Periodically, non-Angelenos come to visit LA, and inevitably they want to visit Joshua Tree, thinking it’s nearby, although it’s 100 miles away on another desert plateau. The attraction has always puzzled me, until I got to know some of the locals there.
My initial thinking: Palmdale and Pearblossom Highway offer plentiful more accessible Joshua Trees (without a park admission fee) than the National Park does;
the northwest Lee Flats region of Death Valley National Park also has even more Joshua Trees than Joshua Tree National Park itself,
AND you can visit Death Valley in the same trip, perhaps even swinging up to the spectacular Saline Valley Hot Springs. (But that’s another blog post in itself.)
However, any urban dweller is likely to inexplicably find themselves at a frustration saturation point. Whether it’s the endless traffic jams or aggressive idiocy of those people packed into overpriced residential closets around you, you may find yourself ready to dive off the Hollywood Sign. That’s when it’s time to get away. It might sneak up on you before you even know it.
Let’s face it; from LA, Death Valley is too far a drive for most people, and Pearblossom Highway is sort of bleak. Joshua Tree is only a couple hours away, and after you pass through the endless surreal fields of windmills near Palm Springs and ascend the steep climb to Morongo Valley, there’s something magical about the whole stretch of desert along Highway 62.
During one of my first excursions to the area, my friend and I stopped for gas in Twenty-nine Palms, and while we were fueling up, a jeep pulled up to the next pump, and an attractive gal jumped out, tossed her hair, smiled, waved at my friend and I, and ran inside the gas station. Her disheveled bug-eyed boyfriend then jumped out of the jeep, ran over and nearly shouted, “she’s my girlfriend, just so you know…” as he agitatedly eyed us defensively. We cautiously eyed him, bracing ourselves for an attack.
Then something unexpected happened. He said, “Hey, wait…” and looked at me closely. “I’ve seen you somewhere… on TV… you’re…” he paused, “Richard Simmons!”
We all burst out laughing.
I’m no stranger to mistaken doppleganger recognition assumptions, of course. But it was the first time one seemed to dissuade an attack.
But my friend had visited from Vancouver, and during the short winter months, we arrived at the park as it got dark, only able to view it from the car headlights, during the long windy drive through the park. It was like a long uneventful and disappointing sequel to “The Blair Witch Project;” eerie Joshua trees appeared and receded as the headlights illuminated them, yet nothing notable ever happened. We finally reached the other highway and returned to LA. My friend seemed content, having visited the park, but I felt disappointed.
Joshua Tree is a puzzling and inhospitable environment. I’ve often had the feeling that people moved there because they wanted to get away from LA, not because they were drawn to something there. But I’ve learned that seems more true with Barstow than Joshua Tree. The desert plateau is littered with abandoned cabins, gradually deteriorating under the relentless abuse of the sun and winds, but often still showing the remains of their residents 30 or more years ago; record players and old TVs often sit next to old mattresses or couches with springs popping through any remnants of upholstery, like the chestburster scene in Ridley Scott’s “Alien” movie.
While exploring an abandoned cabin, a flash photo revealed a pair of eyes in the dark corner of the ceiling; closer investigation revealed a dodo-like bird that looked like a winged porcupine. Locals later told me this was a “desert puffin,” creatures that reportedly have a knack for creeping into people’s cars unnoticed. However, I had revealed myself as a tourist, and they were just having a little fun with me. Google still didn’t have any listings for “desert puffins” and the closest look-alike I could find was the roadrunner, which reportedly nests about ten to twelve feet off the ground, often in cacti. I didn’t know that they’re also capable of killing or warding off a rattlesnake’s attack, but fortunately, I didn’t have to watch it take one on.
During my excursions to the area, I’ve also seen rare desert tortoises and burrowing owls.
Burrowing Owl Video:
Yet the most unusual wildlife are the people living there.
Despite the inhospitable climate, the region holds an unmistakable draw for artists and creative types. Perhaps it’s because light has a beautific surreal quality there; the “golden hour” before sunset seems to last all day long. But artists, even those craving solitude, also thrive amidst creative communities, and there seems to be a vast network on the plateau. This network, thankfully, also seems to lack the pretense of LA’s westside art scene. The residents are just doing what they love there, and some of them are exceptional.
The region has long attracted both the eccentric (if not insane) and exceptionally creative. Somehow these “creatives” live back-to-back with the expansive Marine Training Base, which is puzzlingly located far from any trace of water. The artists I’ve met speak with mystical acceptance and curiosity about what goes on there; such as the night-time “balloon flares” that shoot up into the sky, hover, and illuminate the desert below like weird Skynet searchlight UFOs from Terminator movies.
The Marine Base is off-limits to civilians, but it’s un-fenced, unlike many hundreds of miles of California ranches. Surrounded by miles of BLM (Bureau of Land Management) land, the desert roads lure dune buggy ORV drivers onto the outskirts of the base, but Marine deputies then nail the drivers, as well as every passenger, with expensive trespassing tickets.
One dune buggy driver told me how he had driven out across a desert field to a small shed, which had an armed guard standing next to it. He greeted the impassive guard, inquiring, “I guess I shouldn’t be here, huh?” The guard replied simply, “nope,” and then the shed door burst open and a whole platoon of soldiers emerged from the underground tunnel, surrounding him with drawn rifles, and escorting him off the base. Yet this impertinent driver seemed determined to push the limits, seeing how many times he could tread over the base boundaries; he unravelled tale after tale of taking friends over the hills and dunes, all of them eventually having to pay trespassing tickets.
This unusual encounter occurred near “Giant Rock,” north of Landers, NW of Joshua Tree itself. Slightly further out this desert road, literally in the middle of nowhere, was an apparently abandoned Western Movie film stage. (This turns out to have been the still active White Horse Ranch )
The nearest paved road was lined with deteriorating shacks adorned with “for sale” signs, like some bizarre real estate joke.
Giant Rock (map) (http://giantrockproject.com/ and http://www.lucernevalley.net/giantrock/ ) has a colorful history, however, due to it’s close relationship with the somewhat better known nearby new-agey “Integratron (map link).” ( https://integratron.com/ ) Despite its dubious claim to be the largest single rock on the planet, it’s nowhere near as impressive as the Mt Kyaiktiyo golden rock in Myanmar, but unlike the golden rock, women can visit it too.
( https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kyaiktiyo_Pagoda & https://goo.gl/maps/NXWvqLjC5D72 )
The Integatron was built by George Van Tassel, a UFO enthusiast, who believed he’d been gifted with a vision for a structure that would rejuvenate a person’s cells and extend their life. This vision was channeled through him, rooted in his regular meditation sessions, and drawn from information aliens had bestowed upon him during one of their visits. The domed building was supposed to have a spinning disk around the exterior, but it never turned, and birds found that it offered a great spot to build their nests. There is actually an airstrip between the Integratron and Giant Rock, which welcomed UFOs and participants in his popular “Spacecraft Conventions,” which drew 11,000 participants in 1959. George Van Tassel was an aeronautical engineer who worked for Lockheed, Douglas Aircraft, and as a test pilot for Howard Hughes at Hughes Aviation. His shared interest in spruce led him to get Howard Hughes to contribute some of the funds for the Integratron’s construction. The circle of concrete crowning the dome is said to weigh two tons.
Today, the Integratron offers yoga classes and sound baths with Tibetan Bowls and Gongs, but any aspirations for offering eternal life seem to have fallen by the wayside.
“Van Tassel had learned of Giant Rock from Frank Critzer, a gold prospector and desert dweller, who had excavated under the massive boulder to construct a dwelling of several small rooms protected from the fierce sun.” Van Tassel’s father had fixed Critzer’s car in Santa Monica in exchange for a claim in any gold mine he might start. There was gold nearby too; decades earlier, in the mountains just west of Landers, gold fever-stricken miners had been killed by bandits near Big Bear while some large mines like those on Big Bear’s “Gold Mountain” were in full swing. Following the first World War, Critzer had immigrated from Germany and served in the US Merchant Marine, but had been instructed to leave his sea life for the this desert plateau to help his lungs.
During WWII, rumors began to circulate that Critzer was a German Spy because he had a large radio antenna nearby. In 1942, three deputies from Riverside County came to interrogate him, despite Giant Rock being in San Bernadino County where they had no jurisdiction. He barricaded his door when he went inside to get his coat, and they threw a teargas grenade in the window, which detonated the prospecting dynamite he had inside. Critzer was killed and the deputies were injured. His residence under the rock was later filled in.
Van Tassel built and lived in buildings adjacent to Giant Rock while he was building his Integratron. They were torn down by the BLM after Van Tassel’s death in 1978. The adjacent hill is now named, “Spy Mountain,” and in more recent years, a chunk of the boulder cracked and fell away due to natural causes. Indigenous natives had long considered the boulder a sacred site.
As you depart from the eternal-life-aspiration-filled property of the Integratron, the roads, lined with small desert ranches, seem troublingly mundane. But don’t be deceived; the hills and valleys nearby are filled with other amazing gems. This is why Pioneertown is one of my favorite areas in this part of the desert.