Bizarre Desert Adventures

The report from Joshua Tree National Park, near Palm Springs, Calif., where the Mojave and Colorado deserts meet for a beer.

By Dan Sarrow
Photos by Remy Steiner


Joshua trees look like something out of a Dr. Seuss book -- long and sinewy, with these tufts of spiky leaves at the ends of the branches. They seem prickly and cuddly at the same time. They dominate most of the open desert floor -- at a distance it looks as if someone had planted zillions of these funny trees in pretty regular intervals and spacing, like a miniature wild west for a toy train.

The other dominant feature are these two to three stories high smoothed, rounded, and polished rock formations. They're mostly a reddish tan and have interesting hollows and curves in them formed by erosion from wind and water. We spent a good amount of time climbing these giant rocks, enjoying the sun and heat that don't seem to exist in San Francisco during the summer.

We found a rental property on the web, the weekend house of some Hollywood set designer and therefore very tastefully done inside and out. Unfortunately, no pool, and that was one thing that I really craved in the heat. I did some furious phone research, and after a particularly sweaty hike, none of the hotels would let us use their pool since we weren't registered (stupid insurance companies). But I found out from the nice folks at city hall that the local high school had a pool open to the public after school. We jumped in the car, but when we got there, there was only a really tan, really drunk groundskeeper who said it had closed a couple of hours ago. Drat!

The towns around the park had various interesting points; the marine training camp in 29 Palms, surrounded by its many marine haircut barbershops and tattoo parlors; a little bakery/cafe with such amazingly great food we managed to eat three of seven meals there; and on our way out, the quick side trip to a totally untouristed pioneer town built by Hollywood for filming westerns.

The highlight was Don's All-American BBQ, where you could sample rattlesnake, rabbit, buffalo, or ostrich. The best thing about Don's -- besides the food, pitchers of Anchor Steam, and outdoor seating with the BBQ chef grilling on a mesquite fire right next to you -- was the fact that many marines were enjoying the grill with us that evening despite the fact most the restaurant staff were gay and not hiding it. We couldn't figure out if the marines didn't know, or didn't care. BBQ does have the power to bring people together.

Without a doubt, the best thing was our BBQ chef -- who we first thought was Don but turned out to be a big nerdy looking woman with glasses and a buzz cut -- asked us to pick a music selection toward the end of dinner. I asked for Foreigner, Double Vision, which she had, and sang along to one of the songs on the tape with the lyrics, "I've been waiting, for a girl like you, to come into my life.…" The word priceless came to mind. As we were leaving, our chef, who we named Donna, was finally joined by the real Don. Both were almost identical in size, appearance, and costume -- white chef duds with colorful striped chef hats. We bid them a fond farewell and smelled like BBQ as we drifted off to sleep.

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