Daniel Cronkhite

Daniel Cronkhite and his wife Janet own and run Sagebrush Press Bookstore in Yucca Valley, a few miles down the highway from Joshua Tree. Dan is also an old-school printer, and until a few years ago Sagebrush Press was a publisher as well as a bookstore. Among the books he published was his own, above, which is excellent and worth seeking out—it’s currently out of print. Dan didn’t want to be photographed for this piece.

I fell in love with the desert long ago for its lack of people. I like people, but you get so tired of all the milling around and people everywhere. Junior high school was hell on earth. I fought every day. My dad was from Canada, and in the late fifties, when I was about thirteen years old, a friend of his came down to where we lived in the San Fernando Valley from Canada with his wife. My dad and that man had worked out near Death Valley in 1927, in a mining town called Darwin, and they wanted to go see it. It was thirty years in their past at this point. So my dad and that man and his wife and I went to Death Valley, and I just fell in love with it. Darwin was a small mining town; it had been bigger; now it’s almost a ghost town. We drove into Death Valley and there were no rooms to be had. Now they have motels everywhere, but they just had a couple of small ones then. So we slept in the car, sitting up. And I just fell in love with the slower pace.

In junior high school in 1957, ’58, all boys had to take ten weeks of various shops: electric shop, metal shop, crafting, agriculture, printing. So I went and handset type, where everything’s upside down and backward. Someone showed me how to do it and, boy, something clicked. When I was a little boy in church, squirming while my mom and dad watched the man preach, my mom and dad would give me a little piece of paper, and I remember I’d fold it in half, I’d write “The News” on it, I’d make little horizontal lines and a little picture: it was a little newspaper. You know, some people grow up to be movie stars, actors, racecar drivers. It’s in their system. Printing and books were in my system somewhere.

After high school I went to Nevada for half a year. Not Vegas or Reno, but a small mining town, and I worked on a newspaper there. The old-fashioned kind of newspaper, where you’d use a linotype machine or handset type.

I was seventeen years old. I had been dating a girl, and we were writing letters back and forth, and it seems like you fall in love harder by mail, must be the absence or something. She kept begging me to come back to civilization, and the job was rough and they paid very little, so I finally went back and went to work at an aircraft plant where my dad had worked for twenty-seven, twenty-eight years. The girl wanted to get married. I was eighteen, and I thought it was awful early. My mother, who could analyze things pretty well, said she was in love with love. So we parted company, and somewhere along the line I started riding motorcycles—not in a big way, I just rode, and had a lot of friends, and some of them started clubs. Gangs, I guess, but not Hells Angels or anything, they just had a good time and partied. But I could see things changing. This was 1965, free speech was coming round in Berkeley, and free sex and free everything, and places were starting to get really loose. And I thought, I want to go back to the desert, where things were peaceful.

I was back in the desert for another half year, five years after the first time. And then, being a young person, I started getting antsy. I enjoyed my work, but they didn’t pay good, and so I quit and went chasing rainbows again.

After a while I went back to the San Fernando Valley, where my parents were. But the chickens were gone, the taxes had just kept going up and up. And my dad said, I can’t pay this. So he tried to get the state to buy it on a hardship clause, but no one would buy the property because there were plans to put in a freeway through there, maybe, some day.

There was a big thing in Death Valley called the Death Valley Encampment, and my dad would often go to it. November 1972, we were going to go early on a Friday morning, but that previous Thursday night I crashed my motorcycle. I wasn’t flying hard, just going down the street, and a couple of gang members came up and gave my bike a good stout kick, and I went down. I don’t remember any of this. They found some friends, and they came. I was all right, but bloodied. The ambulance showed up, and they thought they’d better take me to the hospital just to check me out. I was sitting on a gurney – and again I don’t remember any of this – and I fell on the floor. They thought they’d better X-ray me, because we didn’t wear helmets back then. I was hemorrhaging inside. So there’s a plate up there now. I was in a coma for nine days, and when I woke up, I said, “It’s a small, small world.” I don’t know why I said that. The mind is a weird thing.

At that time Dad had sold the house in the valley, and I had rented a place, and then I had this wreck. My new landlord came along while I was in the hospital and told my parents he was selling the place, and I had two weeks to get out. And I had all my printing equipment – I dragged that printing equipment all over the place; some of it weighed three thousand pounds.

So we had to move. I loved Owens Valley, anywhere up there. But my mother bought a place out here, and here I am, forty-two years later.

This used to be very rural, but now it’s growing. I just read they want to put in a 240-home gated property in Joshua Tree. It’s called progress. I guess people like it. People are coming out of LA, they’re tired of it, but the trouble is they bring it with them.

So I ended up here, and good things come from bad things. When I’d been out here about five years, I met my wife in a doctor’s office. She was the receptionist; I was checking her out and the doctor asked me if I was married, then he said, “How about that girl over there?” We’ve been married thirty-five years.

We opened the first location of the bookstore in 1991. Back then it wasn’t nearly like it is now out here. We had half the number of traffic lights. When I opened up, the police parked across the street on a dirt road. I was wondering what they were doing, and they were wondering what I was doing. They came every day for about two weeks. We found out they thought it was a front, because nobody would open a bookstore in the desert.