My desert history


A lot of folks wonder how it is I arrived in the desert, and what kind of relationship I have had with the desert. That's understandable. There are a lot of people out here now who have arrived in the Airbnbsteader invasion who do a lot of posing as desert folk. They think they dress the part, and they wander about talking about "the monument," trying to place themselves contextually into the era before Joshua Tree became a national park. Many of them are nice people who truly do love the desert, but can't help but drag some of Los Angeles with them out here. I think, given time, most will either leave, or really become desert folk if they keep an open mind and heart for the desert. I hope this is true, because at the moment, the hi-desert around Joshua Tree isn't feeling like the real desert any more. It's looking and feeling a lot like Far East Los Angeles, with all the posing and egos that go with it.

Oh, and that's a generality, and if you know me, you know that whenever I state a generality, I also know there are many exceptions to it, so don't get miffed if you're one of those new folks and you think you're not like the description above. There's a good chance you're not, and another good chance that I'm grateful for it.

Since so many people have wondered about my connection with the desert over the years, I thought it might be good to just put down a bit of a timeline of sorts. It's an introduction that covers a good 60 years or more, and begins before I arrived on the planet. In fact, it begins with my mother, an L.A. native, and my father, a Missouri man who enlisted in the Navy......

My parents met in southern California while my father was in the Navy. My dad had already been divorced once, even at his young age. He had married his high school sweetheart, and that teenage romance didn't pan out in reality. I don't know the details, just that it didn't last long. But he met my mother while his ship was in port. I think it was San Pedro, but it's been a long time since I heard the details. In any event, they wound up getting married, I believe first in Tijuana, and later in Las Vegas.

My mother became a real estate agent in the 1950s, working for Forrest E. Olson Company, an enormous real estate firm that later morphed into Coldwell Banker. She was an agent at a time when women were allowed to show houses to prospective clients, but had to bring the client back to the office for a man to handle the sales contract. Their poor little female brains just couldn't handle the finer details of home sales, according to the sexism of the times.

One day, my mother heard that the Bureau of Land Management was hosting some kind of real estate raffle. You could enter it, and if chosen, you could have five acres of desert land for $100 and a $25 filing fee. You have to build a 400 square-foot cabin on it within three years in order to keep it. The land likely would not have access to power or water or sewer, but you could call five acres of Joshua trees and creosote bushes all your own.

Of course, she entered the raffle, and was chosen, and paid to file claim on the land. As a real estate agent and Californian, she knew it was a great opportunity. She went home and told my dad, who immediately yelled at her because they could buy farmland in the Midwest for that price instead of stupid old useless desert.

1955: My family purchases a five acre homestead in the Mojave Desert. The location is off of Gamma Gulch Road, north of Pioneertown and Pipes Canyon.

My dad, bless his soul, being an outdoorsman and a hunter, quickly learned to love the desert (or so it has seemed to me). My parents built their little cabin in the desert, complete with outhouse, and I have Super 8 footage that I've salvaged that shows them enjoying their desert getaway, along with my aunts and uncles. I should note that my Aunt Vickie (who married my mother's brother, Uncle Bill), graduated from Yucca Valley High School, so she had done at least part of her growing up in the desert. She was a fantastic storyteller (and hairdresser), and a hard core Elvis fan.

She told me she skipped school once and went down to Palm Springs High School to watch Elvis and his band rehearse for an upcoming tour in the high school auditorium. Later, as she was dying from pancreatic cancer, I contacted an Elvis impersonator from the Ontario, California area, and hired him to come do a performance at her home. He immediately agreed to do it for essentially gas money, as his sister had recently died of cancer. He put on a superb show in her bedroom - the last night she was conscious and coherent before her death. "Look what I had to do to get Elvis in my bedroom," she joked.

Anyway, back in the late 1950s.....

After several miscarriages, my mom told me she was prescribed DES, and I was brought into the world, just shy of June 1, 1960. I arrived with my skull way too hard (I'm told I'm still pretty hard-headed) and my nose smashed over to one side (it still isn't quite right, and you can see it if you look closely). But I was here - born in East L.A.!

May, 1960: I arrive, born in east L.A.

My parents moved to Garden Grove, in Orange County, where they bought a house on a cul-de-sac for $11,500. The median price today for a home in Orange County is over $700,000. They wanted a place to raise a family. They built a pool in the backyard, as all good southern Californians should do, and got busy raising a family. My mom continued with her real estate career, and my dad worked as a public works engineer for the City of Santa Ana.

My sister arrived in November, 1961, and my parents decided that was enough for them. She was a cutey, but required open heart surgery. As kids are wont to do, we kind of took over our parents' lifestyle. Getting out to the desert with two wee ones, was going to be tough for a while.

Then I came down with spinal meningitis, and only survived because my mother thought something was wrong and took me to our pediatrician, Dr. Kegel. He immediately got me to the hospital, and saved my life. At the time, spinal meningitis was 97% fatal, and if you did survive, you usually had some form of brain damage. That's been my excuse ever since.

Evidently, even at one-and-a-half years old, I was pretty vocal about my treatment. I know that one of my famous hospital lines was, "Hey nurse, how's about some toast?" I was also told that I threw things at the nurses when they came to do things I didn't like. I still have the scar on the inside of my right ankle where I ripped out the IV feed because I wanted to go home.

Eventually, I survived (if not, I wouldn't be writing this now), but my hospital bills were pretty massive for the day (no doubt, one could go to the ER for a sinus infection now and easily run up a larger tab, even with insurance). My parents were forced to sell our desert homestead.

1962: Parents forced to sell desert homestead acreage and cabin to cover my hospital bills

Now, that could have ended my relationship with the desert before I even knew it had begun. But it didn't. My parents had enjoyed their time in the desert, so as my sister and I got a little older, we would go to the desert. Our road trips were interesting, and we were introduced to Native cultures across the region during our travels. We didn't just go out to the Pioneertown and Joshua Tree area, but we road tripped around the Southwest - the Grand Canyon, Montezuma's Castle, Albuquerque, and many places in between, were all part of our childhood.

As was one other desert location: Las Vegas.

My parents liked gambling in Las Vegas, for whatever reason. I hate gambling, but I still find plenty to enjoy in Las Vegas (though it was much better when the mob ran it). I remember hotels with names like The Flamingo, or Stardust, and later, Circus Circus, where my sister and I would be handed some money to entertain ourselves while our parents gambled down in the main pit. I remember getting some kind of battery operated metal Rat Patrol-style jeep as a prize from one evening of gaming there.

And I remember the drive back then - grabbing a meal at Stateline, stuck in traffic on the way home. Vegas traditions that live on in one form or another today.

1960s: Desert trips to the hi-desert and road trips through the Southwest

Things began to change in the early 1970s for my family. My mom had advanced with her real estate career to the point of being offered a management position - one of the first women to be considered for management in the real estate industry in southern California. But she was having health problems that seemed to become more serious. I remember visiting her once in the hospital - just testing is what I think we were told back then.

Eventually, what came out of all the testing, was she was told she had about a year to live. As she told me, the doctors said, "If you ever wanted to do anything, you should do it now. You don't have a lot of time."

My mom had been L.A. born and raised, and had lived nearly all her life in southern California. She had always wanted to experience some kind of country farm life. She took the doctor's words to heart, and took some second trust deeds she had bought at a nickel on the dollar, and used them as a down payment on 21 acres of land in a small rural community north of Grants Pass, Oregon, called Sunny Valley. My parents began construction on a cabin in the woods there and we stayed for a time in the Deavers' little cabin by Salmon Creek as we waited for the cabin to be readied.

Back in southern California, plans were somehow coming together for a move to Oregon. My dad would remain behind, he needed to put in more time with the City of Santa Ana to get his retirement. In 1972, my dad and I embarked on a camping trip to the hi-desert. We took the crewcab pickup truck with my Suzuki 185cc enduro motorcycle (I loved that bike) in the back. This trip would be the last time I saw the desert until the 1990s when my relationship with the region would be rekindled.

My dad and I drove out to the desert with plans to camp up Pipes Canyon. There was a campground up there, not far from the onyx mine, back up where the desert entwined with the San Bernardino Mountains. But when we arrived, the campground was boisterous and crowded, so we decided to head up Gamma Gulch way to find our own campsite, away from the horde.

We settled on a place near my parent's old cabin (though my dad could no longer find it), in an area we used to explore as kids. We called it Big Rock Canyon, and now it's known by the man's name who settled there and transformed it into his own - Garth's Boulder Gardens.

Big Rock Canyon was the first place I ever felt the mysterious side of the desert. It was a place where cattle had been run, and on occasion, my parents would find a cattle skull or bones in a wash somewhere. When we hiked there, it often felt like I could see something move up among the boulders, out of the corner of my eye. It was as if something was pacing us and keeping an eye on our movements. There were no other human beings around.

But on this trip, things were going to get really strange, really quick.

Our trip up Pipes Canyon had left us with less time to prepare for dinner before it got dark. We built a modest rock circle and built a fire in it. We had a grate to put over the fire. I know we didn't have anything fancy, maybe just something like hot dogs and beans or something. In any event, as we began cooking, the sun went down and it got dark. I looked up and noticed a light to the northeast. I told my dad, as another light, and yet another, joined the first light. We watched as they circled a mountain in the distance.

More lights joined them, until there were five or six lights all circling the mountain in changing patterns, horizontally circling, then vertically - like a ferris wheel. My dad was trying to cook and watch at the same time. He told me, "If they come closer, let me know and we'll get out of here."

They put on quite a show with their circling changing patterns and speed, their circle expanding and contracting. It was completely silent. I remember thinking if this was the Marines, we should hear something. But there was absolutely no sound while this light show was going on.

Then, the lights began zooming behind the mountain and vanishing - some with an enormous flash that lit up the night sky. The light show had been going on for quite a while, and now, the lights had all dived behind the mountain. It became dark again.

But then one, two, three lights emerged once again from behind the mountain, wobbling in their circle formation. They circled about, slower and less steady than before, and eventually dropped behind the mountain again and were gone.

The next morning, we got up and drove to Giant Rock for breakfast. George Van Tassel and his wife ran a cafe there where we had breakfast. After breakfast, we noticed that the door to the room under Giant Rock was open, so I went down the stairs. As I recall, it was like a library of some sort down there, and there was an old man in the library whom I began to tell about our strange light show the night before. He didn't seem too interested, even scowled a bit. It was George Van Tassel himself, and if he didn't see the UFOs, they couldn't have existed.

When we departed Giant Rock, we headed back to Rimrock where we unloaded my motorcycle. Then my father and I raced up the back road to Big Bear before heading home. It was a great trip.

I remain open to explanations about the light show and the possibility it could have had something to do with the military. But it wasn't any kind of ordinary maneuvers and there wasn't any kind of sound. Living in the area now for over 18 years, it's hard to believe that the lights we saw could have been helicopters, because you can hear the helicopters from miles away (as I'm writing this, I'm being serenaded by the sound of artillery fire from the base - rumblings that sound like distant thunder). They couldn't have been aircraft other than helicopters because of the way they moved, and they weren't flares (I've seen multiple flare drops out here by the Marines and they're more golden in color and while they hover quite nicely as they slowly drop to the ground, they don't do aerobatics).

1972: Farewell to the desert - lights in the sky, Giant Rock, and George Van Tassel

From that camping trip to the mid-1990s, when I returned to the hi-desert for my cousin's wedding, I could mostly be found in the Pacific Northwest. I didn't return to the desert as I graduated from high school in Grants Pass, then lived and went to college in Portland, finally moving to Seattle in 1987.

Mid-1990s: Desert visit

April, 2000: Desert Spring break vacation, purchase home in desert

2000: Full time move to the desert

In 2000, my wife and I found ourselves sick of the dark, dank rain of a rainier-than-usual Puget Sound winter. We couldn't afford a trip during Spring break to Hawaii, which was our first choice, so instead, we decided to pay my Aunt Vickie and Uncle Bill, along with Grandma Pearl (Grandmoose!) a visit in Yucca Valley. Uncle Bill was working as a psychologist and counselor out on the Marine base, and Aunt Vickie had a hair salon in town. We quickly found - to our stunned amazement - that property prices were ridiculously low, and we purchased a home on two acres before the week's vacation was out. We had no idea when we would move to the desert, or how we would make a living when we did, but we wound up moving down that September. We were out of the gloom and damp and into the ream of the sun.

Since September 2000, we have lived in that home we purchased on Spring break in 2000, and the longer we live here, the harder it is to imagine living somewhere else. It's been difficult to make a living here, but we both love the desert so much that it's truly become a part of who we are, spiritually and otherwise.

This past spring, we had a pair of Cooper's hawks nest in the trees in our front yard. This fall we've had a pair of Great Horned owls move into the neighborhood. We have wildlife on our property every day, and our cat, Juliett, who is really an elusive and rare Mojave Sand Leopard, joins me for walks on the property every morning and evening when we're here. Our life in the desert isn't perfect, but it is very satisfying and rejuvenating. We have a national park just minutes from our front door, several nearby national monuments, a national preserve, lots of wilderness areas and BLM lands - wide open spaces with expansive vistas, rough and rugged mountains, stunningly beautiful light, and deep, dark night skies. We're not financially wealthy, but sometimes, it feels like we're rich, and I'm grateful for the blessings we've received. It's a good life here.

I've been privileged to expand my view of the desert through my occupation. As a desert journalist, I've run a regional desert magazine for 14 years, produced the visitor guide for the Joshua Tree area, a local Joshua Tree newspaper, a visitor map, over 13 years of a weekly entertainment calendar radio show, and two seasons of a regional PBS travel TV show. I was even elected president of the California Deserts Visitors Association for 3.5 years, and promoted desert travel for nine consecutive years at the largest consumer travel show in the country. I've traveled the Southwest extensively (though I always want more road trips!), and have led tours and conducted presentations on the desert.

When I purchased my magazine in 2004, someone came to me and asked what I was going to write about since there's nothing to write about in the desert. I told them they couldn't be more wrong. I explained that even if I published the magazine monthly until I was 100 years old, there would still be a long list of people, places, events, and topics that I wanted to get to, but didn't. The more I learn about the desert, its people, history, natural history, wildlife, and more - the more I add to the list of stories I want to explore and share. The desert is a part of me now - it's the landscape of my soul, wild, lonesome, raw, desolate, and life-giving, all wrapped into this land and life I love so much.

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About Me

Just an old sea cook seeking an outward bound voyage.

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© 2019 by Shanghai Brown, Sun Runner Media.