Low Life in the High Desert

David Hirst


Boo and I had come to know the West in a voyage of discovery that had taken some fifteen years and led to Bill’s big iron gates. We had been fortunate in that the mention of Australia has a quite dazzling effect on Americans, especially men.

Many veterans, long retired to the West, experienced the fighting qualities of Australia’s troops in World War II, Korea, and Vietnam. The very first time we visited the desert, in 1984, we stopped at a store on a bleak section of Highway 62, about halfway between LA, the Colorado River, and the Arizona state line. An old man, sporting white hair and beard, interrupted me while I was buying supplies and asked whether I was Australian. When I acknowledged I was, he extended his hand, saying, ‘Son, I just want to shake your hand. Best fighting man in the world.’

Deeply embarrassed — my only fighting during the Vietnam War was against police in anti-war demos — I left, and never discovered the circumstances from which he drew this conclusion. His looks suggested World War II, but it was hard to tell. In the desert, people age fast.

In one bar, a local proudly announced to his mates that ‘these Aussies have fought with us in every war’. I agreed that this was largely true, but reminded patrons we had, unfortunately, missed the War of Independence, it precluding white settlement. I added that it was doubtful that many Australians had fought in the Civil War.

But this peculiar affection, steeled by battle, remains, and I will admit to unwittingly adding to the Aussie myth myself.

In our journey through the West, Boo and I found ourselves in the town of Cody, Wyoming. We had intended to stay in Utah, but changed our minds when we sat down for a meal in the late afternoon somewhere north of the Zion Monument. I had asked for a wine list, and from the reaction of the waitress might have asked for the Manifesto of the Communist Party. She curtly informed me there was a store for registered alcoholics some thirteen miles to the north. I curtly asked her what was the fastest way out of Utah, and she suggested I consult a map.

We drove, and found ourselves in Wyoming, where I was gratified to see a sign twinkling through the gloaming and the thin sleet that read ‘coctails’. There is something profoundly settling about that sign in a nation with the most confusing quilt of dry and wet states and counties.

We finally arrived in the town of Cody. Cody was dubbed after one of the men responsible for the buffalo slaughter, Wild Bill Cody. It maintains an excellent museum. Much of Wild Bill’s guns and clothes are on display, along with the headdress of Sitting Bull, and Annie Oakley’s pistols. We spent an hour or so studying the stuff and gleaning bits of history before I repaired to a bar, and Boo set off to check out the local thrift stores.

Most Western bars are dark. This was as dark as the inside of a dog in a cave. I ordered a beer, and was approached by a few drinkers and asked, inevitably, if I was from Australia. Discovering I was, they invited me to join them at the gaming tables. (Another advantage of being Australian is that one is most unlikely to be an undercover cop.)

The game involved rolling five dice from a special cup with a leather bottom onto the table. Each player gets three rolls, and must accumulate a six, a five, and a four before the other dice can be counted as a score. The highest score wins the dollar or so that each player must pay to play.

The drinkers were cowboys. Two were rodeo hands who had taken leave from their troop due to injuries. One had a broken leg; the other, some sort of spinal problem. Nothing that could prevent them drinking and gambling. The game was, of course, illegal, having been banned about the time women were given the right to vote. I joined them, and in a few moments had won a hand — the game only requires enough skill to be able to count.

As my eyes adjusted to the dark, I noticed that the boys all had small round circular tins on which I read the word ‘snuff’. I hadn’t tried snuff in years, and was surprised to find what I considered an English pastime here in the centre of the American West.

I asked if I could try a little, and a tin was immediately handed to me. I took a pinch, and before I sniffed it noticed that the grain felt thicker than the fine powder I used to sniff. The kick was that of a horse, and almost blew my head off. Tears streamed down my cheeks as the stuff exploded through my nostrils and seared through whatever comes after them.

In the dark, no one could see the tears, or notice that my head had doubled in size, assuming the proportions of an American tourist. Slowly, the pain receded, and I continued to play. But my heart was no longer in the game, and I sorely needed fresh air. I said my goodbyes, and made my way to the batwings. As I stood recovering, I heard the rodeo hand with the broken leg say, in a reverent tone, ‘Those Aussies are tough. They snort chewin’ tobacco.’

I was crying like a baby.

We travelled south from Cody and made our way back to 29 Palms, the service town for the world’s largest marine base, and for tourists who wish to explore the wonders of Joshua Tree National Park.

In a bar near the base, over a beer and a pool game, I met an unlikely instrument of intelligence. He was of medium build but well muscled. His hair was shaved close, and I naturally took him for a marine.

‘You a grunt?’ I inquired, as I selected my shot.

‘No, I’m Donovan’s son,’ the young man replied.

I was surprised enough to miss my shot. I had not expected to meet the son of a balladeer of the sixties in a tiny dive out in the baking flats amongst rattlesnakes, scorpions, roadrunners, and cactus, all surviving in the harsh and terrible beauty of twisted, mangled, and tortured wilderness. And that was before the marines began using the desert to bomb and blast with their cannons and gunships.

‘Well, I’m not really Donovan’s son. He just married my mother. I’m really Brian Jones’s son,’ the lad continued.

This, I thought, was getting interesting. I missed another shot.

‘Make your mind up, man. You’re either Donovan’s son, and that’s nothing to be ashamed of, or you’re the son of the man who built the greatest show on earth.’

The young man explained his antecedents. Donovan was touring England at the time when Dylan and Joan Baez were doing the ‘Don’t Look Back’ tour. I don’t think he had seen the film of the tour, and as Dylan had mocked Donovan mercilessly, I didn’t raise the matter. The son explained that Brian’s wife was pregnant with him when he drowned.

Brian had been my favourite Rolling Stone until his death, and Mick the usurper. We chatted about Brian, and he seemed happy that someone knew and once adored his biological father. How many people had he met out in this redneck wonderland who were even vaguely familiar with his father’s legend or the murky circumstances of his death? They knew about Donovan, who had moved to the High Desert and established a recording studio.

So I probed him about the area, about what I might have missed. You have to be keen to find the wonders of the wild parts of America. The best trick is to find a bar and work its inhabitants. Donovan’s son, or Brian’s son, was dismissive of the desert, and the desert was later to become dismissive of him after three DUI charges.

Perhaps because I knew something of his real father, the son sat and thought. ‘You might like Pioneertown,’ he suggested.

An hour or so later, we took the unmarked road that takes one to the true High Desert. These days, a large sign directs far too many travellers away from the Taco Bells, the KFCs, and the Jack in the Boxes of the desert town of Yucca Valley. But back then, you had to find the place yourself. It’s only six kilometres from the stretch of fast-food joints that line the 62 highway, but the climb is rapid, and the world changes fast.

We passed through a wonderland of jagged granite, which makes up the Sawtooth Mountains — rock piled upon rock, towering hundreds of feet above the winding road. Dramatic pink during the day, delicate mauve as the sun falls. We kept stopping, baffled by the drama of the place. Yucca, pinyon pine, Joshua trees, and cactus of every make and shape added to the sensational drama of a landscape straight out of every Western you’ve ever seen. Then the road flattened, and the drive was crowned by a huge freewheeling, sprawling saloon.

Pioneertown is a town of the Western imagination. Built in the 1940s as a replica of the towns of the Old West, it was named after The Sons of the Pioneers, a band once as popular as The Rolling Stones, who were almost as popular as The Beatles, who were more popular than God.

It was founded by one Dick Curtis, a villain in many a Western in the 1940s. Dick had lent a lady in need $5, and was re-paid with the deed to a parcel of land that he turned into a second lot, a place nestled under the mountains, which looked like everybody’s idea of the Wild West. His plan was to create, within a few hours of Hollywood, a working movie set — and Pioneertown was born. Old-style, rough Western houses, barber shops, brothels, and bathhouses were built along a dusty lane named Mane Street.

The town’s prominent early citizens included Roy Rogers and Gene Autry. Westerns were then so popular that building a town, where actors and crew could stay, created economies of such scale that a single episode of The Cisco Kid shot in Pioneertown would save the producers $10,000. They made over one hundred Cisco Kids, and thus saved more than a million. That’s when a million was considered real money.

The town would have probably passed to dust when the Westerns rode into our rear-view mirror, but people moved into the few houses, and they brought a lot of the Wild West with them. The entire town has only a few dozen houses, but sported three bars, long after the salad days of the movies. And that, combined with the absence of a police force, made for a relaxed but eventful atmosphere.

The folks who moved to this outpost had little time for the laws and their enforcers, and the atmosphere attracted others. Musicians and artists joined the rednecks, the cowboys, and the hippies.

A few hours after we arrived, a moonless night fell. Here, where meteorite showers can be observed so closely that The New York Times gets its pics nearby, the stars lit the dusty roads, while the pine-clad mountains brooded dark all around.

We entered the saloon. It was a dark and unusually roughhewn world. The walls were a mixture of weathered boards, bare cement, and handmade earthen bricks. What little light was allowed in came through wine and whiskey bottles laid between the mud bricks. About twenty men and a fair number of women stood around talking and drinking.

Most of the men sported beards, and most of the women didn’t. Boo, dressed in LA clothes, attracted the usual attention as she joined me, walking through the crew to a bar of solid, cold, unadorned concrete. By the time we were served, one of the men had broken from the group and made his way over to us.

‘Hi, I’m Adam Edwards,’ was his fateful introduction. We greeted him warmly — it was clearly his turf.

Adam was good-looking with finely chiselled features, shoulder-length blond hair, and sharp blue eyes. There was a wildness about him that might have been scary, but he behaved much as though he was the head of a delegation — which, in a sense, we were to find out he was.

Probably aware that we might be concerned, having entered a place where wildness seemed the order of the day, he moved quickly to put us at ease. Pretty much the first thing he told us was that violence was rare in the bar, but if started there were plenty of people capable of finishing it. As I had little intention of starting a brawl with twenty men all capable of putting me away, I nodded appreciatively. But Adam was more interested in Boo than me, and I let him continue to chat her up while I inspected my surrounds.

Adam informed Boo that he was not the only Edwards, and, nodding to an older version of himself, identified his father, John. Adam, we were to discover, held his father in great respect. In fact, his respect for the citizenry pretty much started and stopped with his dad.

The older Edwards was wearing a flat, round-brimmed hat covered in what seemed to be blue cloth. Its rim was tattered, and a scarf was tied around the base. The scarf trailed down the centre of his back. His features were even more stark than his son’s. His nose concluded at a sharp point, and his chin was firm and rock-like. His feet were bare, and his hair flowed long from the hat. The effect was part Indian, part vaquero. Whatever it was, it was fully authentic. These guys didn’t dress up to look romantic — they were what the modern world loses, no matter how hard it strives to find it. Adam, it turned out, was part Sioux or Lakota Indian, with Cheyenne and some white mixed in. John was a thoughtful man, and, on learning that I was thinking of moving to the area, bellowed, being deaf, that I should come out to his truck. With an almost clandestine air he produced, from the bowels of an old Ford, a green can.

‘You will need a lot of this,’ he said, thrusting the thing at me.

‘Bag Balm’, the can announced itself to be.

‘Bag Balm?’ I looked at John for inspiration.

He opened the can to reveal a yellow tallow-like substance with a strong odour.

‘You will need a lot of this — this and duct tape.’ John respectfully returned the lid to the can.

‘It’s a pretty can,’ was the best I could offer. But John was not a man to wax lyrical about a can that contained what could be best described as wax.

I wondered why I would need large quantities of Bag Balm, and John gave me a queer look.

‘For everything,’ he announced. ‘Cuts, sores, bruises, bullet wounds, knife wounds, broken bones — everything.’

‘What is it?’ I wondered as we approached the great wooden doors of the saloon.

‘Well, it’s mostly used to repair cow’s udders,’ John explained.

‘Cows udders get cut up a lot while milking.’

‘Rather like tar on a sheep’s cut,’ I yelled. John feigned deafness or indifference, and we returned to the roar of the bar. Later, I learnt that neither John nor Adam nor any of the scores of the Edwards clan who had populated the High Desert eat sheep, and that sheep did not enjoy a good reputation in these parts.

Back inside the bar, I noticed a distinct contrast between the denizens of the desert and another group of drinkers. The latter were obviously the owners of the shiny new Harleys that were leaning out the front. The locals were clearly the owners of a bunch of dilapidated Fords and Chevys parked so close to the bar that they were almost in it. The weekend bikers, in their desperate search for authenticity, had spent a king’s ransom on the usual black-leather matching pants and jackets, with the inevitable tassels and chaps with their bottoms cut out. There was something terribly pathetic about the weekend outlaws. They had spent too much money achieving the outlaw look — $25,000 plus on the bikes, and God knows what on accessories. They had come all this way to show it all off, only to be ignored by a bunch who had achieved, without a single visit to a boutique, that desperately sought ‘untamed’ look. The two groups stood apart across the pool tables. The untamed ignoring the tamed, while the tamed pretended to ignore the wild bunch. But they could not avoid stealing glances. Their female companions, in particular, seemed to be futilely comparing their men with these men. The tame crowd also seemed to lack social skills. Boo was already in earnest conversation with Adam, and I was mixing freely with the wild bunch. The Harley riders with their perfect leather gear reminded me of the types that frequent the gay bars of Sydney. It was not the look they sought. They had merely tried too hard and spent too much money.

Adam, the self-appointed ambassador for what is variously known as The Club or The Palace (the official title, ‘Pappy and Harriet’s Pioneertown Palace ’, being far too unwieldy) delivered a spiel that I was to hear time and time again when other newcomers arrived at this Wild West enclave.

The Palace, we learnt, had originally been a gas station — thus the concrete floors. This tiny town had once supported three bars, but the Red Dog Saloon, which still stands derelict at the other end of Mane Street, was burnt out by the official opposition, The Golden Stallion. The Red Dog was rebuilt, and The Golden Stallion burnt to the ground by way of reprisal. The Red Dog was fired again, and the tit for tat continued until both went out of action.

The old gas station was bought by Frances. Without Frances there would be no Pioneertown. When she came here forty years ago, the place was on its knees, and her plan was to create a bar of sorts. But the place was awash in the filth that will accumulate in primitive gas stations.

Frances and her burly husband, John, went to work on cleaning up, and a biker couple happened by, requesting beer.

‘You can have all the beer you want if you’ll help us with this filth,’ Frances, then a knockout redhead, told the bikers.

Much work was done and much beer drunk. The following weekend, fifty more bikers — mostly Hells Angels — arrived, and very soon Frances had her cantina.

The place flourished, and on one occasion four Hells Angels were wedded in a group ceremony that still causes people to shake their heads in wonderment.

Somehow, Frances kept the bar neutral, and warring outlaw gangs drank side by side, always leaving their terrible grievances at the door with their guns and knives. Any fighting was done outside on Pioneertown Road. It was a good place for fighting, dusty but dry, with little chance that an automobile would pass by. Some say five were killed in a fight with the Mongols way back then, and that buried beneath the desert dirt sits a dead man on his motorbike. But Frances laughs off such chatter.

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Low Life in the High Desert David Hirst