LYING LOW IN THE DESERT

TIMES TRAVEL WRITER

You never know what's going to turn up in the desert.

I'm not just talking about the cactuses and jumbled boulders of Joshua Tree National Park, though they seduce rock climbers by the thousands and were part of what motivated me to make the 150-mile drive here from L.A. The weirdness of the desert was an attraction too, from the local radio ads for a mail-order "herbal breast enhancement" formula to the horse hitched to a post at the Joshua Tree gas station.

But this trip was driven mostly by curiosity about another novelty: the growing crop of offbeat lodgings in the park-adjacent communities of Joshua Tree and Twentynine Palms. This group includes the Mojave Rock Ranch Cabins, a series of four kitschy, two-bedroom ranchito homes on an isolated mesa; the Villa dei Fiori, a flower-festooned and fastidiously kept house with its own adjacent cave; and Rosebud Ruby Star, an artsy B&B; with two rooms, a separate bungalow and resident horse and mule.

That's not to say there's another Palm Springs rising here. Joshua Tree park attendance has been relatively flat since 1994, hovering between 1.1 million and 1.4 million a year. During the hot, slow summer months, traffic is light enough on the park's main road that coyotes can stroll at dusk with impunity. The combined population of Twentynine Palms and Joshua Tree, though growing, remains just 25,000 to 30,000. Innkeepers say most visitors to the area are inclined toward spartan hotels or camping.

The new innkeepers are counting on those visitors with a more platonic admiration for the desert: They love it, but don't need to sleep with it.

In my tour of the offbeat lodgings, I stayed two nights at the self-catering Villa dei Fiori, spent another night at the Rosebud Ruby Star Bed & Breakfast and inspected the Mojave Rock Ranch Cabins inside and out.

The Mojave Rock cabins, which lie about eight miles from the park's west entrance across a dry lake bed, are the most striking of the bunch. The owners, landscape designers Troy Williams and Gino Dreese, decamped from Los Angeles in 1996 and began with a single rental house, known as the Ranch. Since then they have begun buying, overhauling and renting out neighboring residences in their quiet corner of the desert.

Now their territory covers more than 100 acres and holds four rental houses in the Gene-Autry-meets-Simon-Rodia school of design: the Ranch, the Bungalow (opened in 1997), the Homesteader (1998) and the Casita (1999). Each house has two bedrooms, kitchen and one bath, comfortably sleeping two couples or one family.

Each also features a tiny rooftop satellite dish and small TV set. To compensate for the absence of a swimming pool, each cabin's garden includes a "cowboy spa"--an aluminum horse trough about the shape and depth of a bathtub. Pets are forbidden inside, but each house has a dog run.

As word has spread about the places, rates have climbed; they now run $275 to $325 per night, fairly stiff in a territory where houses routinely sell for less than $60,000.

From their rich cactus and succulent gardens to the stamp collections lacquered onto kitchen counters to the California flag doing duty as bedroom drapes, the houses are as full of playful, bold strokes as the windows are full of broad desert vistas. Clearly, the setting appeals to those with a flair for the dramatic: The proprietors say that close to 90% of the ranch's guests work in the entertainment industry.

Nestled on a hillside about two minutes' drive from the park's west entrance, the Rosebud Ruby Star Bed & Breakfast is the brainchild of aspiring artist and Ohio transplant Sandy Rosen. It consists of two small guest rooms (with private baths, vivid palettes and their own patio doors) attached to Rosen's Santa Fe-style home. After buying in 1998, Rosen took in her first guests in spring 1999.

There's no pool on the five-acre lot, but there is the diversion of Rosen's horse and mule, which occupy an enclosure that once was a tennis court. The innkeeper serves a fine breakfast on the patio--coffee, juice, fruit, French toast, bacon and potatoes. Rates run $140 per room per night, double occupancy.

There's also a third choice on the property: the B'iltmore Bunkhouse, a small, free-standing homesteader's cabin with kitchenette ($152 nightly) and a low-ceilinged upstairs sleeping loft that can accommodate two kids or a second couple ($193 takes all).

Villa dei Fiori is Dale Allan Pelton's fittingly elegant name for the three-bedroom, one-bathroom home he keeps in the shadows at the edge of the national park's west end. Pelton, a film industry art director, has been quietly renting out the home for about nine years and just completed an interior redecoration.

It's a gorgeous place, with wine-red and orange walls, original artworks, a hefty library of art, design and gardening books, four vine-draped pergolas and a boulder-strewn backyard, with its own fire pit and cave.

Anyone who stays there will have to abide by Pelton's high standards of tidiness.

"If you remove a book from the shelf, be certain to return it to the same position so that the library may remain organized," says a notice taped to the shelf. It adds that guests should keep the book spines aligned on the shelf's front edge "so that air may circulate behind them."

On the inside doors of the kitchen cabinets, Polaroid photos offer a model of how the dishes should be arranged. And despite rates of $175 to $225 nightly, guests are asked to pack out their own garbage.

Children are allowed at Villa dei Fiori, but I'd argue against bringing them. Even with that boulder cave out back, this house is really a playground for well-behaved grown-ups.

The desert has always harbored a substantial population of creative, rebellious types. That history shows up in a fascinating collection of old haunts in Joshua Tree and, about 15 miles east, in Twentynine Palms.

Most prominent, though it's a couple of blocks removed from the main highway, is the 29 Palms Inn. Its colorful collection of 21 rooms and cottages has huddled on 70 acres around an oasis since 1928. The inn's restaurant, which stands next to a small but highly enticing swimming pool, has long been the best bet for dinner in the area.

For decades, the inn has been known for its oasis location, the privacy it affords and its jaunty attitude: "We discourage misery and offer alternatives," says the wooden sign by the entrance. There are no phones in the rooms. To discourage media dependency, the televisions are small black-and-whites.

In 1999 the inn added a new unit: Irene's Adobe, a roomy residence that dates to the 1930s and features its own walled-in yard. The priciest of the 19 rooms and two houses on the inn property, Irene's Adobe rents for $210 to $285, depending on the season and day of the week.

Another nearby landmark is the Joshua Tree Inn, a low-key 10-room hotel with pool. Rock musician Gram Parsons died of a drug overdose in 1973 in Room 8, which rents for $65 to $125, depending on the day and season. If you get into the room, notice the collection of guitar picks tucked into one picture frame by previous pilgrims. (Last year, the inn's proprietors also started managing three self-catering rental cottages in Joshua Tree, at rates ranging from $195 to $225 a night.)

The area's other pop music pilgrimage point is the Harmony Motel near Twentynine Palms, a rough-edged budget spot where the rock band U2 stayed while making its "Joshua Tree" album in 1987. The good news there is that rates are $45 a night, double occupancy, with a pool, along with in-room refrigerators and some kitchenettes. But the place has a $45-a-night atmosphere, and the room I inspected, No. 3, still carried a whiff of cigarette smoke.

(If you'd rather have the comfort of a familiar chain name, you'll find a Motel 6 and a Best Western in Twentynine Palms.)

The Roughley Manor Bed and Breakfast Inn, a 1920s stone mansion in Twentynine Palms, houses some show biz history that's a bit less edgy: Owners Gary and Jan Peters report that the home's second owner was Allie Wrubel, co-writer of "Zip-a-Dee-Doo-Dah," and that a big rug downstairs was knitted by Broadway's Fanny Brice. This month, the Peterses expect to complete the conversion of five upstairs guest rooms into two suites (each with two bedrooms and one bath). The suites will rent for $125 nightly, the same rate as the four free-standing cottages on the 25-acre property.

If you stuffed $500 in my hands and ordered me to have a great weekend out here, I'd choose the Mojave Rock Ranch (if I had a group along and we wanted to cook for ourselves) or the 29 Palms Inn.

In the same spirit that seems to be motivating hoteliers, several restaurants have recently arrived or revamped themselves.

Among the arrivals is the citified, sophisticated Bella Rouge Bakery and Bistro, which opened in late 1999 in Twentynine Palms. There's also the Crossroads Cafe & Tavern (blue-sky fresco on the ceiling and national park employees frequently among the diners), which opened in January in downtown Joshua Tree. Stopping in on a Monday evening, open-mike night, I got a hearty dinner and a pleasant neighborly view of a few part-time bohemians come to commune with their guitars and conga drums.

A few blocks away, there's also the new Jeremy's Beatnik Cafe, whose proprietor is not Jeremy, who ran it for years. It was sold in June to Lowell Kaufman, who moved here from Oakland with plans to offer Internet access and stage frequent live music. He kept Jeremy's name, he said, because it seems to be widely known among young European backpackers, who frequently make a Mojave foray part of a larger exploration of Los Angeles, Las Vegas and the Grand Canyon.

I caught a charming Tuesday-night performance at Jeremy's by the Barbers, a Texas-based husband and wife who perform mostly original compositions. While I sipped a fresh-squeezed apple juice (a bit pricey at $4, but cold and tangy), the Barbers held forth on guitar, antique pump organ and harp. (Elaine Barber plays the same harp for the Austin Symphony.)

"We went out driving amongst the rocks today," singer-guitarist Lee Barber drawled between numbers, addressing a crowd of about a dozen. "Fairly odd out there."

I began my rounds of all these places about noon on a warm September Monday and took to a strategy that lasted most of the week: By day I usually kept to my car and the insides of cool buildings. (Want a sure-fire conversation-starter? Ask a local about the merits of swamp coolers versus air conditioners.) Around sunrise and sunset, I hiked and scrambled around rocks.

But for the Desert Queen Ranch, I made an exception.

The Desert Queen is just off the beaten path, not far from the dangling rock climbers on the boulders in Hidden Valley. Though it hasn't become as famous as Scotty's Castle, its counterpart in Death Valley, the place carries just as many odd historical echoes. Access is limited because of the ramshackle site's delicate condition, but since 1976 rangers have led tours from October through May.

By disclosing my journalistic mission, I wrangled a private tour from ranger Laureen Lentz, who drove me out the sandy dirt road to the old ranch and outlined the long, strange life of William Keys, crotchety pioneer.

Born in Russia, raised in Nebraska and friendly with Death Valley miner Walter Scott, Keys acquired the 160-acre ranch site in 1917 at age 38. After marrying the following year, he and his wife, Frances, raised five children in the remote desert, scraping together a living by mining and serving as landlords and provisioners to other miners.

The site today is full of Keys' improvised solutions to desert challenges--from a homemade dam to the old bedsprings used to strengthen concrete walls. The property features a schoolhouse, an old Ford and countless bits of iron and steel that Keys used for irrigation or mining.

The remarkable thing about the Keys family's pioneering is that it happened so recently. The ranch didn't begin until World War I was mostly done, and the boldest of Keys' exploits--when he killed rival settler Worth Bagley in a shootout over property rights--didn't happen until 1943. Keys was 64 when the shootout took place and served five years in prison before being paroled and pardoned. He returned to the ranch for 20 more years.

My favorite artifact on the tour was a tombstone Keys made to mark the spot where Bagley died--or, to use the phrase Key scratched onto the stone, the spot where Bagley "bit the dust."

On my last full day in the desert, I headed out into the flatlands several miles from the park's western entrance to the open-air studio of Noah Purifoy, a place glimmering like a plumbing supply salesman's hallucination.

Purifoy, now 83, has filled most of his spread with art installations. Here, a circle of reclaimed toilets; there, a row of bowling balls on strings. Beyond, constructions of cigar boxes, dice, a tuba.

To the uninitiated it may look like junk, but Purifoy's work can be found at the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York.

Visitors turn up regularly, and are usually given free reign to wander the property. (Purifoy asks that visitors call his associate Sue Welch at [213] 382-7516 before coming.)

The artist moved to the desert from Los Angeles 10 years ago, because, he said, he "wanted to do an 'earth piece.' "

The piece is an untitled landscape of white walls, bridge and trenches. Purifoy still hasn't decided what to call it or "what we want it to do." But he likes the way it looks, mysteriously baking out here in the sun and the dust, adding a dash of human idiosyncrasy to the natural wonder all around.

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GUIDEBOOK

Enjoying Joshua Tree and Twentynine Palms

Getting there: Joshua Tree National Park is 150 miles east of Los Angeles via Interstate 10 and California 62, about a 3 1/2-hour drive.

Where to stay: Mojave Rock Ranch Cabins, P.O. Box 552, Joshua Tree, CA 92252; telephone (760) 366-8455, fax (760) 366-1996, Internet http://www.mojaverockranch.com. Each of four houses has two bedrooms and one bath. No pool. Rates: $275 to $325.

Rosebud Ruby Star, P.O. Box 1116, Joshua Tree, CA 92252-0800; tel. (760) 366-4676 or (877) 887-7370, Internet http://www.rosebudrubystar.com. A two-room bed-and-breakfast attached to the home of the innkeeper. Rate: $140 double, with private bath. Two-night minimum on weekends. No pool. Also on property is the B'iltmore Bunkhouse, cabin with kitchenette; $152 nightly, or $193 nightly with the upstairs sleeping loft.

29 Palms Inn, 73950 Inn Ave., Twentynine Palms, CA 92277; tel. (760) 367-3505, fax (760) 367-4425, Internet http://www.29palmsinn.com. Nineteen rooms and two houses on site. Pool. Rates: $75 to $285. (The one-bedroom Irene's Adobe runs $210 to $285.) Well-regarded restaurant serves lunch, dinner and Sunday brunch. Dinner main courses $11 to $18.

Villa dei Fiori, c/o 5900 Whitworth Drive, Los Angeles, CA 90019-2401; tel./fax (323) 939-2200, Internet http://www.joshua-tree.com/villa. Three-bedroom, one-bathroom home with kitchen. No pool. Rates: $225 nightly for weekends; weekday rates vary. Two-night minimum.

Joshua Tree Inn, 61259 Twentynine Palms Highway, Joshua Tree, CA 92252; tel. (760) 366-1188 or (800) 366-1444, fax (760) 366-3805, Internet http://www.joshuatreeinn.com. Ten rooms, breakfast room and pool. Rates: $65 to $225 nightly.

Roughley Manor Bed and Breakfast Inn, 74744 Joe Davis Drive, Twentynine Palms, CA 92277; tel. (760) 367-3238, fax (760) 367-4483, Internet http://www.virtual29.com/themanor. Four free-standing cottages and two upstairs rooms. No pool. Rate: $125 nightly.

Where to eat: Crossroads Cafe & Tavern, 61715 Twentynine Palms Highway, Joshua Tree; local tel. 366-5414. Serves breakfast, lunch and dinner with fare leaning to sandwiches and salads; prices $6.25 or less.

Jeremy's Beatnik Cafe, 61597 Twentynine Palms Highway, Joshua Tree; tel. 366-9799. Sandwiches, salads, fresh-squeezed apple juice and Internet access; prices $7.50 or less.

Bella Rouge, 73527 Twentynine Palms Highway, Twentynine Palms; tel. 361-1148. Serves sophisticated breakfasts and lunches--from brie and chive omelets to asparagus and tomato bruschetta. Open Wednesdays through Sundays. Prices $7.25 or less.

Park Center Cafe, 6554 Park Blvd., Joshua Tree; tel. 366-3622. Offers breakfast, soups, salads, sandwiches and packed lunches from 6:30 a.m. to 5 p.m. Prices $10 or less.

To see the Desert Queen Ranch: From October through May, 90-minute tours are offered at 10 a.m. and 1 p.m. weekdays, 10 a.m., 1 p.m. and 3 p.m. weekends. Cost is $5 adults, $2.50 for children 6-11. Reservations recommended; tel. (760) 367-5555.

For more information: Joshua Tree National Park, 74485 National Park Drive, Twentynine Palms, CA 92277-3597; tel. (760) 367-5500 or (760) 367-6392, Internet http://www.nps.gov/jotr. Joshua Tree Chamber of Commerce, 61325 Twentynine Palms Highway, Joshua Tree, CA 92252; tel. (760) 366-3723, fax (760) 366-2573. Twentynine Palms Chamber of Commerce, 6455 Mesquite Ave., Suite A, Twentynine Palms, CA 92277; tel. (760) 367-3445, fax (760) 367-3366, Internet http://www.29chamber.com.

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