Pioneertown: the not so wild West

They might not film Westerns at Pioneertown any more – but the old movie set in the California desert has become home to a very new kind of creativity

(First published in Atlas by Etihad, February 2018. Photography by Myles Pritchard)

The Pioneertown General Store, in the dusty town’s old Likker Barn, isn’t quite the Wild West you know from the Westerns that were once filmed here. Owner Sarah Tabbush may look the part, in her cowboy hat and boots, vintage denim shirt and Wrangler cut-offs – but you won’t see too many Westerns in which the characters shop for vintage floral dresses, tarot decks and “chill vibes” herbal tinctures.

“I never realised that there would be so much creativity in the desert,” says Tabbush, who has lived in Pioneertown for three years, but only recently gave up a job doing marketing for Tom’s shoes in Los Angeles. Now, she says her mission is “to showcase all the amazing makers and creators out here”.

Her store is a beautifully curated homage to modern desert cool, from rock t-shirts and Harley-Davidson bandanas to macrame plant hangers, Teepee incense burners and a glass case filled with beautiful pocket knives. It’s an eclectic selection, but it works; even her friendly dog, Thelma, somehow fits the aesthetic.      

Tabbush is just one of many new residents who are changing the face of Pioneertown, an old Wild West movie set in the Californian desert, just over two hours from Downtown Los Angeles. The Pioneertown Motel, just across from the general store, has been transformed from a kitsch old motel into one of the desert’s slickest design hotels. And Pappy + Harriet’s, the town’s iconic rock saloon, which has hosted everyone from Lorde to the Arctic Monkeys, has drawn an ever-cooler stream of Los Angeles types wanting to live out their desert fantasies. Pop #pioneertown into Instagram, and you’ll see your fill of sepia-filtered model types posing among the hay bales on the dusty Mane St, with its Wild West sheriff’s office, saloon and bank.   

But, first, a bit of history is in order. This surreal but curiously charming place, up a winding four-mile road from the desert town of Yucca Valley, was built in 1946, when Hollywood Western actors Dick Curtis and Russell Hayden came across the desert plateau and decided that it would be a perfect place to film Western movies and TV shows. Enlisting the support of A-list actors including legendary singing cowboys Roy Rogers and Gene Autry, they bought up a 32,000-acre tract of desert and named it after the Sons of the Pioneers, the legendary singing troupe that Roy Rogers had founded in 1931.

But unlike many movie sets, the carefully aged Wild West buildings they built weren’t just empty fronts. They were real buildings, some of which hosted actual businesses, like the Clip n Curl beauty salon, or the Pioneer Bowl bowling alley, which was a real bowling joint when Gene Autry wasn’t filming his famous variety show, Gene Autry’s Melody Ranch (it’s closed today, though you can still look at the alleys and dusty bowling balls through the window).

While around 50 shows and movies were filmed in Pioneertown, from The Cisco Kid to Judge Roy Bean, the place became a unique hybrid of film set and living, breathing town. Roy Rogers, who was listed as Hollywood’s most successful Western actor between 1943 and 1954, bought property on Mane St, and the cowboys would meet at the Townhouse motel for raucous poker nights. Today, the locals still live in those old sets and get their mail at the Wild West post office.      

But if the exteriors are mostly the same today, the crowd has changed dramatically – from the A-list cowboys to the biker gangs of 1970s and 80s, who were the town’s main visitors after the decline of the Westerns. Typical of the new residents are the French brothers, Mike and Matt, who bought the old motel in 2014 and gave the 20 rooms a stylish modern makeover, with the help of Portland interior designer Casey Keasler. Think Aztec throws, cowhide rugs and artfully arranged cacti.

But as well as giving people a cool place to stay, the French brothers have brought the fun, hosting everything from open-fire cookouts in the desert to pop-up sets with superstar DJs. Recently, they bought three homes in town and installed an Airstream, with plans to host salon dinners, sound healing and yoga sessions.

“When we moved here, people thought we were mad,” says Mike, 29, who quit a job in events in New York, where his brother was working in hospitality. “But when they come out into the desert, and eat and dance under the stars, they’re usually like: Ahhhh, I get it now.”

When our friend come out into the desert, and eat and dance under the stars, they’re usually like: Ahhhh, I get it now

While sharing a beer outside the motel after a dinner of the signature chilli at Pappy + Harriet’s, Mike tells me what he’s been up to during the week. “We were at a roller disco in Yucca Valley with an all-girl DJ lineup one day,” he says. “Another night, my girlfriend and I had sushi in the middle of the desert, then went to a drive-in cinema in 29 Palms. People don’t realise how many strange and amazing things are happening in the desert.”

It’s not just Pioneertown that’s buzzing. Joshua Tree, half an hour down the road, has long been a magnet for spiritual seekers and those wanting a certain kind of flea-market desert chic (the whole area that includes Pioneertown is often referred to as Joshua Tree). But the surrounding towns of 29 Palms, to the east, and Yucca Valley, to the west, have been catching up – especially Yucca Valley, Pioneertown’s near neighbour.

At The End, a brightly painted vintage treasure trove on Yucca Valley’s fast-gentrifying main drag, I meet Kime Buzzelli, a migrant from Los Angeles who used to work in TV, as well as working as a fashion illustrator. “When I was in LA doing 18-hour days, I used to come out to 29 Palms,” she says, “I’d just feel my shoulders drop. There’s just a weirdness and a beauty to the desert. I remember thinking, back in 2007, that one day I’d like to live here.”

When I was in LA doing 18-hour days, I used to come out to 29 Palms. I’d just feel my shoulders drop. There’s just a weirdness and a beauty to the desert.

When a friend was diagnosed with cancer, Buzzelli had what she calls a “life is short moment”, and moved to Yucca Valley in 2010, opening the shop two years later. With her friend, LA artist Elena Stonaker, she painted The End in bright primary colours, and filled it with an equally bright selection of jewellery and vintage clothes: think bold, batik-painted dresses from Ghana or bold crystal necklaces by desert designer Adina Mills, whose jewellery has been worn by the likes of Lena Dunham and Björk.

“We have all kinds of price points, from thrift store to Versace,” says Buzzelli. “And I have a Los Angeles stylist friend who sends me clothes, so you’ll find pieces that Rihanna and Lady Gaga have worn.”

Buzzelli also rents out space in an art studio, and is pursuing her passion of painting (when we meet, she’s wearing paint-splattered overalls). “I just feel so much more present than when I lived in Los Angeles,” she says. “Every day is amazing, and there are so many creative people out here, with cool stories.”

Just up the road in Yucca Valley, we find Travis Dent, a gentleman with a singular fashion sense and a matching set of life choices. He drives a camouflaged Chevrolet truck, has a beard that comes almost down to his belly, and is wearing a pair of almost scandalously short denim cut-offs.

Dent moved to Yucca Valley from Los Angeles in early 2017, and his day job is hard to pin down. He has worked as a software developer and woodworker, and his many hobbies include making bespoke skateboards and customising vehicles, at the moment a dirt bike and a truck called Reno. But his main preoccupation is The Sweet Spot, a small warehouse he bought on Craigslist, and which he now describes as “a space to host creativity, whether that means noise shows, art, yoga or open mic nights. I want to turn part of it into a hackerspace, too, where people can come and work on digital projects.”

Of the Joshua Tree area, he says simply: “We’re having a moment here, for sure. That’s why I came. It’s perfect for people like me who want to do more than one thing, and you get so many people with creative ideas.” One of those ideas was the roller disco that Mike French referred to, which Dent hosted at the Sweet Spot. “One girl was into roller derbies, another girl from [trendy SoCal boutique] Hoof and Horn wanted to DJ,” says Dent. “So we made it happen.”

As if Dent could be any more of a hipster renaissance man, today he’s helping a small team pack up the stage and sound equipment from the Desert Stars Music Festival, which had been in the back garden at Pioneertown’s Pappy + Harriet’s over the weekend. A group of very young muso types are moving kit from Dent’s camouflage van into the Sweet Spot, overseen by the festival’s organiser, Tommy Dietrick.      

Dietrick is a prolific musician and producer who once played bass for infamous psychedelic band The Brian Jonestown Massacre and now leads a psych-rock band called Sky Parade. He started Desert Stars in 2007, long after first falling in love with the desert. “I remember when I moved to LA in 2000, on one of my first weekends a friend pulled me out top Joshua Tree,” he recalls. “People didn’t know much about it back then, but I fell in love with the desert, and the anything-goes fun of it all.”

After moving to Joshua Tree and opening a new studio in the early Noughties, Dietrick started Desert Stars in 2007 at Pappy + Harriet’s, with the idea of creating “a community-oriented event for people who love the desert and good music. The idea was to be like the tent stage at the big festival.”      

With his connections, the bands soon came, often playing for free – from the Black Rebel Motorcycle Club and Black Angels in 2008, to the Dandy Warhols in 2009, when a thousand people crammed into the back garden at Pappy’s. He’s booked more than 300 bands in the decade he’s been running Desert Stars, covering “just about every genre of alternative music except dance.”

But behind it all, he says, is the magic of being out in the desert. “Watching your favourite band out here, with the stars in the sky and this total silence when the music stops. That’s the real beauty of it.”

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