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Graham Parson’s Death Pact at Cap Rock

Mystery hangs over the Joshua Tree National Park, a vast expanse of rock piles, stark mountain ranges, and the twisted, tree-like yucca cacti that give the park its name.

Perhaps because of its desolately beautiful, otherworldly landscape, the Joshua Tree region has long attracted eccentrics living on the farthest fringes of Southern California exurbia. UFO devotees have often insisted that there is a secret spaceship base hidden somewhere in the brush-dotted hills. They say that the strange lights regularly seen in the desert night sky are

extraterrestrial craft visiting the base. UFO contactee and cult leader George Adamski claimed that he got a saucer ride from “long-haired Venusians” aboard one of the ships cruising above Highway 177, just east of the park.

Other desert residents tell of bizarre happenings in and around the park. They’ve seen camper trucks dematerialize on the Morongo Valley highway, furtive three-fingered aliens buy supplies in Joshua Tree drugstores, and glowing, robot-like humanoids wander across the National Park outback.

One of the oddest places in Joshua Tree National Park is the Gram Parsons “memorial” on the north side of Cap Rock, in the center of the park.  Parsons, a talented, troubled musician who almost single-handedly invented the country-rock genre, was a regular visitor to the park until his death at the Joshua Tree Inn on September 19, 1973. The cause of death was a massive drug overdose.

When his body was taken to Los Angeles International Airport, en route to the family burial plot back in Georgia, his friend Phil Kaufman snatched Parsons’ coffin off the freight ramp. Kaufman, a former drug smuggler and rock manager who had once produced Charles Manson’s solo music album, had made a death pact with Parsons obligating him to cremate the latter’s corpse at Joshua Tree’s Cap Rock, a “power spot” that was one of the musician’s favorite park hangouts. Sure enough, Kaufman and an accomplice brought the body out to Cap Rock, laid it on the desert floor, and set it aflame in a macabre little ceremony. The two men were arrested soon afterwards, but were released when it was found that no California laws prohibited body-snatching or impromptu cremations.

In the thirty years after his death, Parsons has become a cult figure among rock and country musicians and fans. The little grotto where the strange ceremony took place is covered with eulogies, quotes from Parsons’ songs, and fanciful drawings left by admirers. It’s a modest monument, but a fitting one left to this strange land’s most famous devotee and victim.  –MM

Weird California



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