By the end, we need a vacation to recover from our vacation. The trick has been to find the right place to do nothing — and to do it as slowly as possible.
The high desert is an annual escape for us, so we know the territory reasonably well. But there always turns out to be some undiscovered pleasures. Twentynine Palms, known mostly as the home of the largest U.S. Marine base or as the gateway to Joshua Tree National Park, is less chic (if that's the word) than nearby Joshua Tree. Like all desert towns, most of it is empty space.
Not far off the main drag is Roughley Manor, a bed and breakfast that looks like a stone mansion in Oxfordshire. There's something oddly appealing about the contrast between the harsh desert scrub and Roughley's lush 25 acres with a rose garden, gazebo and an owl nesting in the trees. Tea is served each evening.
The rooms, especially the suites, are spacious and well-appointed, with antiques and a style that strikes me as a cross between French country and Victorian. In much of the world, it's hard for us to afford a four-poster bed and sitting room, but here a suite goes for $160.
Jan and Gary Peters, the friendly but not intrusive owners, are among Roughley's best assets. After turning it over in 2003 to a couple who found innkeeping wasn't for them, the Peterses came back to Twentynine Palms last year. Their excellent breakfasts are among the reasons we were glad for their return.
At the better-known 29 Palms Inn, adobe bungalows more closely fit the desert oasis setting. Even if we're not staying there, we rely on its restaurant. The kitchen provides reasonably healthy preparation, with fresh vegetables (some grown on the grounds) and homemade bread. For some reason, the inn's parking lot is my ceremonial place to look up at the stars, breathe the air and be glad to be out of Los Angeles.
On our way into the desert in late April, a stop at the Crossroads Cafe, a laid-back place with one foot in the Mojave and the other in Silver Lake, settles our minds. The food isn't gourmet, but it's better than it needs to be, and the restaurant has a long list of beers, friendly service and an easygoing crowd.
That first night, after settling into our suite, we went for a quick hike in Joshua Tree National Park before the sun set, playing an obligatory Gram Parsons songs — the essence of California country-rock — as we drove. The wildflowers had peaked in April, but the desert floor was still colored with spiky purple bristles, bright red cactus flowers and tiny yellow poppy-like blooms. A cold front had moved through, and the temperature hovered in the 70s.
Saturday, we woke up far earlier than usual for a weekend and hiked most of the way up Mt. Ryan, which offered an amazing view of the park at sunrise. Sated by a breakfast of twice-baked potato with scrambled eggs and bacon in Roughley's dining room, we began the most transcendent, if least glamorous, part of the trip.
Instead of racing through museums or squeezing into crowded nightclubs, as we often spend weekends, we read (novels by the Swedish detective writer Henning Mankell) in the shade outside our inn. I blasted through my iPod headphones some new music I'd purchased (Schoenberg's "Transfigured Night," Sibelius' Symphony No. 5). Physically, I was in the dry, warm Mojave; mentally, I was in cool Northern Europe.
We put in as many hours of this as we were able.
Roughley's well-tended frontyard, with a Mediterranean fountain, made this easy. A row of enormous palm trees looms over couches and chairs and keeps the yard shady most of the day. The side and back areas, which soon will include a small pool and hot tub, are even more relaxing.
Things were livelier over at Pappy and Harriet's Pioneertown Palace, a locally famous high-desert outpost where anyone from Lucinda Williams to Calexico might drop in and play. A friend saw a Johnny Cash tribute band there recently, and it's hard to imagine a better spot for that. The bar collects shaggy bikers, crew-cut Marines, lots of desert rats in beards and cowboy hats and a few eavesdropping urbanites.
I called to ask about Saturday night's band. The hostess said, "They're great. They play everything" — which reminded me of "The Blues Brothers" scene in which a waitress describes the music at her bar: "Oh, we got both kinds. We got country and western."
If there's anything left in 2005 to the concept of the West, it's here in Pioneertown, a nearly abandoned, half-century-old film set on a piece of parched desert land. You reach it by driving half an hour down a winding road through largely empty hills. Today, the idea of Gene Autry or Roy Rogers making movies out there seems nearly as remote as the closing of the frontier.
The band we saw served up such standard fare as "Sweet Home Alabama" and "Born to Be Wild" interspersed with cries of "God bless America" and offers of "some Southern-fried rock 'n' roll for y'all." I have a sneaking suspicion that these good ol' boys are accountants during the week.