Anyone who has ever watched a Western will recognise the design aesthetic of the Pioneertown General Store. With its slatted wooden frontage and stable door, this converted barn looks like it could have come straight out of an old cowboy movie. There’s even a post outside for tying up horses, with a bale of hay right next to it. But venture inside and you’re in for a surprise.
Owner Sarah Tabbush may look the part in her cowboy hat and boots, denim shirt and Wrangler cut-offs, but her wares are not the kind of thing you’d expect to appeal to grizzled prospector types: Harley-Davidson bandanas, rock T-shirts, macramé plant hangers and a glass case filled with beautiful pocket knives. This Los Angeles transplant – she moved here three years ago – has created a beautifully curated homage to modern desert cool, one that says everything about Pioneertown today.
Tabbush is just one of many new residents changing the face of this desert community, which lies around 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 saloon, has morphed into a rock venue that has hosted everyone from Lorde to the Arctic Monkeys. Pop #pioneertown into Instagram, and you’ll see your fill of sepia-filtered snaps of model types posing among the hay bales on dusty Mane St, with its Wild West sheriff’s office, saloon and bank.
This surreal but curiously charming place may look like a Wild West ghost town, but it’s actually something altogether more fascinating. Pioneertown was built in 1946, when Hollywood Western actors Dick Curtis and Russell Hayden came across the desert plateau and decided that this would be the 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 singing troupe that Roy Rogers had founded in 1931.
Around 50 shows and movies were filmed in Pioneertown, from The Cisco Kid to Judge Roy Bean. Unlike on most film sets, the carefully aged Wild West structures here weren’t just empty fronts, they were fully functioning buildings. And when the filming slowed down, the people moved into them. Roy Rogers, listed as Hollywood’s most successful Western actor between 1943 and 1954, was one of the first, buying property on Mane St. The cowboys followed, meeting at the Townhouse Motel for raucous nights of poker.
Although the town’s exteriors mostly look the same today, the crowd has changed dramatically. In the 1980s, biker gangs became the town’s main visitors after the decline in popularity of the Western. Now the hipsters are coming. The French brothers, Mike and Matt, are typical of this new breed of resident. They bought the old Townhouse Motel in 2014 and gave it a new name and a stylish makeover, with the help of Portland interior designer Casey Keasler. Think Aztec throws, cowhide rugs and artfully arranged cacti.
As well as giving people a cool place to stay, the French brothers have brought a new kind of fun to town, with open-fire cookouts in the desert and pop-up sets from superstar DJs. They recently bought three homes in town and installed an Airstream trailer, making 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 for this new venture. “But when they come out into the desert, and eat and dance under the stars, they say, ‘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 that week. “We were at a roller disco in Yucca Valley with an all-girl DJ line-up 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 Twentynine 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 desert chic. (The area that includes Pioneertown is often referred to as Joshua Tree.) But the nearby towns of Twentynine Palms and Yucca Valley are catching up. At The End, a brightly painted vintage treasure trove on Yucca Valley’s fast-gentrifying main drag, I meet Kime Buzzelli, a migrant artist/costume designer/fashion illustrator from Los Angeles. “When I was in LA doing 18-hour days, I used to come out to Twentynine Palms,” she says. “I’d just feel my shoulders drop. There’s something about the desert that opens you up. I remember thinking, back in 2007, that one day I’d like to live here.”
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, with African tribal accents to the fore.
Watching your favourite band with the stars in the sky – that’s the beauty
“We have all kinds of price points, from thrift store to Versace,” says Buzzelli. “We stock a lot of vintage clothes from Ghana, but also art and jewellery from local producers. I have a Los Angeles stylist friend who sends me clothes, so you could find pieces that Rihanna and Lady Gaga have worn.”
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 down almost to his belly, and is wearing a pair of almost scandalously short denim cut-offs.
Dent moved here from Los Angeles in early 2017. He has worked as a software developer and woodworker, and his many hobbies include making bespoke skateboards and customising vehicles – he’s currently working on a dirt bike and a truck called Reno. But his main preoccupation is The Sweet Spot, a small warehouse he bought on Craigslist, which he now describes as “a space to host creativity, whether that means noise shows, art, yoga or open mic nights” – or the roller disco that Pioneertown Motel owner Mike French mentioned. “One girl was into roller derbies, another girl from [trendy Yucca Valley boutique] Hoof & The Horn wanted to DJ,” says Dent. “So we made it happen.”
He thinks this desert community is ideal for making things happen. “It’s perfect for people like me who want to do more than one thing, and you get so many people with creative ideas.”
Today Dent is reinforcing his hipster Renaissance man credentials by helping to pack up the stage after the Desert Stars music festival, which has been taking place in the back garden of Pioneertown’s Pappy & Harriet’s over the weekend. The exercise is being overseen by the festival’s organiser, Tommy Dietrick. This prolific musician and producer 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 to 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, 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 a big festival.”
Dietrick’s connections meant bands lined up to play – often for free. Black Rebel Motorcycle Club and The Black Angels came in 2008, then a thousand people crammed into the back garden at Pappy’s to see The Dandy Warhols in 2009. More than 300 bands have played at the festival in the past decade, from “just about every genre of alternative music except dance”.
For Dietrick, the magic comes from being out in the desert, “watching your favourite band, with the stars in the sky and this total silence when the music stops. That’s the real beauty of it.”