It’s a fiercely windy morning in the Inland Empire’s high desert. Desert sand crunches underfoot and the icy gusts ripping through the barren area make tears race down my cheeks. Nearby, shrubs polka-dot their way up the snow-covered Big Bear Mountain. Backed up against the cloudless blue sky, the scene unfolding is the perfect display of the sublime beauty of the Southwest desert.
For a Friday morning, there’s no action here. Nothing at all. Unless you count a student film project parked on an open expanse of land, getting ready to jerry-rig a camera to a motorcycle for something their group is working on.
“The winter is slow,” says Stacie Samuels, who owns Pioneertown Motel, along with her husband. Right now, it’s just my room being rented.
On this morning, slow is an understatement.
We’re the only ones here. And, the area we have come to tour, a Hollywood lot fashioned after a 1870s frontier town, Pioneertown, is closed.
Ground first broke in late 1946 with Roy Rogers flinging the first shovel of desert sand. Dreamed up by Hollywood investors, Pioneertown is a lot like Bonnie Springs. It’s got gun fights. It’s got the old western motif. But, there’s more to it. There’s a history here that unites Hollywood and the magic of film with the desert.
Today, Pioneertown is more tourist attraction that movie set, although the soundstage still stands at the far end of the little town.
It’s had the likes of Roy Rogers crunch down the same desert sand road as I walk. It’s been the on-location spot for shows like “Cisco Kid.” Hundreds of films have used the old west façade as a backdrop for stories, along with a handful of television shows.
The beauty of Pioneertown isn’t just the recreation of an old west town – it’s the interaction people get in exchange for a four-mile, windy jaunt up a mountain road from Yucca Valley, California.
On weekends, especially from February through autumn, Pioneertown is alive. There are two groups that stage gun fights and old west re-enactments– the Pioneertown Posse and the Gunfighters for Hire.
But, there’s more. The buildings, which on other sets are merely facades, have meat to them. There’s a throw-back bowling alley, which, according to the Morongo Basin Historical Society, is the oldest in the state still in use. A general store. A pottery gallery and more.
“People that come here either get it … or they don’t,” remarks Samuels.
It’s easy to see what she means. Not everyone is impressed with an old west town that was a part of the Hollywood western film heyday. Or the rustic – and darling – inn Samuels operates.
Pioneertown Inn is old. About as old as the town itself. With 17 rooms, it’s not posh. Or luxurious. But, it is comfortable and homey.
The rooms offer the basics – a little front patio, a country-quilt covered bed, bathroom (complete with books for reading materials), big closets, windows that let sun spill in and a wall with kitchen necessities that include a sink, stove and microwave. For the ones who believe, stay in room 13. Rumor has it, it’s haunted. Don’t worry — according to Samuels’ the ghost is reportedly friendly.
Travel Tip: While you’re there, be sure to swing by the famous Pappy & Harriet’s Pioneertown Palace, adjacent to the main drag of Pioneertown.
Originally a cantina for the town, today, it’s a restaurant/bar/music venue that ropes in renowned musicians including Lucinda Williams and Robert Plant, celeb guests (Ryan Gosling has been counted among the crowd), and a general crowd of laid-back hipsters, marines and families.
Make sure you swing by the bar and then the restrooms.
For the fascinating backstory on this desert hotspot, check out the story I did for Vegas Seven, “In the Shadow of the Old West, an Unlikely Music Venue.”
Have you ever visited a Wild West town?