August 05, 2012

The Other Ghosts of Pioneertown

Most people know of Pioneertown as a preserved Old West movie set, akin to a ghost town tourist attraction. Like Calico, it stages gunfights and stampedes to entertain local and tourist families, but unlike Calico, it's not a ghost town from the actual Old West, it was just built to look that way.

Pioneertown dates back to 1946 when movie studios built it as a kind of company down for western movie productions, whose structures appear on the outside to be of the period, but inside housed 1940s cast, crew and amenities for them like a bowling alley. Rather than a true ghost town, it's a bit more like Paramount Ranch - only people did actually live there, and there are still operating businesses from a motel to a pottery shop, general store, mercantile, and former cantina-turned-saloon.

But Mane Street - the movie set's main drag that now hosts historical reenactments - is only a sliver of greater Pioneertown, which is a community of real-life people, and whose greater geographic area (including Rim Rock and Pipes Canyon) has a history of homesteading, as well as plentiful natural diversity within the Pioneertown Mountains Preserve.

I tried to visit the Preserve three years ago when I first arrived in Joshua Tree, but the area was still recovering from the 2006 Sawtooth Complex fire, and didn't reopen until 2010.

I haven't had a chance to return and check out the fire recovery until now, but I didn't want to brave unfamiliar territory and 100 degree heat by myself, so I called the Preserve and requested a ranger-led hike.

To my relief, Tom, a Wildlands Conservancy volunteer since 1998, obliged and took me to Chaparosa Peak, a 6.6 mile round trip excursion.

The trail starts out extremely well-defined and well-marked, like many of the Wildlands Conservancy's other preserve in Oak Glen.

But the trail markers soon disappeared as we gained elevation and hiked deeper into what was once overgrown with vegetation, much of which was swept away by the firestorm that ravaged the Preserve, and caused one human casualty.

Although there is some greenery to be seen along the trail, much of what's visible is gravely charred - from the pinyon pines that once gave shade... juniper bushes stripped of their berries, which may never sprout again... joshua trees and everything in between.

Recovery is possible, though - new growth arises from the underground roots of the joshua tree, which somehow were spared from fire damage.

It takes years for many of these plants to recover.

Some may never recover.

But the tragic wildfire - started by a lightning strike - was a force of nature as much as water has been, carving its way through the geologic formations of the Pioneertown Mountains, sometimes splitting a rock cleanly in two.

From the top of the peak, we could see Pipes Canyon Road, the ridge line along the Three Sisters, and the distant Mt. San Jacinto (which was never visible before the fire). The wind whipped around us as we kicked aside potentially ankle-breaking basalt rocks, and dug our heels into the slippery, loose gravel downward pitches.

I was grateful to accompany Tom, who lives only two miles away in a cabin with no electricity or running water, on his daily backyard walk. A man who tries to walk 30 miles per week, he easily led me both on- and off-trail, pointing out the tracks of local deer, mountain lions, and even bears as I mopped the sweat from my face with my red tank top.

We took our time. After all, we both like to look around while we hike.

He waited while I took photos.

And the time passed quickly, though by the time we finished, we returned to a mid-day sun whose heat was untempered by the hot desert breeze.

We then parted ways, I to my car to explore Mane Street and lunch at Pappy & Harriet's, and Tom to the ranger station, and eventually back to his cabin to listen to his battery-operated transistor radio under a starry, open sky, lit only by the moon.

Related Post:
Getting My Bearings

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  1. Pioneertown was abandoned as a movie set in the '60s, when science fiction horror flicks replaced westerns. In the late '60s, biker gangs moved in and raised hell. Then, in the '70s and '80s, a fantastic group of quirky "lost souls" took Pioneertown and made it their own.

    The town's 'mayor' lived in a cement teepee on a hill and dispensed sage advice from its entrance. Pioneertown's 'empress' was an ex-beauty queen who 'taught' a dog to drive her enormous old Cadillac for her. (The alcoholic empress had been forbidden to drive by the town.) Another resident had a car with only three working gears: brake, neutral and reverse. Hence, he drove his car backwards -- all the time.

    Pioneertown had one functioning cafeteria/diner, and its patrons arrived for breakfast in their pajamas. The town's one "tourist trap" was an alleged snake pit: signs along the road directed visitors to fenced-in hole in the ground with rubber snakes inside.

    1. Was the mayor's name Garth? And is this his cement teepee? If so, I met him yesterday.