There's a contradiction built into how many of us travel — into the way I do, at least. My wife, Sara, and I typically schedule vacations when we're exhausted by our lives in Los Angeles. We head to new cities or countries — often places so rich with important and obligatory sites that our schedule is as unforgiving as any workweek. No matter how fast we move, we fear we're missing something.
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.
Pioneertown PalaceThings 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.
I doubt many go to Pappy and Harriet's strictly for the food. Still, as someone who experiences L.A.'s near-vegetarian tendencies as a type of purgatory, I found this place to be red-meat heaven. "Our tender meat is smoked and grilled over our outdoor mesquite fire," the menu says. Unable to decide between the baby back ribs and the beef tri-tip, I ordered a platter with both and was glad not to have had to take sides on the matter.
After checking out Sunday, we hit a kitschy shop called Spin and Margie's Trading Post, run by two city slickers transplanted to Joshua Tree. It sells an array of hip books, retro signs and funky crafts. There are some fine antiques shops around too, especially in Yucca Valley, and we tramped through a few, appraising their out-of-print books, used ice skates and 1930s grandfather clocks. I love wondering about the origins of such objects.
Our last major stop was the Pioneer Bowl. This is one of the oldest bowling alleys in the country: Roy Rogers threw out the first ball in 1947, and little has changed since. The staff dresses in period garb, antique pinball machines ping away in a back room, and charmingly goofy murals from the '40s are on the wall beside the lanes. We just missed a cowboy reenactment outside.
Thanks to all the Wild West atmosphere, I logged what may have been an all-time low score.
We could have spent a lot more time bowling and could have killed several hours at the cool and relaxing Water Canyon Coffee Co., on Yucca Valley's main drag. Sara is a cappuccino fiend, so this brief stop was essential, and it allowed us to postpone our reluctant return home.
We would have liked to have done more hiking; there are huge regions of the park I've never seen. This wasn't our first trip out here, and it won't be the last. But it may be the only one from which we didn't return lobster red.
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Pioneers at the inn
Expenses for two on this trip:
Roughley Manor, two nights in a suite with tax $349Meals
Crossroads Cafe, dinner and lunch $4429 Palms Inn, dinner and lunch $95Pappy and Harriet's, dinner $61Water Canyon Coffee Co. $15Entertainment
Pioneer Bowl $10National Park entrance fee $10
Distance from L.A. 140 miles
WHERE TO STAY:
Roughley Manor, 74744 Joe Davis Road, Twentynine Palms; (760) 367-3238, roughleymanor.com. Variety of rooms in the 1928 farmhouse, barn and cottages. Doubles $135-$150; suites, $160. Breakfast and tea with dessert included.
WHERE TO EAT:
Crossroads Cafe and Tavern, 61715 Twentynine Palms Highway, Joshua Tree; (760) 366-5414, crossroadscafeandtavern.com. Relaxed, colorful place for coffee, beer or food. Salads, sandwiches $5-$10.
29 Palms Inn, 73950 Inn Ave., Twentynine Palms; (760) 367-3505, 29palmsinn.com. Casual décor, including seating outside around the pool. Entrees $14-$23; salads and pastas less. Inn has 23 rooms, cottages and bungalows, $50-$295.
Pappy and Harriet's, 53688 Pioneertown Road, Pioneertown; (760) 365-5956, pappyandharriets.com. Ribs, steaks and chicken in Wild West-saloon setting. Entrees $13-$25, sandwiches less. Upcoming shows: Bluesman Leon Russell tonight. Honky-tonk songwriter Mike Stinson, June 3. Americana songstress Rosie Flores, June 4.
WHERE TO PLAY:
Joshua Tree National Park, nps.gov/jotr. With almost 800,000 acres, there's room to roam. Our favorite hikes are Mt. Ryan, Indian Cove and 49 Palms Oasis; maps and directions are at the entrance station. $10 entrance fee per car is good for a week.
Pioneer Bowl, 53613 Mane St., Pioneertown; (760) 365-3615. Bowling as time warp. Open weekends only, 11 a.m.-7 p.m. Information about it and other Pioneertown sites, pioneertown.com.
Spin and Margie's Trading Post, 61731 Twentynine Palms Highway, Joshua Tree; (760) 366-3195, deserthideaway.com. Kitschy gift shop next door to a hotel with four suites.
Pioneer Crossing Antiques, 55854 Twentynine Palms Highway, Yucca Valley; (760) 228-0603. The best and largest of the antiques shops we visited.
— Scott TimbergCopyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times