $10 per night.
Round-trip distances for popular hiking trails: Cap Rock (0.4 miles); Boy Scout Trail (16 miles); 49 Palms Oasis (3 miles); Lost Horse Mine (4 miles); Lost Palms Oasis (7.2 miles); Mastodon Peak (3 miles); Eureka Peak (10 miles); Ryan Mountain (3 miles).
Popular climbing spots: Hidden Valley campground (Echo Rock, Echo Cove, Intersection Rock, Old Woman Rock).
Samuelson's Rock: (Note: It's not on National Park maps, nor is there a trail leading to it). From the West Entrance Station, go on Park Boulevard, which turns into Quail Springs Road. Park at a small dirt turnout 2.3 miles before you reach the Quail Springs Picnic Area, and walk 1.3 miles southwest to a cluster of rocks. Alternate route: Park at Quail Springs picnic area, take the Quail Springs trail west for about three miles. Look to your left for a cluster of rocks.
Noah Purifoy's Outdoor Desert Art Museum. Directions: From Twentynine Palms Highway in downtown Joshua Tree, turn left on Sunburst, right on Golden, left on Border, right on Aberdeen, left on Center, right on Blair Lane.
Art Queen/Crochet Museum:61855 Palms Highway Joshua Tree (behind the Joshua Tree Music Store); www.sharielf.com.
Behind the Bail Bonds (crystal egg): Directions: Take Twentynine Palms Highway east from downtown Joshua Tree to Neptune Drive (turn right at a yellow bail bonds sign). Drive up a dirt road, veering left, park next to the power lines as the road ends.
Andy's Gamma Gulch Parcel: Work from several artists in Pipes Canyon, north-west of Joshua Tree. Take Twentynine Palms Highway West toward Palm Springs. Turn right on Pioneertown Road. Go 7.5 and turn right on Pipes Canyon Road. After 2.2 miles, turn left on Gamma Gulch, a dirt road. Go 1.6 miles and turn right at a dirt road with a sign that says God's Way Love. Drive 1/2 mile, park on the side of the road and hike east into the brush.
– Sam McManis Call The Bee's Sam McManis, (916) 321-1145 Follow him on Twitter @SamMcManis.