On the 31st floor, a gold-plated door, won’t keep out the Lord’s burning rain.-Gram Parsons
Four years ago, on November 25th, I spent a great deal of that day driving and exploring the desert around Joshua Tree, California. Caught up in the throes of post-divorce existential angst, I drove off-road and came to rest in the middle of a wide desert valley-my only companion, the wind. As I stood by my trusty Outlander, with the wind whipping my hair around and the sun warming my face, I marveled at the thought that at that very moment, families all around the country would be sitting down to their Thanksgiving meal, bickering over the volume of the TV (“turn it down!” “But the game’s on!”), passing the stuffing, etc. And here I was in the middle of the Mojave desert, not another human or vehicle anywhere in sight. I distinctly remember thinking, “why am I like this? Why can’t I be normal?” — and there’s even a video to commemorate that moment: https://www.facebook.com/video.php?v=173234889361640 — It occurred to me that no one on earth knew where I was. My cellphone had no bars and I was far from the main road. It was all at once exhilarating, liberating and scary. I realized that if I were to get a flat tire or sprain an ankle, I’d be stuck out there. Confess I felt a little thrilled by the danger of it all.
That evening I headed to the Joshua Tree Inn, where I was staying the night in my not-at-all-depressing-choice of a room, the Gram Parson’s death suite. I wasn’t a huge fan of his music, thought it was pretty but lacked the edge and bite that I prefer. Mainly I was here at the Inn because it was funky and reasonably priced, a charming Spanish-themed bungalow with rustic appeal, an idyllic courtyard with a zen garden, vines climbing up beams. And I was fascinated by Gram’s story, so out of morbid curiosity, booked the Gram death room, to have a poke around and to be able to brag to my friends that I’d stayed there.
I’d been back at the room for only a little while when there was a knock on my door. The owners, a boho couple around my age, wanted to know if I’d like to join them for the Thanksgiving meal. I was incredibly touched, accepted their offer and soon met up with them in the dining room off the reception area.
Candles and Christmas lights gave the room a warm and cozy atmosphere that I appreciated as I sat at the long wood table with the other diners. There were about a dozen of us in total-a young, obviously newly-wedded German couple, a bunch o’ Brazilians, the proprietor, his wife, a soft-spoken male hippy employee who seemed to talk about chai tea every chance he got (“I make my own! It’s very good. You should try some in the morning.”). We nibbled pie and turkey, strummed guitars, everyone passing around the wine bottle which I declined since I was planning on making the long drive home early the next morning.
After an hour or so, a phone jingled in the reception area. The proprietress jumped up to answer it. In a few minutes, she returned and said breathlessly, “that was Ben Harper. He and his buddy will be here soon.” She went on to explain to everyone there that this was a popular point of pilgrimage for musicians and that they regularly had big names stopping in: Clapton, Robert Plant, Bono, etc. The Brazilians had never heard of Harper so they were filled in quickly before Ben’s arrival.
Ben Harper soon strolled in-tall, dark and handsome, with the uber-confident air of a politician or, uh, a rock star. He was followed by an equally handsome, yet blonder, male. Greetings all around and then Ben took a seat at the table beside me. Inexplicably, everyone in the room suddenly fell silent, awkward and self-conscious in the face of musical royalty. I couldn’t stand it for very long so I turned to Ben and said, “have you had a good Thanksgiving so far?” Leaning back in his chair, glass of wine in hand, clad in a plaid flannel shirt over a t-shirt and jeans, he answered effusively in the positive. He explained that he’d spent Thanksgiving at his mom’s house in Claremont and that he and his friend had decided they felt like doing some camping, so they had driven out here to Joshua Tree to camp overnight, under the stars.
By now everyone at the table had relaxed again and Ben talked in detail about his latest recording project with Charlie Musselwhite. During the conversation, the proprietress blurted out that it was not just Thanksgiving, but my birthday too. Ben seemed genuinely surprised, said, “you’re kidding?!” The memory of Ben Harper leaping to his feet unhesitatingly, stretching his arms out wide toward me, exclaiming “happy birthday!” is one that is permanently etched in my brain. I rose, giggling, and hugged his tall, fit frame, then sat back down to the sight of the other women at the table drilling daggers at me with their eyes (Ha! Sorry, ladies! Get your own rock star…).
Turned out Ben’s pal had never seen the infamous Gram Parsons’ room, so they asked if they could check it out. Of course I said yes. So Ben and his friend took a quick look around, said their goodbyes and then headed out into the chilly desert night for some stargazing.
Later that night, alone in the Gram Parson’s death room, I felt very much alive and content and realized that I couldn’t post about any of this to my friends on Facebook right then, dammit. I didn’t want to blow Ben’s cover. There were only a few campsites open at Joshua Tree and I didn’t want to be responsible for leaking his whereabouts out to the internet. I could just see some rabid, psycho-fan driving out there, Ben waking to them hovering over him, a flashlight shining on his face (“AAAKKK! It really IS you! I love your music!”). So I posted some innocuous pictures of trees and that day’s sunset instead and basked in the secret that I’d had an extra special Thanksgiving birthday.