Is Joshua Tree the New Marfa?

Geographically, geologically, and climate-wise, the two towns share quite a lot. Like the Mojave Desert in California, West Texas’ Chihuahuan Desert is a landscape that gives way to scrub, dunes, and mountains. Deposits of gypsum (a soft mineral left behind hundreds of years ago by a Permian Sea) host plant life that specifically evolved to grow there. And Joshua Tree’s namesake, spiky yucca plants, are likewise native to the broad region encompassing the Mojave. Both are high deserts — meaning hotter-than-hot summers and freezing cold winters.

Driving through Marfa on a Thanksgiving road trip a couple years back, my husband and I were horrified to learn that temperatures would drop to 26 degrees Fahrenheit the night we were there. We were glamping at the “nomadic hotel” El Cosmico, in whose gift shop we ultimately purchased a quilt. The next morning, we enjoyed scalding hot outdoor showers (thankful that no pipes froze!), and we watched our breath form clouds as we power-walked to and from our accommodations.

This past March, we opened an art and event space in Yucca Valley, and thusly have suffered the kinds of unending summer days that make you want to douse yourself in the coldest water you can find and then go stand naked in front of a fan… or the local swamp cooler.

Visitors associate both destinations with nearby national parks, Big Bend being 100 miles from Marfa and Joshua Tree so close to its neighboring land that they share a name.

Although maintained by Uncle Sam (for now), the two parks lend their respective towns a seemingly-ungoverned, Wild West sensibility. They are places in which you can encounter rattlers and scorpions and don cowboy hats/boots without irony.

I should include a huge disclaimer here. When I say “Joshua Tree,” I mean both the official “census-designated place (CDP)” with its saloon, park entrance, and crappy coffee as well as its bordering towns of Pioneertown, Landers, Yucca Valley, and Twentynine Palms. Since the inception of Airbnb, people — creatives, artists, visionaries, and other aspiring homeowners; not only from LA but from Brooklyn, Seattle, San Francisco, and elsewhere — began buying up properties within a certain radius of the CDP and throwing their hats into the ring of a growing economy. A quick search on the app and/or on Instagram yields minimally-decorated Airstreams and tipis of the El Cosmico genre, haciendas, and galvanized cowboy tubs, artists’ lodges, and recording studios.

This energy is palpable and is by no means limited to Airbnb hosts and Instagram influencers.

It exists in conversations and future collaborations, in shared visions and meals, in the bars and restaurants and coffee shops that will be built to add variety to the two or three that already exist and which everyone frequents. (If Joshua Tree is the new Marfa, then great food is on its way!)

And yes, while the creative energy is clear, Joshua Tree is not a vacuum. Instead, as if in a microcosm of America, it exists right alongside a much different conversation, between the lines of an existing world.

That world is where the Bear Arms gun shop was built, which my husband photographs as if it were a relic. (I fear it is not.) A large billboard, featuring the giant face of a baby with crystal-blue eyes, each about the size of a basketball, offers support for pregnant women who aren’t sure what to do. A church marquee recently read, “Is the Lord your Daddy?” Before the midterm primary elections, opposing signs battled over whether marijuana should be allowed to be grown here. On Saturday morning, groups of women attend Jazzercise classes, because, well, they’re actually a pretty good workout. On the wall inside hangs a framed black-and-white photo of the founder, Judi Sheppard Missett.

All of this is a far cry from the sophisticated infusion of art and art funding that Donald Judd and his Chinati Foundation brought to Marfa. Nor can Joshua Tree offer incoming and outgoing visitors a conceptual Prada store they cannot go into (though it’s worth researching Desert X). And don’t stop streaming KCRW from your phone as you exit onto California Route 62, for there is no Marfa Public Radio in Joshua Tree.

Marfa is where I once spotted ART ART ART on a gas station sign instead of prices, where I ate the best fried chicken bánh mi of my life, and where I dawdled around the empty bar of a beer garden that only the day before had been bustling with film festival-goers.

Our time in Yucca Valley has offered up a different set of memories that still seem, somehow, to correspond. Once, on a walk, a neighbor’s dog smelled our own dog, introducing us via this encounter to his owners, a visual artist and a weaver, whose studio was only two blocks away. On another evening, friends cooked us authentic Vietnamese bánh xèo over an open flame as the sunset went ombre from blue to violet. And we’ve sipped icy margaritas, fought for tables, and slow danced during countless concerts at Pappy & Harriet’s over the years.

There is an idea I’ve heard repeated over and over in the desert that other places — the Brooklyn’s, the San Francisco’s, even the LA’s — “have happened,” past tense, which I’ve taken to mean that for new iterations of creative restructuring or reshaping, more investment is needed than is feasible for most artists. There is a certain corporatism in those places now, a corrugated metal and reclaimed wood aesthetic that must be observed, not expounded upon or changed.

And that is what Joshua Tree is now: a place that is happening. Present tense.

Lara Wilson Townsend is a writer, brand designer, producer, and movement artist, who, along with her husband and puppy, attempts to cram her various interests and occupations into an ongoing project called Compound Yucca Valley (@compoundyv), an art space in the high desert.

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