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 California’s high-desert park in the late ’60s.
Markland got his first taste of fame in the Burt Lancaster westerns The Hallelujah Trail and Ulzana’s 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 he’s 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, ‘I’d better say a prayer,’ but I didn’t 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 there’s like a rainbow, I guess. Just a round thing with a lot of energy coming out of it. I pretended I didn’t see it, and then in my mind, I heard the words, ‘You’re welcome.’ There’s 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 Nicholson’s improvisation on UFO’s and the “Venusian invasion,” is rumored to be based on an all-night vigil on Markland’s favorite mountain, 12 miles into the Joshua Tree park.
“I’ve been up there with friends meditating,” Markland says, “and we heard this huge sound, like a crack! There was this light, we couldn’t 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 we’d 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 he’d 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 Markland’s swivel chair, which afforded him a 360-degree view, on his mountain.
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 OD’d, Phil called me and wanted me to help him take the body out there and burn it. I said, ‘No, I don’t think so. I’m 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 year’s Gramfest is this coming Saturday.) But it’s not just Parsons that Markland remembers.
“Most of my friends are dead, so that’s 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.”