Chasing musical legends in Joshua Tree National Park
Typically, we go to the desert at least once a year. We love the expansive space, several of the inns and restaurants and, of course, the otherworldly foliage of Joshua Tree National Park. We also enjoy the musical legacy of Gram Parsons, the former Byrd who overdosed in Joshua Tree in 1973, at age 26, after virtually inventing the alt-country movement that would blossom two decades later. We feel these echoes and others — the twangy music, the land’s natural contours, the local cuisine — when we’re there.
But this year, my wife, Sara — a former music journalist — and I had one complication: our eager but mischievous son. Ian is no more difficult than the typical 3-year-old boy, but he loves life so unambiguously that he can be hard to corral. Traveling with a toddler is a whole different ballgame: We figured some things would be better, some things worse, but we didn’t know quite how it would all work out.
Well, we said, here we go.
The drive to the high desert was already different: Ian demanded that we play Buddy Holly songs almost the entire way. But he got into the spirit of the excursion, singing harmony with Parsons on the Byrds’ yearning “Hickory Wind,” admiring the windmills off the 10 and laughing his head off at deliberately unfunny knock-knock jokes. (“Who’s there?” “Ian.” “Ian who?” “Ian yellow black!!” Laughter.)
We had booked at the 29 Palms Inn, known for its relaxing vibe and the privacy offered by its guest houses and adobe bungalows. Its restaurant — unlikely to dethrone Lucques or Mozza but offering fresh food and a full bar — is also convenient in an area where the wide-open spaces leave you miles from anything but a gas station and a stretch of asphalt. And as much as we love our son, we weren’t quite willing to visit the high-desert equivalent of a Chuck E. Cheese’s.
After checking in, we rushed out for a quick hike in the park. We were pleased to see that the winter’s heavy rains had coaxed out the wildflowers and held back the infernal heat. As we drove in, the ranger handed us a junior ranger guide, full of things for Ian to look at and color. He has learned about the desert in kids’ books on the Sahara, so he can tell you the difference between a Bactrian and a Dromedary camel, a skill not terribly useful in Southern California.
Hiking with Ian through the cacti and looming rocks turned out to be both challenging and a blast. He’s still young enough to ride on my back, which is in some ways easier. But we wanted him to get some exercise.
While hiking happily near Barker Dam, we heard a blood-curdling scream. Ian was a few feet behind us, crying, cowering and pointing at a long black snake that turned out to be … a tree root. The desert ended up being much more perilous and exciting through the eyes of a 3-year-old.
By our next hike, near the aptly named Skull Rock, Ian had become more unshakeable. “Snakes, camels and coyotes … we’re keeping our eyes peeled for snakes, camels and coyotes!” For a while he was making a strange sound — he called it his “honk-whistle” — to attract them. After we pointed out that animals are more likely to come out when it’s quiet, he spent the rest of the hike shushing us.
We had dinner at the Crossroads Café in Joshua Tree, a casual, friendly hangout with healthy sandwiches and beer on tap. Ian was welcome here and offered milk with Ghirardelli chocolate. Afterward, I played a little guitar on the cabin’s porch without, from what I could tell, waking the neighbors, and we went to sleep. So far, I thought, looking up at the startlingly bright desert stars, so good.
The next day was carved out for Pioneertown, an Old West village built in the ‘40s, in part with money from Roy Rogers, that became a set for Hollywood westerns and “The Gene Autry Show.” Some of the area burned in 2006 during the Sawtooth fire, but the village survived, and we looked forward to the old-school bowling alley and Pappy & Harriet’s Pioneertown Palace, a country music-oriented restaurant with memorable baby back ribs. I’d also made a vague appointment to check out a musician-run ranch.
I did not schedule any of this very rigorously — perhaps I was trying for a laid-back, California-desert frame of mind — figuring the day would fall into place. That’s the way a vacation is supposed to work, isn’t it?
But the cool coffee shop — Water Canyon, which we think of as the gateway to Pioneertown — had recently closed. The bowling alley, it turned out, isn’t open during the week. And Pappy & Harriet’s is closed Tuesdays and Wednesdays.
The great old buildings, of course, were still there — Ian got a kick out of posing in front of the town jail in his cowboy hat and a villainous scowl — and I checked out the modest and affordable Pioneertown Inn, which just had reopened in late March. But aside from acres of parched sand and a few people sitting and gossiping in the hot sun outside the bowling alley, there wasn’t much going on.
The wood-smoked ribs I’d been looking forward to at Pappy & Harriet’s disappeared from my imagination. And I hadn’t heard back from the manager at Rimrock Ranch, the funky complex of cabins I was hoping to check out. Flaky musicians! I said to myself. But I knew the bad planning was my own.
A second chance
I was pretty discouraged when we drove back to the inn. I had dragged my wife and son to a literal and figurative ghost town. As consolation, I told Sara we would pull over at the next stop promising lattes or cappuccinos (the only surefire way I know to talk my wife down from anger).
While she and Ian sat in a smart new shop called Ricochet Gourmet — espresso machine whirring — and I browsed through the cowboy hats and western shirts at Ricochet’s vintage shop, my cell rang. It was Rimrock manager Jon Bertini apologizing for missing my call.
We were already in Joshua Tree, at least 20 minutes from the ranch, so I told him it looked as if we’d miss each other. But we started talking about music — he’d been in an early alt-country band, played mandolin, loved the Louvin Brothers — and before we knew it, we were turning around the car and heading back to Pioneertown.
Our tour of Rimrock ended up being one of the highlights of the trip. As you pass Pioneertown’s center, the topography takes on new contours, mesas with blankets of yellow wildflowers come into view and the temperature drops a few degrees. With the sun going down the scene looked positively honeyed.
Jon and his wife met us at the ranch’s entrance, which, at 4,500 feet above sea level, looks out over the whole region. The ranch — four mid-sized cabins, one large three-bedroom lodge that would suit two families, a pool, a central courtyard and a refurbished Airstream trailer with a leopard-skin rug — was a thing of beauty. I especially liked the mix of old-school desert architecture and modern design, down to great poster art and what Sara called ironic taxidermy. Ian enjoyed all the open space, climbing up and down the stairs, and the various representations of animals. We left in much better moods than we’d arrived.
It was our last night. Tired from our adventures, we grabbed dinner at the inn. Its bar is a decent place to eat, and a rib-eye steak and glass of Pinot Noir improved my mood even more. I don’t always love people playing music while I eat, but at the Twentynine Palms, which also hangs work by local painters, it’s part of the high-desert atmosphere. We saw the guitar-fiddle duo Randy Godfrey and Bobby Furgo, who played fine traditional acoustic blues, closing with a spot-on “Key to the Highway,” popularized by Mississippi bluesman Big Bill Broonzy.
We love the inn, but I’m curious to stay at Rimrock the next time. It puts us closer to Pappy & Harriet’s — where I got a heavenly tri-tip sandwich on our way out of town — and I’ve already made plans to bring a friend who plays mandolin, our music-loving wives and our small sons, who are more than capable of pitching in on harmonica. That and a case of beer will make a great weekend in the desert as far as I’m concerned. And I’m sure Gram would understand.
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