Remake of the Old West

E. S. Bentley is a freelance writer who lives in Santa Monica.

Buzz Gamble made his way down from the sawtooth mountains, across the wash and onto the dusty cattle path that ran from Big Bear down to the Morongo Basin. Dried out and craggy, Gamble's face wasn't so different from the desert around him. He had spent the last few months hiding out in the remote wilderness, tending a crop of high-grade marijuana.

"Everything came off," he recalls. "Everything went well. And I had done my part . . . I had an old beat-up horse named Buck. It was snowing and I was freezing. Had about six kilos of sinsemilla on my back. Didn't have a dollar to my name." Winter was falling sharp and hard, and the nearest town was still a long ride off. Or so Gamble thought before the blurry outlines of an old Western settlement came into view through the snow.

As he got closer, the town began to look more like something out of an old cowboy movie: weathered brown timber and rickety porches, all with hitching posts. He was pretty sure he hadn't smoked or dropped or shot up.

Not today. Not yet.

He rode down the main street, past a shooting gallery, the sheriff's office and jail, a general store and a saloon. He tied up Buck at the post office and climbed the steps. Inside, he met Fran Aleba, the town's saucy saloonkeeper. She offered to rent him a tiny shack next to an enclosure labeled the "OK Corral." The next day she brought him a cot and a wood-burning stove.

That was in 1976. The place he had stumbled upon was Pioneertown, a tiny desert community about 120 miles east of Los Angeles that was built in 1946 as a permanent location for Western movies. Gene Autry, Roy Rogers and Russell Hayden all rode the celluloid range around here. Rent their movies and see the scene in grainy black and white: the same Sawtooth Mountains, the same General Store, the same Likker Barn.

As a movie set, the place fizzled after nine years. But the buildings left behind have become home to some 275 flinty souls who, like Gamble, happened upon the place and never left. Today Pioneertown may represent a postmodern simulacrum: Intended as a copy of the long lost Wild West, it has over time become the reality. It attracts new pioneers, those drawn to simplicity, open spaces and that mythic allure of the Old West.

My first trip to Pioneertown, in 1994, was for the clean air. And after the air, I went to clear my head, and then to get work done or to get away from the phone, or just to get away. I've told myself a lot of things over the years as I feverishly throw groceries into my trunk, fill the tank and aim for the long, straight 10 Freeway out of L.A.

But recently I've started to wonder if the reason I love Pioneertown is simply the enduring promise implicit in its dusty streets and pristine horizon--the freedom to reinvent myself, to become my very own kind of cowboy. Just look at Gamble. He hobbled into town as an ex-con with dope-stuffed saddlebags. Today he's one of Pioneertown's leading citizens--drug and prison free since '97.

Gamble and I sit by the fire sipping hot cider. Outside the desert night is so black that I couldn't find his door without my headlights. Gamble's home is a generous one, built by an original Pioneertown settler, movie extra Cactus Kate. Twenty-three years in prison left Gamble with a nose like a car wreck, though it's been broken just three times. A down-home racounteur, Gamble spins stories that conjure a world where armed robbery and drug-addled frenzies are about as remarkable as doing laundry.

The first time I met him, he was singing at the local saloon, Pappy and Harriet's Pioneertown Palace. He sings the blues with his eyes shut and his clenched hands smashing at the air. There is something familiar about him, almost reassuring, as though I met him a long time ago. And, in a sense, I did. The outlaw-made-good, with the taste of the bad still in his throat, Gamble is an archetypal character from the dozens of old Westerns that seep together to form my movie memory.

When Gamble muses about how he got to the hills above Pioneertown in the first place, it's as if he's adhering to every rule of the Western movie genre. The fire crackles, our cider's almost gone, and Gamble's voice scratches along with a wizened knowingness:

"Yeah. Armed robbery. Stupid thing. I did a stitch of time on that and when I got outta that I came out here cause I didn't know anybody here. I did one of those things where you lay the map out on the bed and pick a spot."

It's one of those things outlaws do in the movies.

"the mustard gas in world war I, that's what brought some of the first people out," says Ernie Kester, referring to people who settled the area before the birth of Pioneertown. "Suppose you came back from the war and the doctor told you you'd get 10 more years if you moved here?"

Kester and his wife, Carole, are at their kitchen table, which doubles as the front desk of the Pioneertown Motel. As usual, a number of neighbors have dropped in to gab. Carole's taking reservations on the cordless, smoke spiraling off the Misty 100 in her free hand. Speckled enamel cookware lines the back of the stove and a large Mr. Coffee burbles in the background. The Kesters' hospitality is efficient and matter-of-fact. They smile only when there's a reason to.

This morning, one neighbor has stopped by with a box of Krispy Kremes imported from San Diego. The doughnuts fly out of the box amid questions about the mustard gas settlement:

"You mean that cement thing?"

"Off Pipes Canyon Road?"

"Nah, wasn't that a nudist colony?" asks Gary Suppes, a local leather tooler and saddle maker. He's got a rambling beard and his voice is a deep, slow warble. He recalls that there was a nudist colony in the area in the 1920s or '30s, then decides that the cement thing was actually a TB sanitarium.

The movie town was yet one more vision for this spot of barren desert. Ernie pulls a Saturday Evening Post from January 1950 out of its plastic protective sleeve. The lively story details the construction of a movie location with a difference: Instead of false fronts built to be destroyed, Pioneertown's facades had functioning buildings behind them. Constructed of railroad ties and mortar, the exterior of Ernie's motel, for example, resembled a fort, while its interior could house actors and production crews. Studios could save thousands by not having to film in remote locations. Investors included comedian Bud Abbott, columnist Louella Parsons and early movie villain Dick Curtis.

The Post is upbeat about the town's prospects. But by the mid-1950s, the Pioneertown Corp. had failed to attract enough production to survive. The loan that bankrolled the town was bought and foreclosed on by Fletcher Jones and Bill Murphy, two of Southern California's biggest car dealers.

Wander out of Pioneertown in any direction and pretty soon you're hiking in pristine desert. The air is lighter than the dense stuff breathed in L.A., and the space between the earth and the clouds stretches wider. It's so dry that your skin pulls hard across your cheekbones and you feel your face when you smile. Nothing much grows here but scrub and Joshuas. The wind really whistles, the coyotes really howl, and the smell is immaculate. It's so dry almost nothing can live, so there's nothing to die and rot and stink. The perpetual freshness and unchanging vistas ignite a sort of freedom in the mind. It can be liberating, inspiring, even intoxicating.

When Skip first saw the primeval stretch of land that lay off a dirt road called Devil's Gate, he was swept away. "I had this vision of this place I wanted to create where people come together in love and harmony."

After getting his dad to buy 640 acres for him, Skip changed the name of the road to "God's Way, Love" and put up a tepee. Eighteen years later, the tepee's been winterized and is surrounded by a meditation garden, complete with koi pond, raised flower beds and a sauna. All kinds of "spiritual" events happen here, including a full-moon drumming circle and Japanese butoh dancing on boulders to greet the sunrise. Skip doesn't like to be boxed in by any particular tradition. "It's just a thing thing. It's not really any particular thing."

The winter sun casts a cold light on Skip's retreat as his two peacocks, Pharaoh and Pharaoh II, fan their plumage between us. Behind him a large jar marked "donations" sits on the counter of an outdoor kitchen that is capable of feeding groups of 30. Skip is explaining why he doesn't want me to use his real name if I write about him: It could attract a lot of people. We agree I'll call him Skip, and he leans back and intertwines his thick fingers behind his head. An expansive grin spreads across his face. Changing his name won't do much good though, he sighs. Everyone around here knows who he is. But it's OK, he guesses, if I write about him anyway.

Sean Berne doesn't know Skip, but he isn't surprised to learn that he spent five years wandering the continent in bare feet with nothing but a begging bowl before the "spirit" led him out to Devil's Gate. This area "is pretty metaphysical," Berne says. "In the high desert there's a higher degree of supernatural occurrence . . . . It's another aspect of being out here. I don't know if we're more susceptible to that kind of thing because we're more isolated or if there's less of a human energy dispelling things like that." Berne shakes his head at the spookiness of it all as he gazes out at the huge open sky beyond the ranger station where he works. "There are so many stories out here. There are so many stories."

Berne's job is to look after some 36,000 acres owned by the Wildlands Conservancy, a private nonprofit organization that started as the Pioneertown Mountains Conservancy eight years ago to preserve unique sites. A burly guy in early middle age, Berne wears a uniform and enforces rules, something new in a community that has never been incorporated and thus never had anyone stopping locals from shooting guns or telling them where they can ride dirt bikes.

"There was a lot of gunplay," Berne remembers. "About a mile up from here, we'd hear an automatic weapon up there every weekend." Some people don't like the new rules, others welcome them, figuring a little less shooting is the price of progress.

At first, Berne's wife and kids weren't so excited about moving to Pioneertown, but the desert worked its magic and it has grown on them. Berne has seen others transformed. "People, when they move out here from Los Angeles, at first they'll be making lots of trips . . . and then over the years they're going down there less and less [until] they get to the point where it just seems like some sort of an excursion into an insane asylum, basically."

Somewhere around Redlands, that's where Berne starts to feel the craziness, and it only gets more intense as he closes in on downtown, where it's overwhelming and he can see it in people's eyes as they swerve around him, their heads cranked forward, working phones, making time, getting things done, getting ahead.

I'm taking a hike when I stumble on Madelyn Beatty's place. Dozens of dogs splay themselves against her fence growling as I hustle by. Car carcasses are visible beyond the dogs and, in the distance, a horse. Rim Rock Jack, the caretaker of a cabin I sometimes rent, had told me to steer clear. Beatty likes her solitude, and she has a gun. On the other hand, she knows Pioneertown best. She's been here since the beginning.

When Beatty came to work on the Westerns in 1948, Mane Street was a stretch of cattle trail, horses could ride right up to the bar in the Golden Stallion Saloon, and part of her job description was chasing cows out of the way so that Gene Autry's plane could land. Back then Beatty also ferried "movie people" down to Yucca Valley to find a telephone.

Today you still need to go down there to find a lot of things and, if you ask Beatty, it's too bad the phones made their way up the hill. "Most of the people who came up here had been in the movies and they'd had enough of 'down below,' as they called it . . . .They wanted to get away from things. From the whole thing." Fifty-five years later, the "whole thing" is still well at bay. The lava flow of asphalt that has covered most of Southern California stopped well short of Pioneertown, and life here isn't so different from the life acted out in those Western movies.

After the movie business failed, a huge resort, the Golden Empire, was to be built in the area. Its brochures promised a 1,200-unit apartment complex, three lakes and a golf course, as well as several shopping areas. But when sound waves and drilling failed to find water, the resort plan blew away--and took Pioneertown's growth potential with it.

"Thank God for the lack of water," Suppes says. "It saved this place."

"Saved" is not the word Bob and Nita Vick would use. The Vicks are real estate agents who, over the decades, parcel by parcel, have slowly sold off a huge portion of the land Jones and Murphy obtained. Working out of a home office on Pipes Canyon Road, about a five-minute drive from the town, the Vicks look out at the same vista Gamble staggered through on his way into town. Bob points out the picture window at roadrunners skittering across the driveway. Flattops loom in the middle distance. They talk about water.

They wanted a tiny lawn, which meant drilling a second well. The driller bored to 300 feet--the depth of their existing well. No luck. He kept boring. Finally, at 600 feet, he found a small flow, just enough to support the little patch of green.

Year by year, the area's water table falls. Recently, high levels of arsenic were found in wells, and San Bernardino County posted notices warning people not to drink the water unless it is treated. In 2006, stricter new EPA drinking water standards will take effect, putting the arsenic levels at Pioneertown under even more scrutiny.

Bob recalls seeing a warning on water several years before. "You see the county put a notice on the Post Office wall that said if you drink two liters a day for 70 years, you will get cancer."

"No, No," Nita says. "It said a percentage would. Ten percent."

Their eyes meet. Bob turns back to me. "When you get old, 10% of the people are gonna have cancer anyway. Or something. So what's the difference?" The water situation, Bob concludes, is largely psychological.

It's early evening on New Year's Eve. An out-of-towner sits down at the bar of Pappy and Harriet's and orders a martini. The bartender fumbles around in a show of searching, only to return to the martini drinker empty-handed. There's no vermouth. "This is a whiskey kind of place."

At the end of the bar, Gamble's mother crouches over squares of paper towels she's rolling around silverware in preparation for a big night. My 2-year-old son points to a stuffed moose on a beam and cries "Moose! Moose!" to the delight of other patrons. Gamble's mom gives me a wicked smile. "Wait till he wrecks your car."

Rim Rock Jack saunters in and orders a Holy Water. More whiskey appears. Gamble's girlfriend swings by and admires the hat band around Jack's 10-gallon, which he got after drifting into town a dozen years ago. Jack is one of Pioneertown's most convincing cowboys, but the truth is, he's from Queens. So maybe there's hope for someone like me, someone who'd be happy leaving the cell phone and the Palm Pilot behind to take on a moniker like Rim Rock Jack, Horse Shoe Freddy or Cactus Kate.

When I use the term "movie cowboys," Madelyn Beatty looks at me quizzically. Her long gray braids sway slightly and her tri-toned running shoes tap the floor. Just what, she wants to know, do I think the difference is between movie cowboys and real cowboys?

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