Joshua Tree & Yucca Valley

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Words and Photos by Kate Collingwood - katecollingwood.com.au 

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I always know when I’m in my element, I can see it in the photos I am taking. The desert is such a place for me. Maybe it’s the abundance of light, whether it’s the blinding midday sun that bleaches the colour from everything, like you have dialled down the saturation, or the soft pastels of the afternoon that smooth out all the harsh shadow, it’s image making heaven!

 The Joshua Tree area in California had long been on my hit list, with its big skies, unforgiving dusty landscape and the fascinating characters that choose to inhabit such a place.

Our first stop on the road from Las Vegas to Joshua Tree was the small but famous town of Amboy. Once a major stop-over for weary travellers on Route 66, it’s now an old deserted icon of Classic America, and one that I had ear-marked for photographic purposes. This was a prelude of what was to come further down the highway, and I detected an air of uncertainty.

 The search for our accommodation was a little stressful, sign posting isn’t like Vegas, its subtle and you need to work for it, in my mind that always makes for a great discovery.

After a few wrong turns, two scrawny horses, a burnt-out pile of blankets and toilet stop. We spotted a ranch style gate framed by 2 towering cactus and old timber boat perched on a sand hill, ’The Desert Yacht Club’.

 Weaving our way through the Cholla trees we were welcomed by the sight of a shiny silver airstream caravan, and the scattering of beautiful white bell tents. Nestled in the sandy valley, under a billowing awning, was the ultimate oasis in this 47-degree sun, an above ground pool with decking surround and inflatable lounges. All of this is the impressive work of Italian artist, Alessandro, who has created a quirky cluster of accommodation overlooking the Yucca Valley. ‘Thank-you Airbnb’, your promising pictures do not lie.

 After all the colossal hotels of Vegas, with their flamingo swimming pools and cocktail lounges, this beautiful mash-up of man-made structures had my kids awe struck. We had found our ultimate oasis in this vast desert landscape.

Other guests moved quietly in the shade or the old touring bus (now a well kitted out lounge), reading books or playing cards and smoking fragrant cigarettes, waiting for the sun to set and the fun to start.

Hungry bellies led us up the back road to Pioneer Town, and to the locals’ favourite haunt, ‘Pappy & Harriet’s’. It was Open Mic night and we were advised to get in early to grab a seat before the crowds poured in. We settled in for a relaxed night, as their sign clearly states, ’If you are in a rush you are in the wrong place!’

I’m not sure where they all came from but that little brick pub on the hill was heaving by 6pm. We scoffed the bean nachos, guacamole and variations of ‘The Bowl’ to the sounds of folk, rock and alt-country. All their meat is organic and cooked over a Mesquite wood fire stove. The interior is dark and smoky with glimpses of the desert rocks looming outside.

We cruised back down the hill through the rocky valley to the Yacht Club. The night slipped quietly by as played cards, told stories and watched satellites in a different star system to our own. We listened as our neighbours brought out guitars and old songs, then later to the not so distance howls of the coyotes.

We were up with the sunrise and the heat that it brings, pushing us all back into the rickety pool. Itching to explore our surrounds we started with breakfast at the Frontier Café, loading up on Joshua Tree Coffee, maple ricotta on toast and organic eggs. It was here I captured the face of a timeless local, he was sitting so motionless in the corner for such a long time, with an endless cigarette and face full of stories. After plucking up the courage I asked him if I could sit with him and photograph his beautiful face. He was a little hard of hearing and a man of very few words, his voice like a dry desert breeze, whispery and faint.

Next was a brief tour of The Joshua Tree National Park, my intention of numerous hikes was quickly dashed by the soaring temperatures and 3 unenthusiastic children in the back seat, that is for next time and perhaps not in summer!

The park is beautiful and somewhat surreal with the Dr Suess-like shape of the Cholla Trees against the backdrop of looming boulders and perfect blue skies. It is really worth planning your trip here and exploring both the Northern and Southern entrance of the park.

Instagram famous ‘Jelly Donuts’ was next on our list, the kids were determined to try as many culinary delights of America as possible.

Twenty-Nine Palm Hwy is dotted with numerous vintage haunts, essential if you are after that unique vintage desert style, something I would align with Byron Bay meets Country Western. We found great jewellery and suede moccasins at ‘Hoof & Horn’, and a wide range of tassle vests and boots at ‘The End’ .

The Yucca Valley was the perfect stop over between the ridiculousness of Las Vegas and the ultra-coolness of Palm Springs. If you are planning a trip from LA out to the desert make sure you pop over the Morongo Canyon and check out these little desert towns, but come with your exploring eyes, it is not all served up to you on a platter, you need to upturn a few rocks.


 “We travel because we need to, because distance and difference are the secret tonic of creativity. When we get home, home is still the same. But something in our mind has been changed, and that changes everything.”

–Jonah Lehrer, “Why We Travel,” Panorama Magazine (December 2009)