Two Hours East of L.A., Desert Camping and Five-Cocktail Lunches

I pull over to marvel at swales of flowering ocotillo and cholla ablaze in the twilight.

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It happens every time I go out west. I get in the rental car, start driving, and realize I’ve wasted half my life on the East Coast. I mean, just look at this place. A whole windshield of blue-black mountains, of California sky, of palm-traced canyon land, of hog-backed hills rising to more mountains, of smoky desert stretching away over one shoulder and still more desert over the other. It’s a Technicolor tableau straight out of the Precambrian Supereon, streaming live to the driver’s seat of a banana-yellow KIA Soul. Just shy of Joshua Tree National Park, a mere two hours from L.A., I pull over to marvel at swales of flowering ocotillo and cholla ablaze in the twilight. At this moment, it feels patently nuts, downright criminal, to live east of California.

I’d come out for a spring wedding, fulfilled four days of best man duties amidst smudged skies and roasting trash in West Hollywood, itching to light out for the desert. I’m so impatient to arrive that I buy a golden-barrel cactus as a talisman to keep on my dashboard, without any thought to how I’ll get it home on the plane. The Mojave is in bloom — primrose, beavertail, verbena — its oddly cantilevered Joshua Trees climbing like hairy gallows in a desert mosaic.

Towards dusk on my first night, I hike a sandy track into the foothills above the town of Joshua Tree. The San Bernardino Mountains, which comprise the Park’s western border, tumble down here into granitic breakers that erode and run off south to the San Andreas Fault. Tectonically-speaking, the region is bursting at the seams. But tonight it’s quietly starlit and drowsy. Down below, everything’s washed in darkness, except for a street corner where a coyote pauses to yip and yawn, then trots off.

IF YOU GO

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Located on Twentynine Palms Highway a few miles from the park, the Joshua Tree Inn doesn’t look like much, but its ramshackle, amply shaded charm goes down smooth after a sun-baked drive from L.A. It’s a fine place to catch your breath for a night before plunging into the wilderness. Gram Parsons made it his launchpad for countless Joshua Tree vision quests. Room #8 is where the great man had his final communion with morphine and booze, succumbing at age 26. The guitar-shaped courtyard memorial, the GP t-shirts for sale in the lobby and the walls of photographs and memorabilia feel appropriately macabre and sad, but also touching. (Sadder still are the handwritten memorials to Parsons at Cap Rock, the spot in Joshua Tree where producer Phil Kaufman torched Parsons’ corpse). The rooms are clean, the swimming pool bracing, and the mountain views almost totally unsullied by telephone wires. joshuatreeinn.com

A miracle of affordable convenience located just before the turn-off for the park, Joshua Tree Outfitters was laboratory-crafted by the camping gods. Leave all your gear at home and for about $50 rent the baseline requirements: tent, sleeping bag and pad, chairs, cooler and water container. For a bit more, you’ll get everything from a Coleman stove to rock-climbing pads to campfire cutlery. They’ll even do your grocery shopping for you; call ahead and tell ’em what you want and they’ll have it packed and ready when you arrive. I happened to be in Joshua Tree on a Wednesday, the one day these guys are closed, but a quick email was all it took for someone to come open up the shop and outfit my every need. joshuatreeoutfitters.com

A former biker bar in the dusty and derelict village of Pioneertown — which Roy Rogers and Gene Autry built in the ’40s as a living movie set where westerns could be filmed — Pappy + Harriet’s has been reimagined as a kind of child-friendly honkytonk and off-site Coachella venue. Soccer moms and burnouts, Bandidos and Cossacks, all mix here in apparent harmony, with nightly live music ranging from hipster prog to country folk to clueless rockabilly and back again. The food is basically a Tex-Mex twist on Midwestern stockyard cuisine, with a full battery of chilis and burgers and pulled pork and quesadillas, and a particularly ingenious corruption of the whole nacho raison d’etre called the “Nachos Von Rabbit”, which has to be seen to be believed. pappyandharriets.com

Sometimes you need to wean yourself from city life instead of going cold turkey. The Joshua Tree Inn & Motel, right outside the park on Twentynine Palms Highway, provides a surefire detox. It’s where Gram Parsons croaked and Donovan mewled to adoring runaways. The rooms are clean, the pool spectacularly cold, the Parsons memorabilia appropriately macabre, the mountain views marred by only a few telephone wires.

I’d left my camping gear back east. For $50 I rent a tent, sleeping bag, pad, chair, cooler, and four-gallon water container from an outfitter in town. In the morning, I grab the essentials: 12-pack of Coors Light, ice, sandwiches, firewood — and drive to the park in shimmering heat.

Two distinct ecosystems collide head-on at Joshua Tree: the arid plateau of the Colorado Desert in the eastern half of the park, and the higher, cooler, wetter Mojave Desert in the western half. Hence the major-league geologic tumult: granite monoliths mounting and twisting into the sky, wind-cut boulders tossed like marbles across the desert floor, alluvial fans strewn with rock islands called “inselbergs”, and gentle bajadas, where multiple canyons spill into aprons of juniper and cacti.

I make camp beneath a five-story granite slab at Hidden Valley, a former cattle-rustlers’ hideout in the park’s northwest quadrant. During the Gold Rush, this part of the Mojave was inhabited by horse thieves, gold miners, gunslingers, ranchers and pissed-off bands of Cahuilla Indians, all living at the margins of a pitiless landscape. It’s not hard to imagine how desperate things could get. By noon the sun is a sizzling coal and the air is beating infernally in my throat.

The National Park Service maintains several old mining trails in the park, and most are hike-able in a few hours. Stowing the cooler in the trunk, I head off for the Desert Queen Mine, five miles east. Without another driver in sight, I give in to the euphoria of open road, something that’s nearly impossible to do back home, screaming into sandy chicanes on what seem like little more than mule trails, spinning massive cones of dust behind me.

I can almost understand why there’s no trail marker. A prominent river wash seems the obvious way down. But it’s not until I hit the canyon bottom two hours later that I know for sure. A tangle of rust-red mining machinery lies in the sand, a few bent pipes and cracked gears. Is that a bed frame? A washtub? On the hill slopes, the fenced-in mine shafts are spaced every 50 yards or so, it seems. The stonework of an old tailing dam lies around the bend.

The stars themselves, I recall, are living fire. Dozing off, some seem to burn right through my tent flap.

The Desert Queen produced ample gold up until the 1890s, when it was claim-jumped by cattle rustlers known as the McHaney Gang, who drove it into the ground. Homesteaders Bill and Frances Keys took it over and ran it profitably until 1961, when it was back-filled and “puffed”, or capped, with the rest of the park’s mines.

On the hike out, bluebirds and western tanagers flit into view. Scott’s orioles — I hear their wingbeats first — and jet-black phainopeplas barnstorm through pinyon and juniper. The trail switchbacks up a sprawling boulder field, over granite outcrops whose circumference is impossible to gauge, but which seemed much smaller coming down. The temperature rises to full-bore devastating, pocking my skin and boiling the sweat right off of me. I’ve brought plenty of water, but by the time I see the KIA I’m almost on my knees, washed in dust. I inhale a beer, then another, squashing the impulse to dump them both over my head.

When I return to camp, a group of climbers is hooked into the wall above my tent. Night has fallen. I light a fire and watch the play of the climbers’ headlamps along the rocks, hear them whoop as one belays to the top. I’d forgotten that on nights like this the sky brims over with stars. The stars themselves, I recall, are living fire. Dozing off, some seem to burn right through my tent flap.

By noon the next day, I’m two gin-and-tonics deep into a five-cocktail lunch in Palm Springs, soaking my calves in a 104-degree hot tub. A 30-minute drive south of Joshua Tree, the Colony Palms Hotel has an Edenish quality, if Eden were populated by hedge-funders and preposterously white one-percenters. But it feels good to change gears after a desert ramble, to end my pilgrimage at this oasis. The shrimp cocktail and oysters taste strongly of decadence, just enough to restore the body without destroying the soul. Like a crown of thorns, my golden-barrel cactus has accompanied me the whole way, only once drawing blood.

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