Summer Guide: Pioneertown's Faux Frontier Paradise

ex•plor•er (ik-splawr-er), noun: a person or thing that explores. trailblazer. pathfinder. pioneer.

Stand in front of the Jack Cass Saloon in Pioneertown at high noon under a cloudless sky, and it seems as if at any minute the heavy door might burst free of its hinges, kicked open by a pointy-toed cowboy boot whose silver spur glints in the desert sun. Ennio Morricone music plays in your head as you imagine a mustachioed gunslinger striding onto Mane Street, past the shooting gallery and the saddlery and the town jail, dodging tumbleweeds as he prepares to face his enemy in a shootout. A mean wind howls through gnarled Joshua trees, kicking up dust that obscures the razorlike spines of the Sawtooth Mountains looming in the distance.

Despite its Old West feel, Pioneertown, 20 miles northeast of Palm Springs, dates back only to 1946. It was created out of thin desert air by a group of Hollywood investors, including singing cowboy Gene Autry, as a living set for TV shows and films such as Annie Oakley and The Cisco Kid. Back then, Pioneertown rollicked with action as a real-life economy sprouted behind the facades to serve the carousing needs of casts and crews. Barbara Stanwyck and Roy Rogers drank at the Red Dog saloon, while local teenagers set pins by hand at Pioneer Bowl.

The Tinseltown productions are mostly long gone, but Pioneertown survives. This is explorers' country if there ever was such a thing: far off the beaten path in the Mojave Desert, away from the creature comforts of the city. From the founders who saw this harsh scrub landscape to the modern-day tourists who seek it out, the people of Pi-town, like Oakley herself, are adventurers.

Travelers often stop here on their way to Palm Springs or Joshua Tree National Park, but this one-horse town is worth the long desert drive on its own. Some visitors come for the faux-Frontierland nostalgia; others for Pappy & Harriet's Pioneertown Palace cantina, whose lighted sign greets you as you roll into town.

One recent Sunday, Pappy's was packed to the rafters despite its remote location four miles off the highway on a dark and winding road. Inside, do-ragged biker dudes and hipster urbanites ate ribs and danced to an uncommonly good country-folk band. That night the musicians were local, but Pappy's intimate stage is famous for regularly hosting big names like Lucinda Williams, PJ Harvey, and Willie Nelson.

Perched at the end of the bar in smart, thick-rimmed glasses was Jim Austin, a San Diego musician who'd been coming to Pappy's for years before finally deciding to put down roots. He now lives nearly full-time at his 10-acre Rimrock Ranch in a modernist home designed by architect Lloyd Russell. The site also houses a suite of 1940s-era rental cabins and retro Airstream trailers. Vintage pickup trucks are parked around the property, giving the ranch, like Pioneertown itself, a sense of disconnection from space and time. There's no WiFi or cellphone reception — just miles of emptiness and open sky, and a hammock in which to contemplate the quiet.

Attraction of lack of attractions
It seems to be this very lack of attractions — or distractions — that gives Pioneertown its special aura. The vibes are enough to turn some casual tourists into permanent residents, stars of their own cowpoke B-movies. A number of the downtown structures are habitable, and those folks who keep Mane Street addresses wind up living a true of-the-past life despite the town's ersatz origins. Some keep pigs or horses. One has constructed a vast art installation in the front yard out of antique typewriters and other found objects. "It's a magnet for artists and musicians to come to escape the concrete world," says one gray-ponytailed local known as Grampz. "When I discovered Pioneertown, I never wanted to leave."

So he didn't. Each morning, Grampz strides out of his Mane Street cabin, past the two life-size wooden mannequins — one cowboy, one Indian — that occupy rocking chairs on the porch, and sits in the sun on a bench made from fake-antique wagon wheels with his dog, Jessie May. Sometimes the odd tourist (or reporter) will stroll by and he'll wave them over and regale them with tales of Pi-town living. He points out the church a few doors down, but admits he never attends. "I came up here to find my own religion, you know what I'm saying? It's all this," he says, gesturing at the mountains, the scrub, the sky. "It's these birds that are singing in harmony all over town. Every time I come and sit out here in the morning, it's like I'm doing it for the first time."

How to Get to Pioneertown.

 
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