We spent three months in Joshua Tree in late 2014, early 2015—the dark months, which meant we got more time with the night skies. The town and its starry nights are fairly well known, thanks to the National Park, the number of weekend visitors from LA, and, yes, that U2 album. But the place still holds a lot of surprises—like the gold miners keeping one of California’s origin stories alive, and the furore about plans to bring renewable-energy projects to the area.
JT is about two hours’ drive east of Los Angeles, at the southern edge of the Mojave Desert. The main drag straddles the 62 highway, which came to town in 1961 and remains the only major transport link. A couple of miles south of that road, you’ll find the entrance to Joshua Tree National Park, which is slightly larger than the state of Rhode Island and brings tourists to the area year-round.
A very brief history of Joshua Tree runs something like this: before the Europeans got here, the area was occupied by the Serrano, Cahuilla, Mojave, and Chemehuevi peoples, who enjoyed the rich food sources in what’s now the National Park, as well as a nearby oasis. After the US acquired the southwest from Mexico in 1848, survey parties started to pass through, kicking up some confrontations with native peoples as well as having a couple of more peaceful interactions.
By 1870, the gold prospectors who were all over California had reached the deserts. Mines started to appear, and the nearby oasis’s waters were drained to support mining operations.
The Homestead Act had been passed in 1862, allowing anyone to claim 160 acres of public land provided they had never borne arms against the US. It’s pretty damn hard to sustain yourself on 160 acres of desert land, but still some ranches popped up in the decades that followed, notably that of local hardman Bill Keys.
In 1938, FDR passed the Small Tract Act, a different kind of homestead act that granted five-acre tracts of the Californian desert and didn’t require recipients to live off the land. This brought pioneering types to the area in droves—you’ll find more on that movement here. Still, though, the harshness of desert life meant that many of the homesteads that sprang up under the Small Tract Act were abandoned within a few decades, leaving the landscape littered with cabins in varying degrees of dilapidation. Those cabins are now its icons.
In the late sixties, the musician Gram Parsons fell in love with Joshua Tree and helped to establish it as something of an artists’ mecca before dying of an overdose at the Joshua Tree Inn in 1973. You can read more about Joshua Tree’s pull for artists here.
The Joshua Tree National Monument was declared a National Park in 1994. In the early 2000s, a movement called Shack Attack was launched with the aim of getting rid of those old homestead cabins, publicly because they were seen as a blight; less publicly because some of them were being used to cook meth. Today, some of the cabins are enjoying a new lease of life thanks to the many artists living here—you can read more about that here.
The stories collected here aren’t intended as an exhaustive study of Joshua Tree; they’re simply the things we most wanted to share. Some of them aren’t even from Joshua Tree—like Jeff and his Beauty Bubble in nearby Wonder Valley. We hope you enjoy this introduction to the Joshua Tree we got to know.
JOSHUA TREE BY NUMBERS
Median age: 38.8
Total households: 3,256
Elevation: 2,713 feet . . .
. . . which is why it’s called the “High Desert.” Joshua Tree and the basin it sits in are usually cooler than other, lower areas of the Mojave and can occasionally get snow in the winter.
Veterans: 1,054 . . .
. . . or 14 percent of the population. This is very high in comparison to the CA average of 5 percent, because of the Marine Corps Air Ground Combat Center in neighbouring Twentynine Palms.