Letter From the Desert: Is Joshua Tree Over?

okay, this is long.

Some of us knew there was trouble when people first started painting their houses black. You don’t do that in the desert. Don’t take that the wrong way. We are remarkably tolerant of different colors of house paint. Paint your exterior walls light brown to match the surrounding mountains, or deep red or terra cotta to provide a spark of color that complements the surround, or green because there isn’t much here and you miss it, or rainbow stripes. You’ll see it all out here, and we don’t care. Most of us who weren’t actually born here came here to get away from things like HOAs or neighborhood design codes or approved palettes. Some of us actually had experience painting previous urban houses in colors that didn’t meet the approval of the neighbors. Live and let live is a popular sentiment around here. It’s one of the reasons so many eccentric, creative types have made their homes here.

But there’s something every newly minted desert dweller learns when they pull out their goth-inspired urban previous-life wardrobe and wear their black everything out into the sunshine. Namely: that shit absorbs some heat. Painting your desert house black signifies one of two things. One, that you don’t yet realize how important a cool retreat becomes in summer, when the entire world is sizzling around you. Or two, that you are not the person who pays the place’s utility bills.

One black house in a neighborhood was a head-scratching oddity. Two on the same block was evidence of something disturbing. People building new houses specifically to paint them black? That’s where we are now, and it is lunacy.

I jest. Somewhat. People here mostly still don’t care if you paint your desert house black to cohere with some distant esthete’s sense of fast fashion as it applies to home improvement. The scraping is another matter. It is, I suppose, a blessing that fewer people are killing Joshua trees when they buy houses, what with that being at least temporarily illegal. But scraping away every other living thing on an acre of property to show off your stylish black house as if it were thoughtfully placed in a zen garden remains an ecological crime. Personally, I’d even look the other way if all a person did was remove the chollas. I love chollas. I love my dog. She loves chollas a bit too much. I get it. But it’s not just chollas being bladed out of existence. New landowners are taking out beavertails, big galleta grass, centuries-old creosotes and millennia-old Mojave yuccas, cheesebush and indigo bush, senna and milkweed, packrat middens and kit fox warrens, all for a bit more euclidean geometry imposed on a decidedly non-Euclidean desert. And all the beautiful unprepossessing organisms that do the actual work of tying the desert together, the globemallows and tarantulas and dodder and mycorrhizal fungi, lose another place to live.

It is as if, having gone to the trouble of buying some real estate in the desert, the new owners set about removing any hint of actual desert from the property. They want “desert,” not desert. The image will be more than enough. Anything real is unwanted.

A scant few of these newly blackened, denuded properties may be intended as long-term homes for deserving people. About them all I can say is that it took me a while to learn, as well. I’m still doing it. Five or six years ago a Wintu ethnobotanist friend asked me how long I’d lived in the desert. I moved to the desert in 2008, I said. I’d been visiting for two decades before that. “Ah,” she said. “So the plants haven’t really started talking to you yet.” I fought back a spasm of defensiveness, but she’d hit it on the nose. Twice as long in the desert now and they’ve only just started. Not everyone gets this place, not all at once. Not everyone lasts here. The person I moved to Joshua Tree with lasted 18 months before packing her black clothing and going, as the bumper sticker puts it, back to LA. Those that last eventually figure things out, or die, or both. As I think I’ve written before, the desert will take you apart. It’ll then reassemble you, but there will be an odd part or two left on the workshop floor.

However. Chances are these new black houses won’t see anyone living in them for more than a month.

Joshua Tree had just over 7,400 full-time residents in 2019, living in 3,089 households. At this writing, there are 1,052 active vacation rentals in Joshua Tree. Most seem to charge upwards of $150 a night, with some positively stratospheric offerings setting guests back well above $750 per. Twenty-six percent of Joshua Tree residents live below the poverty line: $12,880 per annum for a single person, $26,500 for a family of four. A theoretically sustainable rent for that family of four, a quarter of income, would be a scoche above $500 a month. Some vacation rental owners are charging that per night. And yes, some vacation rentals are offered by owners who are still living in them. That has become less common than it used to be, as county restrictions on short-term rentals have essentially chased mom-and-pop-style operators out of the business. Vacation rentals in Joshua Tree are no longer about providing locals with a helpful secondary source of income to make ends meet. They are an aqueduct by which outside speculators siphon off the economic well-being of Joshua Tree. The desert is in this year, or at least a pallid, superficial and poorly understood simulacrum of the desert is in this year, and the absentee speculators see yet another goldmine to plunder.

This is not good for the aforementioned creative artsy eccentrics, who generally rely on inexpensive places to live in order to pursue their personal arcs. It’s not good for the self-described “dirtbag” climbers who are to Joshua Tree what the ski bums used to be to Park City, or potato farmers to the Hamptons. It’s not good for National Park Service staff, who often find themselves living in vehicles during the course of their seasonal gigs.

And it’s especially not good for the born-and-bred locals, whose determination and smarts are the equal of people anywhere else in the country, but whose access to economic advancement usually comes in the form of jobs providing services to tourists, and who increasingly find themselves commuting across many miles of desert to their working class jobs.

Why Joshua Tree? We’re still trying to figure that out. It’s beautiful, of course, but so are ten thousand other places in Southern California. It’s too close to Los Angeles, but Ridgecrest is even closer, as is Trona. Barstow has better Mexican food, but Barstow has not, to my knowledge, had a mediocre Irish arena rock band name an album after it after never setting foot in the place. It’s probably a safe bet that the root cause of Joshua Tree’s terminal popularity is whatever brought the arts types here in the first place. Twenty or thirty years of a thriving arts community in an affordable town is bound to attract attention. From being a place where people go to be left alone to make beauty, we became a place where people go so that they could be thought of as the kind of people that go to a place like this.

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If it seems like I’m implying that the creatives bear some share of responsibility for creating this situation, all I can say is “hmm probably.” David James Duncan wrote once about his parents’ habit of moving to the extreme rural outskirts of one Pacific Northwest city or another, then watching suburbs grow up around them, and moving farther out, only to see the process repeat and then repeat again. His family saw themselves as escaping time after time from the advancing maw of suburbanization, wrote Duncan, and in was only much later in life that he realized they had actually been that maw’s advance guard.

I wonder whether the creative types, among whose number I will presume to include myself, are doomed always to be the tip of the spear, whether anarchically thriving communities of culture in beautiful places will, by some law of social thermodynamics akin to Entropy, inevitably become Indian Wells or Jackson Hole. (I ask this as a three-decades-long denizen of Berkeley, California and environs.) It’s not that the seeds of destruction by the elites weren’t there from the beginning: you need but ask your local friends of color how they feel about the old-school artistic community that finds itself being squeezed out. Chances are the answer will hold enough nuance to power a small city. For starters: didn’t we do an even more brutal job of displacing those who loved this place before we did? We aren’t being driven at gunpoint out into the desert and massacred like some members of the last displaced community around these parts were. So that’s a positive note.

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I’m taking this more personally than usual these days, which is saying something. Friends and I have joked about moving to Trona, or Needles, or Kingman for some years now in response to the gentrivacation of Joshua Tree. ( I moved instead to Twentynine Palms, which combines the best aspects of all three towns.) This week I learned that one of those friends is considering calling all our bluffs and actually leaving. This is someone who has rather reliably been there for me when I needed someone over the last decade, as for example when the black clothes lady moved back to LA, or when there was a movie or a new restaurant that I didn’t want to enjoy solo, or when la mujer que amo and I needed a brilliant spark of a person to read poetry at our wedding. I want the people I love to be happy. I am on record as being in favor of headlong leaps into unknown future places. But seeing friends depart from a place we mutually love, even when it hasn’t definitely decided to happen yet, how you say. It summons the duende.

She is still here, as are most of the other friends who have made this place a place I love, and yet. And yet. One by one, the little, unprepossessing beings that tie this desert together: the poets, the globemallow, the interpreters of dreams and of ancient code and codices, the chollas and chefs and Coleogyne, the framers of kitchen cabinets and manifestos, the ancient humans and the ancient plants, the tortoises and the designers of tortoise t-shirts, the painters and proponents and protectors of this desert, one by one, we are in danger of being bladed away. And if history is any guide, the new residents of Joshua Tree will never know what’s missing.


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