As creatives seek an escape from the big city, prices jump and cutting-edge architecture rises in the High Desert area: “Seventy-five percent of my clients are investors from L.A.”
During the golden age of Westerns, film crews would often make the two-and-a-half-hour trip to the Morongo Basin in San Bernardino County to shoot in the pristine, rugged desert. In 1946, actor Dick Curtis decided to monetize the location and banded with movie cowboys Gene Autry and Roy Rogers to create a wild West film location and settlement that they named Pioneertown.
The real cowboys already living in the area (north of what is now Joshua Tree National Park) weren’t too pleased. “Back when Pioneertown Corporation was hauling in potential land buyers and weekend tourists from Los Angeles, they set up a little ambush just as the buses got into town. A gang of armed men would ride up along the bus and force it to pull over,” says Pioneertown historian Kenneth Gentry. “They’d raid the bus and rob the driver. That was thought of as a fun way to introduce people to town.”
Despite the renegades’ best efforts, artists and iconoclasts would go on to homestead in the area, enamored by what film producer Chris Hanley (Spring Breakers) calls the “artistic freedoms in a rural High Desert minimalist setting of aloneness.” Early Joshua Tree converts included actress Ann Magnuson and artists Andrea Zittel and Ed Ruscha. UFO enthusiasts and theorists like George Van Tassel — creator of the area’s famed Integratron (a midcentury structure used today for sound baths) — also were drawn to the desert’s legendary “vibrations.”
Outlaw musicians of the 1960s and ’70s from Jim Morrison to Keith Richards to Donovan also spent time in the area. “Disruptive American iconoclastic artist Paul McCarthy bought the 200-acre [property] of Donovan, and once filled the abandoned estate empty pool with Coca-Cola, as a performance art piece,” Hanley recalls. Most famously, there was musician Gram Parsons, who died of an overdose at the Joshua Tree Inn in 1973, only to have his cohorts burn his body in the desert.
“There has been art in Joshua Tree a very long time,” says Hanley, noting the petroglyphs that can be found in Coyote Hole in Joshua Tree National Park. He recalls the magic of getting lost running and finding himself surrounded by ancient images by the Serrano and Chemehuevi tribes there.
In recent years, music producers have also flocked to the high desert, building sweeping, isolated compounds that often feel like a Mad Max summer camp. They include the famous Rancho de la Luna Studio, built in 1993 by Fred Drake and David Catching, which has hosted everyone from Queens of the Stone Age to Iggy Pop. Newer to the area is musician Rocco Gardner’s creative retreat Escape, a favorite of artists including The Arctic Monkeys and Paolo Nutini. Also in Joshua Tree is the Hi-Lonesome recording studio, founded by Georgia native Chris Unck.