When I see the windmills, it finally feels like I’m going somewhere. Leaving Los Angeles via the 10 Freeway is a monotonous precursor to the road ahead. Windmills seem like a highlight—a break from the picture of outlet shops and fast-food chains lining an endless interstate. The landscape opens to arid terrain—the first intimation of Palm Springs, where LA hipsters and retirees mix on the weekends. I’m headed to Joshua Tree instead—a little more off-the- beaten-path as Los Angeles jaunts go, and the first stop on the scenic route I’ve chosen to the Grand Canyon. I’ve gone too long never laying eyes on this colossus of all natural wonders, but I’ll continue to build the suspense by exploring a few enclaves along the way.
It’s not a secret anymore that the American West is one of those bucket-list road trip destinations. There’s no truer embodiment of American freedom than the open road here, where as long as you have wheels, or at least a pair of legs and the will to find the way, there’s not much standing in your way of adventure and miracles all around. In every direction there’s a mountain to climb, solitary plains to tromp, blue skies to marvel, all in a sun-blazed dreamscape.
Much of Arizona is so enchanting: saguaros—the most emblematic of all cacti—grow rampantly throughout the Sonoran Desert; the mythic vortices of the beautiful red rocks of Sedona; the vastness of the Kaibab National Forest; and of course, all 4,926 square-kilometers of the Grand Canyon, right in the backyard. Wind, water, sun, and moon have sculpted these masterpieces over millions of years, and we’re completely free to explore it all.
Just shy of Palm Springs, I hang a left on the 62, also known as Twentynine Palms Highway. Now this looks more like the American road that Hollywood dreams are made of: a narrow highway that rolls across panoramic barren desert spotted with dehydrated shrubs, all framed by a canyon backdrop. The Old West feeling of it all inspires a detour to Pioneertown, an unincorporated town founded by Roy Rogers, Dick Curtis, and Russell Hayden in the 1940s as a live-in movie set for old Western films and television shows. Staggering rock formations frame the undulating two- lane Pioneertown Road—the first uncanny glimpse of Yucca Valley.
I know I’ve reached the town when I spot Pappy and Harriet’s, the main local hangout frequented by the cool crowd that has already moved on from the washed-out Coachella Valley scene to the arcane frontier of the Yucca Valley. This old desert roadhouse is a restaurant and music venue that hosts bikers, the occasional celebrity, and indie rock bands way out in the starry boondocks. In the village there’s a chicken coop, a pottery shop, and a cowboy outfitter; the music store, bank, and post office appear to be just movie-set storefronts. It’s a virtual ghost town today aside from a photographer, a bedazzled cowgirl posing atop a horse named Zeus, plus a wrangler. The potter at the shop lets me know that things come alive on the weekends with old-fashioned shootouts.
Back on Twentynine Palms Highway there are vintage shops and coffeehouses—necessary components to any town looking to attract chic travelers. I go right on Park Boulevard and enter Joshua Tree National Park through the West Entrance Station. The $15 vehicle entrance fee—good for seven days – gets me a warm welcome from an extremely chipper park ranger. Driving in on paved road, I behold those ubiquitous Joshua trees, believed to be named by the Mormon immigrants who discovered them in the mid-nineteenth-century, after the biblical figure, Joshua. This large yucca plant—a type of agave—bears comparison to a Dr. Seuss creation, its prickly silhouette contorting in mystifying ways.
What I discover at the Hidden Valley trail is just as bizarre: thousands of giant boulders stacked high, just waiting to be climbed; and of course, I did climb them. A relatively easy 1.6-kilometer-loop hike, you can spend a good hour wandering and imagining you’re lost on another planet. But no, this was Earth itself at play, when eons ago, volcanic activity caused magma to rise from underground and intrude the overlying rock. As the magma cooled and crystallized underground, cracks formed in the rock. They were shaped further as the magma came in contact with groundwater, and eventually the rock piles eroded into the formations we see now.
From the car I spot a wild coyote roving through sparse grass, seemingly oblivious to the possibility of running into humans, which they generally avoid. The road ends at Keys View, overlooking the glorious Coachella Valley diffused in a cloud of haze. Way in the distance, Salton Sea—once a swinging vacation spot for the Rat Pack, now a desolate beach of fish carcasses adjacent to a putrid man-made lake that became toxic when the salinity levels rose too high. As a side note, I would recommend seeing it on another trip for the sheer oddity—one of those fabled places that caution human intervention on the natural environment for commercial development.
Here at Keys View, there are just a handful of people bathing in the light of the magic hour. Maybe it’s the passing of the summer season, or maybe Joshua Tree is still a well-kept secret from most, but it’s refreshing to find a developed place in nature that remains unexploited. Either way, early fall and early spring bring mild weather and excellent photographic opportunities (with minimal photo bombs).
After chasing the sunlight through just one-third of the park on the eastern side, Park Boulevard loops back up to the North Station and spits me out in the next town over, Twentynine Palms. I arrive at the exotic 29 Palms Inn within a few minutes. Joshua Tree and Twentynine Palms are sprinkled with hotels, motels, and inns with all kinds of Lynchian character, and this is one of the quirkiest.
Two robust white-and-blonde-spotted desert mutts, Patches and Figgy, lounge in the lobby. Both are docile, but the girl Figgy snuggles with me while the receptionist—a sort of insouciant character in a peasant top—takes her time welcoming and checking me in. That offbeat, relaxed desert vibe takes hold of me. The room key is attached to a flashlight, needed to navigate around the property; very few city lights permeate the night sky here.
In the Bottle Room—named for the vintage glass bottles lodged into the walls—there is no fancy flatscreen, the pillows and towels are less than plush, but it’s got oodles of character with its brown washed walls and little claw-foot tub. Other accommodations include charming 1920s wood-frame cabins and 1930s adobe bungalows, each with its own idiosyncrasy. Walk the grounds and you’ll find an organic vegetable farm, Chemehuevi Indian burial ground, and the Oasis of Mara. The legend says that the Serrano Indians moved to the Oasis because a medicine man told them they would give birth to many boys here. They planted a palm tree for every boy born—twenty nine in the first year—giving name to this little town just east of Joshua Tree.
Dinner at the Inn’s restaurant has been a tantalizing mirage in my mind after hours of exploring this tiny piece of the Mojave Desert region. A singer with an acoustic guitar is banished to the corner by the bar as the restaurant buzzes with inn guests and Twentynine Palms locals. Some are lucky enough to snag a table poolside on this balmy night. The homemade sourdough is dense and delicious. Seared scallops on a bed of sage and butternut squash risotto are good, but after hearing that this is the best restaurant in town, my mind isn’t quite blown. Nonetheless, it’s a good meal to replenish you on the road.
In the middle of the night I hear the screeching howls of wild coyotes in the distance. They keep me awake for a while, but the primal sounds are captivating. It sounds like the Wild West out there, but I’m safe behind adobe walls. In the morning I drive around the sleepy town and find very little aside from the kitschy Jelly Donut shop, an empty drive-in movie theater, and dozens of murals depicting the community’s history and heritage. One of the most impressive is a tromp l’oeil painting by John Pugh that shows a sleeping artist dreaming of his subject, Hidden Valley. A bull materializes, bearing the brand of the McHaney cowboy gang, who were believed to have stashed their stolen cattle there in the 1870s—one of many legends that give the area its surreal atmosphere.
Photo by Wei Zhang
This is Part 1 of my story about road tripping to the Grand Canyon. Parts 2, 3, and 4 coming soon. A version of this was published in Conde Nast Traveler China’s March 2015 issue.