In the California Desert: Vast Darkness, Vibrant Music, an Oasis
I got to Wonder Valley, a remote community at the eastern edge of California’s Mojave Desert, mostly by accident. I thought I was spending the weekend in Joshua Tree. This was nine years ago in the low information days of online vacation rentals before the ubiquitous smartphone — before it became nearly impossible to wander or to get lost.
When people in Los Angeles talk about “the desert” they mean one of two quite different things: They are either referring to the manicured, climate-controlled, midcentury modern, golf-green, martini-chilled, enclaves of Palm Springs, Palm Desert, La Quinta and their surrounding resort cities, or they mean the High Desert, usually the town of Joshua Tree in the untamed, purportedly mystical, rawer, region to the north. Between these two lies Joshua Tree National Park where you can hike or meditate or get your mind blown by Martian red rock formations and landscapes too often called psychedelic.
As an East Coast transplant I’d had my desert visions disappointed in Palm Springs where the swathes of sand between the elegant landscaping and the searing heat were distant rumors of the barren landscape I heard lay to the north in the bohemian oasis of Joshua Tree. That’s where I wanted to be.
I drove out on Interstate 10, a wide express train of a highway clogged with tractor-trailers roaring from Santa Monica, Calif., to Jacksonville, Fla. Just past the exit for Palm Springs, I merged onto Highway 62, the Twentynine Palms Highway. The road cut through a massive wind farm where the whirling arms screamed as the wind, trapped between two low mountain ranges, battered my car. After climbing up a twisting pass I entered the Morongo Basin.
I knew that I’d arrived in the High Desert when I saw the improbable Joshua trees on either side of the highway — their thatched branches and spiky tufts of knifelike leaves reaching up toward the brutal sun instead of sensibly bowing toward the ground. Like many other inhabitants of the Mojave, Joshua trees seem to welcome a climate from which most living things seek shelter.
This is the moment when, on subsequent trips to the desert, I usually find myself apologizing to whomever I’ve dragged along. “I get it,” I say, “it doesn’t look like much.” In fact, Highway 62 doesn’t even look like desert.
The first town I passed was Yucca Valley where tattoo parlors and smoke shops rival in number big box stores and fast food joints. Then I came to Joshua Tree, equally grim from the main drag at least. Here the storefronts peddle desert mysticism, health food and local art. I figured this was my getting-off point, my base camp for the desert trip I’d sought. But I still had 25 miles to go.
Next I passed through Twentynine Palms, a town of barbershops advertising military haircuts, more tattoo parlors and smoke shops, two bars too divey even for me, a worrisome number of “massage parlors,” and several Thai restaurants. This all made sense when I learned the town is home to the Marine Corps Air Ground Combat Center.
I was surprised when my directions told me to keep going. It didn’t seem possible that there was any more there beyond this point. Soon the sturdy adobes and ranch houses of Joshua Tree and Twentynine Palms gave way to makeshift homes cobbled together from tumbledown cabins, shipping containers and trailers. I passed yards littered with the refuse of desert living — heaps of scrap metal, shells of cars, rusted out water tanks — signs that seemed to indicate all the things that might go wrong out here.
Worse still, I passed a roadside sign: “Next Services 100 Miles.” One hundred miles. I checked my gauge and tried to remember how far back the last service station was. The stores were gone but the beauty hadn’t yet appeared — only a savage terrain that seemed to stretch on for a nerve-racking distance.
I found the house I’d rented by turning right on a sand road that was marked, and then left on another that wasn’t. (My host had told me to count the number of roads after the turn off which was difficult since there often wasn’t much visible difference between the sand road and the sand of the desert itself.)
It was dark when I arrived. I was disoriented and relieved. The house had a large enclosed yard filled with creatively appropriated salvage and what looked like a wooden deck that I hoped might conceal a hot tub or swimming pool. It turned out to be a viewing platform from which I could look out over desert toward the silhouette of a distant mountain range.
At first I had to challenge myself to confront the vast, uninterrupted darkness beyond the platform. But hours passed and I realized I hadn’t taken my eyes off the desert. The silence around me was so deep it made its own sort of noise. Somewhere in the distance — a mile, two miles, who knows — a flashing light alternated red and green, the only sign besides the rustling and snuffling beneath my platform, that I wasn’t alone.
In the morning, when the sun rose over the mountains like the dawning of a new planet in a low budget sci-fi movie, I discovered that I was staying in one of many cabins spread out at somewhat regular intervals across the area called Wonder Valley — an unincorporated community at the farthest reaches of the Morongo Basin. Some of these cabins had been duded up, fenced in and turned into compounds with jury-rigged satellites and dirt yards filled with old pickups and rusted trailers. Some, like the place where I was staying, had been taken over by an early generation of artists for whom the desert seemed to provide a challenging canvas. But many sat empty, their windows boarded up or missing.
Except for a bar and a used bookstore that’s rarely open, there were—and are— no amenities in Wonder Valley. There are no stoplights or streetlights, nothing to punctuate the night sky. After dark, dogs howl and wolves sometimes respond; coyotes yip in anticipation of a kill.
The landscape is monotonous — a flat and almost ghostly expanse of scrubby desert whose most impressive feature is the tenacity of the flora, fauna and human beings who survive there. But there’s an unsettling sort of beauty in the challenges Wonder Valley presents, especially after dark. For night is when this far corner of the Mojave gave me its odd reassurance that it was still possible to go somewhere unexpected, that it wasn’t only O.K. to be lost, it was somehow necessary.
A few days after soaking up the silence and marveling at the isolation, I went in search of supplies, a cocktail and human contact. That is how I found the 29 Palms Inn, a collection of timber and adobe cabins clustered around an oasis ringed with palm trees — the sort of place that makes you feel as if you’ve stepped back into a 1950s dreamland and are the first person to discover its charms. The pool, adjacent to the bar, is enclosed by cinder block walls painted in gradients of purple to intensify the color of its water; the gradients of orange on the wall’s exterior capture the sunrise and the sunset.
On a later visit, a companion remarked, as we and settled into lounge chairs near the pool, sweet cocktails in hand, that he felt as if he were in a United States consulate on a small island in the South Pacific. I understood what he meant — we were part of the world but at the same time unreachable.
That first night a band was setting up — a middle-aged husband and wife with a keyboard and some backing tracks for their covers of Roy Orbison and Hank Williams. The crowd around the pool and at the bar was a mix of Marines, rugged tourists visiting Joshua Tree National Park, and some resident artists and musicians of a rougher cut who weren’t there to escape the city. Many of these artists had painted the Twentynine Palms’ Oasis of Murals — a citywide celebration of the area’s history, natural beauty and ancient spirit.
The 29 Palms Inn is improbable in many ways — in the variety of its buildings, the comforting, unpretentious food, the small houseboat drifting in the oasis, the sturdy garden where vegetables are coaxed from the soil, and the mix of hard-core desert rats and clean-cut Marines. Even more improbable is the Campbell House, a bed-and-breakfast recently acquired by the inn that is made up of a stone homestead and some cottages whose construction and frilly décor are more reminiscent of the New England countryside than something on the edge of a wilderness.
I sipped my drink as swallows carved the purple sky above the inn and wondered how soon I might be able to return to this corner of the Mojave and when I did whether I could recapture the reassuring feeling of being able to wander and lose my way. Although I came to love the gritty flowers that bloom from the Mojave’s desiccated land, the fields of cactuses that pop up unexpectedly, and the hidden oases that insisted you hunt for them by wandering off the main road, it was this sensation of dislocation that captivated me and called me back.
I’ve been to the Mojave and to the 29 Palms Inn nearly a dozen times now and each time I discover a new way to get lost or at least to feel lost, which is how I first found myself at the Palms Restaurant, a bar so deep in Wonder Valley that travelers encountering it for the first time might well think it’s a mirage.
You get to the Palms Restaurant by driving east through Wonder Valley along Amboy Road, which runs parallel to the Twentynine Palms Highway about a mile to the south. You take this road until you begin to worry that you’ve gone too far — that there is nothing out here, and certainly nothing capable of serving beer and grub. When you are certain you’ve gone too far, you arrive. It happens every time.
The Palms is a roadhouse with a vibrant music scene — there are stages both indoors and out. The owners, Laura and James Sibley, who own the used bookstore in the homestead cabin across the street (you bring your books to the bar to pay for them), perform regularly and also host a number of music festivals with packed lineups. The Palms is also the kind of bar, maybe one of a kind, where you can bring a preschooler for waffles on a Sunday morning while you sip a cold Corona chased with a tequila shot. Everything on the menu from the four-bite burgers to the beef jalapeño sandwich is downright tasty and almost nothing costs more than five bucks. You have to wonder, what more could you need?
Early on Sunday no one will be playing live music or pool but the bar will already be lined with regulars bent over their second drink of the day. No one will look up as your preschooler dances wildly, racing from the empty stage to the pool table, lost in her own world. And you will hope that as the world shrinks, places such as Wonder Valley and Twentynine Palms will still be here for her to discover.
Big city artists and artisans and a rumored hipster hotel chain are coming, they always are — the ones with the means to put Wonder Valley and Twentynine Palms on the map, the people who will harness the weirdness and bleakness for their own aesthetic. I understand the impulse. I have also tried to make the desert my own. But none us will be able to capture and resell the lonely magic. That belongs to the High Desert and to experience it, you will have to let yourself get lost.