24 Hours in Joshua Tree

Leah LeMoineJanuary 1, 2019
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All the art, kitsch, pizza, bohemian threads and psychedelic yucca you can cram into one day.

It was mid-December, and I felt myself succumbing to the particular stir-craziness that descends during the holiday season, when obligations pop up with dizzying frequency à la the subterranean pests in the arcade game Whac-A-Mole. You know them well: work deadlines, chores, gifts, parties, cookies, travel, expenses, emails, family drama, friend drama, work drama, Whamageddon. I needed a solo getaway for some peace and quiet, and for the scintillating sensation of being accountable to no one. The caveat: I had one commitment-free weekend before the year was up. Where to go – quickly?

“What about Joshua Tree?” our new associate editor, Christianna Silva, suggested.

Interesting. I’d never felt a desire to visit, since I’m neither a social media influencer cruising for Instagram backdrops nor a U2 fangirl stuck in 1987, but I was intrigued by its reputation as a mystical hub for artists, and I’d never seen a Joshua tree – actually a type of yucca – up close. The Southern California national park’s high desert wonderland and its neighboring hippie burg, the village of Joshua Tree (just east of Palm Springs and Indio), seemed a fine destination for some wintry meditation and rejuvenation.

I booked a rental car and an Airbnb, the only planned bits of my solitary sojourn. I left before sunrise on a Saturday morning and headed west for some desert magic – or at least some desert stillness.
photo by Leah Lemoine; Art Queen gallery and boutique in the Sun Alley ShopsJ-Tree
After noshing on white cheddar popcorn and roasted chickpeas during my nearly five-hour drive (most people can make it in four; I drive like your nana), I was ready for real food. A friend recommended Crossroads Cafe (61715 Twentynine Palms Hwy., 760-366-5414, crossroadscafejtree.com), a cramped, wood-paneled hipster hut on Joshua Tree’s “main drag,” Twentynine Palms Highway. I settled into my table for one and ordered an unorthodox but delicious brunch – polenta with ranchero sauce and fresh feta, with a side of scratch-made corned beef hash flecked with green onions – from a jovial tree of a man named Chris, who with his worn athleisure ensemble and wiry beard evoked a hippie Richie Tenenbaum. His genuine mirth was an endearing welcome to the bohemian enclave, often shortened by locals to “J-Tree” or “JT.”

I wandered next door to Joshua Tree Outfitters (61707 Twentynine Palms Hwy., 760-366-1848, joshuatreeoutfitters.com) to buy a map of Joshua Tree National Park and ask for directions to the best entrance (there are three, with periodic closures). John at the register helped me map out my park exploration, gave me pointers on getting to my off-road Airbnb and waxed poetic about Joshua Tree’s rock-climbing scene.

I wanted to take in the town before getting swept up in the park, so I headed down Twentynine Palms and parked at Sun Alley Shops (61871 Twentynine Palms Hwy., sunalleyshops.blogspot.com), a collection of art galleries, boutiques and kiosks. My primary objective was a visit to Space Cowboy Books (spacecowboybooks.blogspot.com), a used bookstore specializing in science fiction. The shop’s owner, sci-fi author Jean-Paul L. Garnier, sat behind a desk reading a page-turner about anthropomorphized cells waging wars within human bodies. He took a break to sell me a worn paperback of Baroness Emma Orczy’s The Scarlet Pimpernel and tell me about his podcast (see sidebar bottom).

I meandered through the Sun Alley collective, popping into Dusty Deserette (a “fashion shack” with Woodstock-worthy vintage finds; facebook.com/dustydeserette), Art Queen (an indoor-outdoor gallery with Amy Sedaris-esque pieces by artist Shari Elf; sharielf.com), the World Famous Crochet Museum (a one-hour Fotomat booth converted into a home for Elf’s collection of crocheted creatures) and my favorite, the Beauty Bubble Salon & Museum (a working salon packed with cosmetic memorabilia, from antique razors to drag queen accoutrements; facebook.com/beautybubblesalonandmuseum).
photo by Leah Lemoine; Watching the sunset on the Airbnb deck in Joshua TreeThe Park
Finally, I made my way to the Joshua Tree Visitor Center (6554 Park Blvd., 760-366-1855) at the west entrance of Joshua Tree National Park (nps.gov/jotr). The visitor center is a must to purchase your park admission ($30; good for two days) and learn about the history of the land through its interpretive exhibits. Blessedly, my visit took place before the federal government shutdown, so the visitor center was still open and flush with rangers, and the park’s pit toilets hadn’t yet reached malodorous capacity, per early January headlines. What had reached capacity: jerky drivers zooming through the park’s two-lane roads, a dangerous nuisance that shook me out of the reverie of my desert idyll.

And what an idyll it was. Joshua Tree is special because it inhabits an “ecological crossroads” at the junction of the high Mojave Desert and the low Colorado Desert. It’s this environmental intersection that is responsible for the park’s titular “tree,” a Seussian yucca that spasms against the desert sky like a concertgoer in the throes of psychedelia. It’s easy to understand why this place, with its mystical fields of yucca brevifolia – named “Joshua trees” by Mormon settlers who were reminded of Joshua’s hands lifted aloft in prayer in the Bible – became a source of obsession and inspiration for artists and musicians like U2 and country-rock pioneer Gram Parsons. The latter famously overdosed in the Joshua Tree Inn and was partially and illicitly cremated at Cap Rock in the park.

photo by Leah Lemoine; Space Cowboy BooksAfter the Park
The pizza is fully and legally oven-fired at Pie for the People (61740 Twentynine Palms Hwy., 760-366-0400, pieforthepeople.com), a New York-style pizzeria that got its start as a mobile pizza purveyor for music festivals in the area. The brick-and-mortar location has a snug indoor dining area and a cute outdoor patio with a few picnic tables. I tucked into The Parms (white sauce, mozzarella, parmesan, ricotta, meatballs, red sauce drizzle) and shamelessly eavesdropped on a nearby table full of British climbers (the joys of dining alone!) until the temperature dropped and I started shivering over my crust. I mulled venturing to the Joshua Tree Saloon (joshuatreesaloon.com) or the nearby Pappy & Harriet’s Pioneertown Palace (pappyandharriets.com) for live music, but I wanted to make it to my Airbnb to see the sun set.

To enhance my solitude, I’d selected a camper parked next to a house on a 2.5-acre lot, secluded with a fence. The “CozyCamper” rented by Airbnb superhost Alex has a bed, kitchenette, tank toilet, outdoor shower, TV and Wi-Fi – a veritable Ritz-Carlton compared to the national park campgrounds just a mile away. I sank into an Adirondack chair on the wooden deck and took in the hyperpigmented pastel blues, pinks and purples of the sunset by the gas fire pit. I stared up at the stars and let the silence envelop me before retreating into the space-heater-warmed camper. It was the perfect setup for this camping-averse city girl to commune with nature, but still have a bathroom.

I woke dark and early on Sunday and drove back to the park to watch the sunrise illuminate the Joshua tree forest. It crept in at first, bathing the poky, slumbering plants with a milky gray haze that slowly became tinged with dusty rose before bursting into fat, filmy, golden rays. It was even more breathtaking than the sunset, and I’m a sucker for sunsets.

Eventually I pried myself away and grabbed a breakfast burrito to go from Natural Sisters Cafe (61695 Twentynine Palms Hwy., 760-366-3600, naturalsisterscafe.com), a vegetarian hot spot neighboring Crossroads Cafe.

I’d only scratched the surface of Joshua Tree – the park and its charming village – but it had been a lovely 24 hours. Maybe next time I’ll bring my partner or some friends to share in the fun. Or maybe not.

There are myriad lodging options in Joshua Tree, from the legendary Joshua Tree Inn (joshuatreeinn.com) to the “modern cabin experience” of Yarfa (yarfa.com/cabins), a collection of 1950s homestead cabins that look like they were renovated by Joanna Gaines in a Coachella phase. Or you can go old-school and book reservations at one of the park’s campsites (nps.gov/jotr/planyourvisit/campgrounds.htm) – when they reopen.

Simultaneous TimesRADIO JOSHUA TREE
The perfect soundtrack for your Joshua Tree exploration? Science-fiction author and Space Cowboy Books owner Jean-Paul L. Garnier’s podcast, Simultaneous Times (spacecowboybooks.bandcamp.com). Each episode features original sci-fi compositions read by their authors, accompanied by music from local musicians. It’s artsy, it’s trippy, it’s totally Joshua Tree.

The government shutdown in late December caused Joshua Tree National Park to close amid headlines of waste and sewage bedlam. At press time the park remains closed, so check before planning a visit.

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