Gram Parsons may get the credit for putting Joshua Tree on the hippie-era cultural map the country-rock pioneer not only came here to decompress, he died of a drug overdose at the Joshua Tree Inn, in Room 8, which has all but become a shrine to him but it was Ted Markland, actor, raconteur and Sherpa to the stars, who first brought Parsons to Californias high-desert park in the late 60s.
Markland got his first taste of fame in the Burt Lancaster westerns The Hallelujah Trail and Ulzanas Raid, as Ringo on the 60s TV show The High Chaparral, and in hippie Westerns (including Easy Rider follow-ups The Hired Hand and The Last Movie). But hes known in these parts as the unofficial mayor of Joshua Tree.
He discovered Joshua Tree quite by accident while attending the annual flying saucer conventions at nearby Giant Rock, established in the wake of the rumored Roswell alien crash sometime in the 40s. You can still find evidence of that culture in things like the Institute of Metaphysics just off the highway, or the Mysterious Integration, a kind of orgone generator shaped like a two-story Palomar Observatory, where a personal emissary of the Dalai Lama now lectures every other Sunday.
The first time I was out here, Markland says, I was fasting at the base of a mountain, and I climbed up quite a ways. Suddenly, my hair almost stood up on end; it was very much like a religious experience. I thought, Id better say a prayer, but I didnt really know how to pray. So I just said, Thank you. Thank you for my life. And I hear this sound, like a horn or siren, and I looked up, and theres like a rainbow, I guess. Just a round thing with a lot of energy coming out of it. I pretended I didnt see it, and then in my mind, I heard the words, Youre welcome. Theres a picture taken right after I came off the mountain, and you can very clearly see that something profound has just happened to me.
At the time, Markland was still a Sunset Strip comic cadging bookings from his running buddy and biggest fan, Lenny Bruce. But after that first experience, in 1952 or 53, he began making frequent weekend trips. Others who tagged along over the years were Dennis Hopper, Peter Fonda, Timothy Leary, various members of the Rolling Stones, Steve McQueen, Warren Oates, James Coburn, Jack Nicholson and Donovan. In fact, the campfire scene in Easy Rider, and Nicholsons improvisation on UFOs and the Venusian invasion, is rumored to be based on an all-night vigil on Marklands favorite mountain, 12 miles into the Joshua Tree park.
Ive been up there with friends meditating, Markland says, and we heard this huge sound, like a crack! There was this light, we couldnt tell what it was maybe an angel, who knows? and my friends looked at me and said, Do it again.
Parsons, of course, was a huge part of the desert scene. I met Gram when he â was doing his thing out in Topanga Canyon. We used to hang out in his room at the Chateau Marmont and wed sing all night. I showed him this whole area, and he went a couple of times up on the mountain. Then through Phil [Kaufman, tour manager for the Rolling Stones and close friend of Parsons], I brought the Stones up here. Marianne Faithful was with them. Mick kept comparing it to Stonehenge, or various Druid sites hed been to.
Later, Parsons and Keith Richards lugged a barber chair up to the crest of a mountain they called their own, in direct imitation of Marklands swivel chair, which afforded him a 360-degree view, on his mountain.
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On occasion, Markland lived with the local Navajo Indians, and in 1975 he relocated to the desert permanently to raise a family.
I lost touch with Gram for a long time, Markland says, and then after he ODd, Phil called me and wanted me to help him take the body out there and burn it. I said, No, I dont think so. Im not the man for that job.
Still, every year Markland observes groups of devoted fans making their annual pilgrimage to Joshua Tree for Gramfest, a gathering where Parsons music is celebrated and his death in Room 8 is commemorated. (This years Gramfest is this coming Saturday.) But its not just Parsons that Markland remembers.
Most of my friends are dead, so thats one thing, he says. Those days are long gone. But I brought so many people out here. I should have been a real estate agent.