Dilapidated homestead cabins are the superstars of this landscape, along with Joshua trees, impossibly enormous horizons, and crazy beautiful night skies. These buildings came to be here because the US government had a moment of generosity (combined with an overabundance of territory) in 1938 and started giving away Californian desert land: first to veterans, and then to pretty much anyone who cared to ask, under the Small Tract Act. Many of the cabins built back then have been abandoned and rotting away for decades now. That’s the nutshell version; for a much more in-depth account, check out Kim Stringfellow’s excellent book and project Jackrabbit Homestead.
But not all of the cabins are dilapidated. In fact, some are inhabited and beloved, and are right now giving people, particularly artists, unusual living and working options. We spoke to a few people who are living in, working in, and thinking about these cabins. They all arrived here on different paths, but in speaking to them, we heard many similarities in their stories and interests. These are people who wanted the financial, mental, and spatial freedom to pursue their own ideas. Perhaps more surprisingly for artists living in dispersed cabins, they’re also people to whom community is extremely important; people who think hard about their responsibility to the land and their neighbours. And a lot of them have made the very most of the Internet to build the lives they want to lead, by using AirBnB as a primary source of income, or by telecommuting, or by publishing and publicising their work for an international audience while living in a small, inexpensive rural community.
There’s no denying Joshua Tree’s boho reputation, or that that image can feel a bit shallow to residents and visitors alike—as with any arty place that’s progressed beyond the first generation of artists. But even if Solange Knowles spends New Year’s Eve in Joshua Tree these days, to actually live here takes grit. There are snakes, there’s no market in town, you might well live on an unpaved road, you’ll never be in any doubt about the gravity of the global water crisis. All of which is to say that notwithstanding the Joshua Tree brand, people really live here, in an extremely unshallow way. And to a lot of them, that boho brand is actually helpful: it brings in tourists, whose contributions to the local economy help them to live the way they want to.