Not so long ago, Yucca Valley was little more than a watering hole alongside a dusty desert trail between the gold mines near Twentynine Palms and the railroad in Banning.
For the handful of residents, there were few occasions to enjoy a long weekend or indulge in a big party. Work was hard, the hours long, and neighbors with whom you might celebrate were few and far between.
Of course, Southern California's high desert communities have come a long way since mining's heyday. Today's desert local is more likely to commute to the city than to the mine shaft, and doesn't need much excuse to dust off the boots and join in some fun.
In Yucca Valley, Memorial Day weekend means Grubstake Days, a three-day celebration--starting Friday--of the area's rich mining and ranching heritage. Named for the advance of cash and supplies that gave early settlers their start, Grubstake Days is a chance for participants to remember the past while enjoying the present.
The annual party began 41 years ago when a postwar influx of veterans and other military personnel began turning scattered settlements into bustling towns. Worried about losing sight of their roots, miners and ranchers organized a small festival. Although little mining is done there these days, the celebration has continued to grow and this year is expected to draw 25,000.
According to Tracie Hampton of the Yucca Valley Chamber of Commerce, the idea behind Grubstake Days is to throw "a major party with a small-town flavor." In keeping with the Old West theme, businesses decorate in 19th-Century frontier style. Folks in period dress stroll the streets, some of which remain unpaved. Storytellers and local historians engage visitors in local lore, and the atmosphere seems to come straight from the pages of Zane Grey or Louis L'Amour.
Evelyn Conklin, a Yucca Valley resident for 33 years and last year's Grubstake Parade grand marshal, approves of how the event shows off the area. "It's a big gathering, a chance for everyone to take pride in the community," she explains.
The Grubstake Parade, which kicks off Saturday at 10 a.m., will feature the U.S. Marine Corps Band and Color Guard from Twentynine Palms as well as local school bands, clowns, equestrian units and a sizable fleet of antique cars. The Linn twins, brothers who founded a settlement north of Yucca Valley in 1950, will serve as honorary co-grand marshals.
Children of all ages will want to sample the death-defying carnival rides that begin spinning, twisting, and shooting through midair Friday evening. Open throughout the weekend, the fairgrounds will serve as the hub of many Grubstake activities, including games booths, an art exhibit and a food fair offering everything from Thai cuisine to curly fries.
There will be helicopter rides for those who wish a dazzling aerial introduction to the region's unusual geography, and, for those who prefer their introductions more up close and personal, daily showcases of local talent. Expect more than the usual selection of crooners and thespians; at least one scheduled performer lists her talent as "spoons."
One of the most popular events is the Grubstake Rodeo, a calf-ropin', bronco-buckin' affair in which rodeo stars ride for points toward their ranking as well as cash. Officially sanctioned by the Professional Rodeo Cowboy Assn., the competition is fierce--for spectators as well as competitors--so get there early for a seat.
For the sports-minded, activities run the spectrum, from physically challenging to completely silly. Visitors may take part in the 10K, 5K and 2K footraces that loop through residential Yucca Valley. The starting gun for these events will go off early Sunday morning.
Arm wrestling more your style? The strongest handshakes in the desert will square off Saturday afternoon and Sunday morning. If you prefer team events (and more muck), there will be tug-o-war competitions, complete with a giant mud pit, each afternoon.
But those with a taste for the truly unorthodox may want to pass up the traditional athletics and save strength for the "Bike Throw." A cross between shot-putting and what happens when your gears jam one too many times, this sport pits contestants handlebar to handlebar as they hurl two-wheelers across a field. (Bicycles will be provided.)
When the sun sets, get ready to kick up some dust. A square-dancing exhibition and live country-Western music will carry the festivities into the night.
For folks who just can't wait to get started, there will be a Friday morning breakfast during which Yucca Valley's new honorary sheriff will take office. Chief among the sheriff's duties will be to throw a number of Grubstake visitors into jail. The fact that this jail is a float in Saturday morning's parade might make any sentences a little more palatable.
Getting there: From the west, take the San Bernardino Freeway (I-10) past the turnoff for Palm Springs, then take Highway 62 north to Yucca Valley. It's 110 miles from downtown Los Angeles. Information: (619) 365-6323.