How the Joshua Tree Desert Became an Oasis of Cool

The Mojave Desert is the unlikely home of a freewheeling creative movement.

How the Joshua Tree Desert Became an Oasis of Cool

An increasing number of Los Angeles-based creatives are flocking to the Mojave Desert to set up shop.

Photo by David Black

It was the art that surprised me the most. As I drove the 60 miles from Palm Springs to Wonder Valley, I passed a towering bronze brontosaurus, a stop sign resloganed IT’S YOUR DECISION, and an enormous rusty pinwheel that looked like the abandoned toy of a giant. I had expected to see spiky yuccas and old-timey saloons in the former frontier towns that border Joshua Tree National Park. But the sculpture, mixed with miles of sunbaked sand and hand-lettered WELCOME HOME, TROOPS signs—a reminder of my proximity to the country’s largest Marine base—created a kind of surreal Where the hell am I? moment.

I was on my way to meet Alison and Jay Carroll, two desert imports hosting a release party for their lifestyle brand, Wonder Valley, and its flagship product: a bottle of grassy green olive oil. The dinner is to be held in two cabins owned by artist Jack Pierson, known for his no-frills photographic portraits and word sculptures made with found objects, and it is to be made delicious by Zach Jarrett, chef de cuisine at L.A.’s unflaggingly popular Sqirl restaurant.

So, naturally, I have questions. After settling in, I pose the most pressing: Why are we here, 600 miles south of where their olive oil is actually made and two hours and several cultural leaps east of L.A.?

a throwback to the beginning of Wonder Valley - it all started with this photograph in 2014. ⠀⠀ #welcometowondervalley A post shared by WONDER VALLEY (@wondervalley) on Mar 16, 2018 at 7:59am PDT

“The California ideal of reinvention and experimentation is very much alive in Wonder Valley,” Jay tells me as we watch the sunset intensify, the sky as vivid as the slice of blood orange floating in my cocktail. “There’s an openness in the desert that’s liberating.”

“There’s just room to create, to think, to contribute,” Alison adds. “It really drew us in.”

That freedom, they say, inspired them to build on Alison’s expertise as the former marketing director for the California Olive Oil Council to create their own oil, but also to dream bigger: They have visions of a desert-inspired brand that will include housewares, provisions, and other sundries.

“There’s nothing to interrupt your thoughts, which leaves all this space for creation.”

They’re not the only ones who feel this way. The guests who trickle in as the party kicks off—a parade of photographers, sculptors, and writers—are part of a new wave of creatives that spend at least half their time working and living in the desert.

“You can buy property for $6,000,” says Sue Wu, a writer who lives here part-time with her boyfriend, sculptor Alma Allen. “That’s totally appealing as an artist. But you also have to figure out ‘how do I get water?’”

The payoff seems worth the hardscrabble environment. As the dinner builds from creamy fava bean hummus to grilled quail to oil-filled avocado halves, I talk with several photographers, a self-described spiritualist, and a handful of other artists, all of whom touch on a similar theme. “There’s something about looking at this flat, unchanging environment,” says photographer Brendan Pattengale. “There’s nothing to interrupt your thoughts, which leaves all this space for creation.”

A post shared by WONDER VALLEY (@wondervalley) on Jul 27, 2018 at 8:05pm PDT

It all sounds a little woo-woo, but after a few days here, I get it. I feel loosened in a way that isn’t just about being unshackled from email. There are no billboards, no boutiques, no trendy restaurants. Just mind-clearing vistas, unfettered time, and zero expectations.

Consider artist Laurel Seidl’s Glass Outhouse gallery, one of my stops along the way. Beyond a low-slung house, there’s a xeriscape of colored bottles, toy skeletons, and tin-can robots that would make Tim Burton salivate. Inside, I find striking black-and-white portraits next to plastic flower mosaics so kitschy I wonder if they’re a joke. (They’re not.) But out here, genius and cornball literally sit side by side. There are gun ranges and sound baths.

There’s room for everyone.

How to Have the Perfect Weekend in Joshua Tree
Here’s one way to string together a Mojave desert adventure without sacrificing all the glam.

1. Sleep in a reclaimed motel. Staying at the Mojave Sands Motel is like a night in the found-objects-art museum. Driftwood doubles as bedside lamp stands; brass plumbing as a shower setup. Service is helpful but limited—no room service or breakfast muffins here—but the in-room vinyl collection, typewriters, and front yard wonders (like the patio above) more than make up for the minimalism.

2. Seek out eccentric art. There’s this wonderful anything-goes quality to art out here, from the massive metal sculptures planted at irregular intervals along the highway to Noah Purifoy’s Outdoor Desert Art Museum. Two musts: Shari Elf’s Art Queen (where, among other things, you can covet the silkscreened What Would Cher Do tees and tour the world-famous Crochet Museum) and the wildly diverse Glass Outhouse.

3. Do the Joshua Tree drive. One brilliant way to see all of the desert towns along Twentynine Palms Highway and Joshua Tree National Park (and get back to Palm Springs before sunset) is to drive past the town of Joshua Tree and into Twentynine Palms. Grab lunch at the Twentynine Palms Inn, then drop into the park loop, which winds back towards Palm Springs, with plenty of options for hiking and desert woo-woo along the way.

4. Stargaze. Stargaze. Stargaze. Joshua Tree boasts some of the darkest night skies in the United States. In 2017, the national park was certified as an International Dark Sky Park by a group called the International Dark Sky Organization. According to a Dark Sky Association program manager, the eastern edge of the park has “levels of darkness found nowhere else” in California.

>>Next: In Guadalajara, Young Designers Are Putting a Modern Spin on Traditional Ceramics

Aislyn Greene is the associate director of podacsts at AFAR, where she produces the Unpacked by AFAR podcast and hosts AFAR’s Travel Tales podcast. She lives on a houseboat in Sausalito.
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