High and Dry in the Mojave (Part 3)

Willie Boy Was Here

The Yucca Valley is the scene of one of the Old West’s last great myths, the story of Willie Boy, a young Paiute-Chemeheuvi Indian accused of two brutal killings. The white version of the story goes something like this. In 1909, a drunken Willie Boy got into a fight with a Paiute chief named Indian Mike in the town of Banning, slaying the older man with a six-shooter. Willie Boy kidnapped the chief’s daughter Isoleta, fled on foot east up to the Yucca Valley into the Hi Desert, dragging the poor girl with him as a hostage. When the young women began to slow him down, Willie Boy raped her repeatedly and then shot her in the back.

Eventually, so the story goes, he made his way to the Oasis of Mara outside Twentynine Palms, where only a few Indians remained, tending their beanfields near the giant fan palms. Willie Boy raided their huts for food and weapons and headed for the Pinto mountains. He was finally cornered in a small canyon and, in a final blaze of glory, gunned it out with the sheriff’s men. He wounded a couple of men, but finally turned the gun on himself.

Willie Boy’s exploits became a huge national story, because what passed for the White House press corps happened to be in Riverside, California at the time, covering William Howard Taft’s cross-country rail-trip promoting his latest piece of tariff legislation. Bored to tears by Taft’s bloated stump speeches the reporters seized on Willie Boy’s story, hyping it as the ruthless murder of an Indian chief and the kidnapping and slaying of an Indian princess. It dominated the national papers for weeks.

In 1969, the great Abraham Polonsky, the director of Body and Soul and Force of Evil, whose career was wrecked by the blacklist, returned from his enforced exile to shoot a fairly good film about the grim story, called Tell Them Willie Boy Was Here, with Robert Redford and Robert Blake (now facing trial for the murder of his wife) once again playing the role of a misunderstood killer. In Polonsky’s version we are given a kind of reversal of the Wild Child story that François Truffaut (and later-to better effect–the German director Werner Herzog in The Mystery of Kaspar Hauser) was exploring at about the same time in his film L’enfant Sauvage.

In the Polonsky film, Willie Boy is an Americanized Paiute Indian who, upon being accused of committing a horrendous crime (the killing of the chief) based on little more than racial stereotyping, reverts into a kind of Hollywoodized version of Indian “savagery,” leaving behind a trail of blood worthy of a Jacobean revenge play.

Neither of these recitations share much relation to what really happened back in 1909, according to the local Paiutes who knew the story from the inside. The Hunt for Willie Boy: Indian-Hating and Popular Culture, by James A. Sandos and Larry E. Burgess, a brilliant new work of ethnohistory, sets the record straight. Sandos and Burgess use Indian recollections of the event and historical records to recreate what really happened. It seems that Willie Boy and the girl were engaged, a relationship that was not viewed warmly by her father the chief, who came after the young Indian one day with a gun. In a struggle, the gun went off and the chief died. There’s also no evidence that Willie Boy was a drunk. He and Isoleta fled together, hounded by one of the largest posses ever mounted. Sandos and Burgess believe that far from being raped and murdered by Willie Boy, the young woman was actually shot by one of the posse’s leaders.

Not far from where Willie Boy met his end nearly a century ago is a new Indian gaming casino, throbbing with neon, that seemed to be doing a brisk business taking money from military types and ranchers. Perhaps after all these years the Paiutes have exacted a certain kind of revenge after all.

Blame It on Reyner Banham

The Inn at 29 Palms is one of those wind-blown and sun-hammered places that could have appeared as the setting in a desert noir by Horace McCoy or Jim Thompson. Life at the inn centers on the pool and the adjacent restaurant, the where cooks conjure up the best food in the Valley, if not the entire Mojave.

That the word is out about the quality of the Inn’s food is attested to by the steady flow of local customers, a kind of daily parade of Hi Desert society: real estate agents, retirees from the Bay Area, gay couples, artists, cops and Marine Corps officers. The secret is the fresh vegetables, grown on the grounds, in a lovingly tended garden.

I spent a few hours by the pool flipping through Reyner Banham’s book Scenes from American Deserta. Banham was a prickly English architectural critic who settled in southern California in the 1960s and wrote a book that I greatly admire, Los Angeles: Architecture of the Four Ecologies. Growing up in Indianapolis, I’d inherited the Midwesterner’s reflexive hatred of LA, as a smog-clotted, car-obsessed, Sodom of narcissists, mountain-rapers and apocalyptics.

True enough, of course. But LA can also be great fun. And Banham’s book, like Robert Venturi’s on Las Vegas, provided an intellectual rationale for joining the party-and a key to understanding why going to LA, contrary to all my Hoosier conditioning, was worth the hassle of clogged freeways and damaged lungs.

As much as I liked Banham’s book on LA, I came to despise his take on the California deserts-not so much for Banham’s aesthetic, which in a way isn’t so different than Edward Abbey’s reveries about his boyhood haunts in Appalachia, as for what the forces he found beautiful and bounding with creative energy have done to the land and its human and ecological communities. In a sense, Banham practices a kind of hit-and-run aesthetic, rarely sticking around long enough to appreciate the consequences of the constructions he adored.

Banham had a taste for unplanned, accidental landscapes, studded with gadgets and gizmos in various states of use and disrepair, utility, fancy and ruin. That’s pretty much what this part of the desert was, an architectural free-for-all, a scattering of human structures with no real aspiration to be architecture. Naturally, that’s an empowering state of play for a critic, who sets himself up as an interpreter of chaos.

Banham is right about an important point: the deserts of California are not natural landscapes. Almost every square inch has been rearranged in some degree by human use or abuse, intentional and accidental. The myth of ecological purity is one that environmentalists pursue at their own peril. Indeed, such thinking led groups like the Sierra Club to support Senator Dianne Feinstein’s Mojave National Park legislation and promote it as kind of unblemished wilderness, when in fact it contains gold mines, cows, off-road vehicles and nearly every other contemporary curse of desert ecosystems.

But it’s one thing to recognize the imprint of humans, from the sophisticated desert agriculture of the Serrano to the riverside nuclear waste dumps of US Ecology, and quite another to fetishize it, as Banham so often does. He exudes about the nearby Salton Sea, for example, which is a man-made disaster, a kind of ecological root-canal gone horribly awry. Today, this water-wasteland, which Sony Bono tried to hawk into a desert Riviera, is a kind of toxic sludge pit, where the water sucked out of the Colorado River and irrigated through the fields of the Imperial Valley, returns to die, loaded with pesticides and the other chemical detritus from industrial agriculture.

Yes, as Banham notes, it’s possible to see a certain kind of strange beauty in the contraptions surrounding a gold mine, set starkly against a purple sky and blood red cliffs, and but you must also recognize that you’re staring a grave dug in the earth a thousand feet deep and a mile wide and know that hundreds of miles of streams, so precious in this arid land, have been fouled with cyanide. This is the context that undermines Banham’s aesthetic.

Banham once said that the thing he’d miss most about rural California is the air-shows. He liked Watsonville’s fly-in the best, which didn’t have any stars or celebrities or commercialized gimmicks. It succeeded as a kind of planned anarchy, a spectacle governed by no one. That’s not the kind of air show that goes on out here in the Mojave every day. Surely even Banham would have cringed at the black billion dollar monsters that prowl these skies.

Gram Parsons BBQ

On our final morning in the Mojave, I walked a mile or so up to the Park headquarters, rather indelicately entrenched in what was once the southern tip of the Mara Oasis, looking for information about the demise of one of rock’n’roll’s legendary bad boys, Gram Parsons. As I was talking to the park historian, the sky darkened, the wind whipped up, thunderclaps rattled the windows and, finally, the rains came down to wild cheers inside the ranger station. The rangers took turns prancing around outside in the downpour. “It’s been a year since we’ve seen rain like this,” one of them shouted.

Even an Oregonian like me, who had come to the desert to trade our 8 months of rain for a week of steady sun, could appreciate that this storm was a beautiful thing, indeed. The desert pulsed to life almost immediately at the first hint of the rain squalls. Even the small, reddish barrel cactuses seemed to perk up. And the smell of the Mojave after a drenching rain is an unforgettable pleasure, a scent flush with the pungent odor of creosote bush, mesquite and sand verbena.

As the skies lightened up, the ranger pulled out a topo map and pointed to the spot I wanted to visit: Cap Rock.

I’m of mixed views on Gram Parsons, the former member of the Byrds, founder of the Flying Burrito Brothers and originator of California country-rock. I like much of his music. He had a sweet, doom-ridden voice and he wrote some great songs, the beautiful Hickory Wind, for example. He re-introduced the steel guitar to rock, and gave new life to old tunes by the Louvin Brothers and Merle Haggard. On the other hand, he was a trust-fund rocker with a sprawling sense of entitlement who deliberately shattered his considerable talent and spawned a genre of seventies soft rock that haunts the FM airwaves to this day, from the humorless perfection of the Eagles to the formulaic crap of Pure Prairie League and Poco.

Parsons was born in Waycross, Georgia. His mother, Avis Snively, came from money. The Snivelys owned one of the largest orange groves in Florida and the Snively property in Winter Haven was turned into the Cypress Gardens theme park, a big pre-Disney attraction. His father, “Coon Dog” Connor, was also wealthy, coming from a family of retailers in Tennessee. These were rich but not happy people. By all accounts, both were drunks and battled depression. In 1958, Coon Dog blew his brains out with a .38 revolver. It was the first in a string of tragedies.

Soon thereafter, Gram’s mother married a fortune hunter named Bob Parsons and drink herself to death a few years later. The death was attributed to alcohol poisoning. Parsons, who had adopted Gram and his sister Little Avis, moved them to Florida and married the family babysitter a few months later. Gram always suspected that Bob Parsons had a hand in his mother’s death.

The Snively money bought Gram a draft deferment and sent him to Harvard, where he discovered hard drugs, developed a deeper sense of his own alienation, avoided any alliance with fellow southerner Al Gore and perfected his brand of post-rockabilly southern rock.

By 1968, Parsons was in LA, challenging Roger McGuinn for leadership of the Byrds. They collaborated on one masterpiece of country rock, Sweetheart of the Rodeo, before Parsons split with fellow Byrd Chris Hillman to form the Flying Burrito Brothers.

While in Southern California, Parsons became good friends with Rolling Stone’s guitarist Keith Richards. Evidently, Parson’s turned the Stones on to country music (for better or worse) and he and Richards would often escape up to the Mojave to listen to Chet Atkins records, sample a vast menu of drugs and scan the desert skies for UFOs.

Before going on tour in the summer of 1973 in support of his forthcoming solo album GP/Grievous Angel, Parson and a few friends went up to the small town of Joshua Tree, where they stayed in the Joshua Tree Inn, a nice but modest establishment on Highway 62. Parsons (who, for the curious, stayed in room number 8, which contains a plaque commemorating the event) went on a three-day binge of Jack Daniels, morphine and heroin. On the night of September 19, he overdosed, choked on his own vomit and died. His body was ultimately taken to LAX, where it was scheduled to be flown to New Orleans for burial.

Like most junkies, Parson tended to brood on his own death. And he repeatedly told his friend and road manager Phil Kaufman that when he died he didn’t want to be buried in the ground: “You can take me out to the desert in Joshua Tree and burn me. I want to go out in a cloud of smoke.” What follows is a screwball escapade that could have made a great Preston Sturges film.

Kaufman, one of the more outlandish characters in the LA rock scene, took it upon himself to fulfill Parson’s final wish. He borrowed an old hearse, dummied up some paper work and went to LAX, where he conned the people working for Continental Airlines’ mortuary services in turning over Parson’s coffin. Kaufman and his pal Michael Martin were so drunk at the time that they ran the hearse into a wall as they left the airport.

On the drive to Joshua Tree, Kaufman and Martin stopped at gas station to buy more beer and a couple of gallons of high test gasoline. “I didn’t want him to ping,” Kaufman later wrote in his madcap autobiography Road Mangler Deluxe.

The two ended up at Cap Rock, a bizarrely eroded dome of granite near Ryan Mountain. Kaufman says they stopped there because he was too drunk to drive any further. They unloaded the coffin and hauled it to a small alcove at the base of the rock monolith. Then Kaufman noticed headlights approaching and told Martin that it must be the cops. They quickly poured the gasoline over Parson’s corpse, lit it on fire, then sped away, across open desert.

They didn’t drive very far before Kaufman passed out. When they awoke the next morning they found themselves stuck in the sand. They had to hike to a gas station and get a tow truck to pulled them out. Their adventures weren’t over. Just outside LA, the hearse got into a multi-car pile up. When a California Highway Patrol officer ordered Kaufman and Martin out of the hearse, empty beer bottles fell to the pavement, and the officer put them in handcuffs. As the cop interviewed the other drivers, Martin slipped out of his cuffs, started the hearse and the two escaped.

At first the cops tried to blame the corpse theft and pyre on a satanic cult. But a few weeks later Kaufman turned himself in. He and Martin were fined $1,000. To raise the money, Kaufman threw a party. He called it the Koffin Kaper Koncert.

The spot where Kaufman ignited Parson’s coffin has become an informal memorial. There’s a large stone at the spot with the words Safe at Home (title of a Parson’s song) painted on it in red letters. People leave things at the site: syringes, plastic flowers, cds, St. Christopher medallions. Others have scrawled scraps of Parson’s lyrics on the face of Cap Rock itself.

I wanted to get a photo of the Gram Parsons BBQ pit from a small shelf on the rock above. There was only one way up. It involved a scramble over a scree pile, then a bit of free-climbing up a fissure in the granite. As I neared the ledge, I stuck my hand in a slot in the rock. Then I heard a kind of hollow buzzing, steady and insistent. I froze. I’d heard that sound before, though not quite so distinctly.

I looked down and saw about six inches from my hand a neatly coiled, blonde rattlesnake with the telltale slashes beside each eye, its erect tail chattering away like a drum groove laid down by Elvin Jones.

This was not your ordinary rattlesnake. No. This was Crotalus Scututalus. The Mojave rattler, a snake with a reputation for a foul temper and a deadly bite. Indeed, the herpetologists describe the Mojave’s venom, rather cagily under the circumstances, as “unique.” Uniquely poisonous. The Mojave’s venom contains a strange brew of more than 100 distinct neurotoxins, a concoction so complex even the mad scientists at Monsanto can’t duplicate it.

This all makes ecological sense. The Mojave is a harsh environment. The opportunities to nab a meal of delicious Kangaroo rat don’t present themselves that often. The venom (an offensive, not a defensive weapon) increases the likelihood of a strike resulting in a kill.

Time slowed down. And I began to calculate the odds, like some backcountry bookie. A phrase flickered across my mind: You’re more likely to be struck dead by lightning than to be bitten by a rattlesnake. It was strangely comforting. But only for a moment. Surely, those odds were calculated for the population of the country at large. Most people never see a rattlesnake. What were the odds of someone in my circumstance? Eyeball to eyeball with C. Scututalus, with me the intruder in his small patch of dust?

Those are precisely the kind of percentages they don’t give you, probably with good reason. It turns out the snake/lightning analogy is false, a bit of well-intentioned pro-rattler propaganda designed to keep the roughnecks from slaughtering any more snakes than they already do.

In fact, rattlesnakes inflict more than 8,000 bites on humans in the US every year. That’s a respectable number by any standard. The snake scientists say that 75 to 80 percent of rattler bites are considered “illegitimate”-an odd bureaucratic descriptor for a boneheaded move on the part of a human. Illegitimate touching of a pit viper.

One of the park rangers had told me that the last person to die of a snakebite in Joshua Tree was an English teacher who had led a field trip to the park with his students. Someone discovered a Mojave rattler lounging under a picnic table at the Jumbo Rocks campground. The teacher decided to use the snake as a prop (was he a fan of Harry Crews’ strange novel, A Feast of Snakes?), picked it up by the tail, began to discourse on the pacifist nature of the snake, when the rattler, quite properly, bit him in the stomach.

Of course, I too was a damn English major. And I had just made an illegitimate, boneheaded move. Used to scrambling over boulders and rockpiles in the rattler-free Oregon Cascades, where at worst you’re likely to be scolded by a pika, I hadn’t bothered to look where I was sticking my hand. It was all up Mister Scututalus, now.

But the little Mojave didn’t strike. He no doubt figured it wasn’t worth wasting his precious payload of venom on this bonehead, who could just as easily kill himself by slipping off the slick granite and smashing his skull on the makeshift cenotaph for a long-forgotten rocker. And for that I’m grateful.

We left Cap Rock and drove off into the desert evening, chasing those distant storms, behind a van bizarrely adorned with two whitewater kayaks (a true Banham moment), my foot tapping the floorboard to the beat of that most urbane of all bluesmen, Memphis Slim:

You may own half a city,
Even diamonds and pearls.
You may own an airplane, baby,
And fly all over this world.
But I don’t care how great you are,
Don’t care what you are worth–
‘Cause when it all ends up
You got to go back to Mother Earth.
Yeah, Mother Earth is waitin’,
And that’s a debt you got to pay.

Right you are, Slim. But not today. CP

Jeffrey St. Clair is editor of CounterPunch. His most recent book is An Orgy of Thieves: Neoliberalism and Its Discontents (with Alexander Cockburn). He can be reached at: sitka@comcast.net or on Twitter @JeffreyStClair3