There's some crazy stuff out in the desert.
When heading to Pioneertown, most motorists are inclined to take I-15 to I-215 and then tread the minor highways as if heading to Palm Springs. It's a pretty easy shot at three-and-a-half hours, but take the long way out and you'll see all kinds of weird, enchanting and downright inspiring sights. Head east on I-8 and stop at the Desert Tower and look out upon the Imperial Valley. Then go up I-111 to stop at Slab City and the awe-inspiring Salvation Mountain, the three-story monument of Godly devotion that Leonard Knight has been building for more than 25 years out of hay bales, adobe clay and donated paint.
“The only plan I have is not having a plan, and that seems to be working out for me so far,” Knight tells me as I stand dumbfounded inside his makeshift mountain.
Continuing north, past the Salton Sea and through Joshua Tree National Park, make a left into San Bernardino County, then a right up the hill and you're there—in a “ghost town with soul” (as one local describes it) that looks straight out of the Old West, or at least a movie set where the good guys aren't always good and the bad guys wear black even though it's hot as balls.
For years I've been hearing about Pioneertown (www.pioneertown.com). Musician friends have taken weekly jaunts out to either play or hang out at Pappy and Harriet's Pioneertown Palace, the main music bar in town and de facto town epicenter. Soon I was hearing about the town regularly. I became even more fascinated when I heard that one of my favorite contemporary singers, Josh Ritter, shot a video there. So, I wondered, what's so great about an Old West town in the middle of the fucking desert?
“Where else are you going to see bikers, tourists, bands, hippies and cowboys all hanging out in the same place,” asks Jim Austin, a San Diego musician who, a few years ago, sold his Redsand clothing company to Perry Ellis and bought Rimrock Ranch, whose cabins now serve as a desert retreat for musicians looking to escape the big city. You can see what he's taking about. There's a loose vibe up here that's hard to find even in the neighboring towns. At nearly a mile above sea level and surrounded by gorgeous mountains, you'd think you were in some rarely encountered trading post established by some lost contingent of 49ers who came for the gold and promptly got the fuck out as soon as they had it. But, in reality, Pioneertown isn't that old. It was actually a town custom-built in the 1940s to shoot movie westerns starring Gene Autry and the like. But even when Hollywood left, the locals made sure the laid-back feeling stuck so that, now, Pioneertown is a proper tourist attraction with a twist.
“Four miles off the highway, 60 miles back in time,” remarks Matt Strachota, who, with his band Bartenders Bible, comes up here regularly to play.
Tonight, there's a who's who of San Diego musicians in Pappy and Harriet's. Along with Bartenders Bible, Black Hondo is also playing, and The Casbah owner Tim Mays watches approvingly as couples dance to the bands. Musicians have been coming up here in droves since the early '70s, and pictures of Bonnie Raitt, Robert Plant and, naturally, desert king Gram Parsons adorn the walls. Above the bar is a sign that reads, “If you cause trouble in this establishment, think of a number between 85 and 87,” but even with a huge Marine presence due to a nearby military base, there's hardly a voice raised the whole night. The whole day and a half that I'm here, I don't see one cop.
“Yeah, it can get rowdy in here sometimes, but the regulars are real quick to break it up,” says a Pappy's bartender who doesn't want me to use her name. “So, I guess we serve up our own brand of justice around here. Our solution is get the fuck out, and if you don't, well, then you'll probably end up dealing with some scary dudes out in the parking lot, and that always works to mellow things out.”
The neighboring motel has lost my reservation and is all booked up, but I'm told that it's no big deal if I sleep in my car out in the parking lot. But before I can say another word, Austin is insisting I stay up at Rimrock Ranch in one of the cabins. I thank him profusely, but he blows it off, as if being this hospitable, like well water and Joshua trees, just comes with the territory.
“That's Pioneertown,” he says. “You came up with a plan and an agenda, but sometimes the best plan is just not having one at all.”