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Decompressing, Desert-Style : A Welcoming Inn Was the Unpretentious Key to This Threesome's Getaway

January 23, 1994|JUDY DUGAN | TIMES STAFF WRITER: Dugan is an assistant Op-Ed editor at The Times. and

TWENTYNINE PALMS, Calif. — Owning a dog falls somewhere between a cat and a kid: You can leave a dog alone all day, but you can't leave it for the weekend, which is possible with a cat. OK, a dog is a lot closer to a cat than a kid, but you get the idea.

When my husband, Rob, and I do short trips, we're always on the lookout for nice places that welcome our enthusiastic 65-pound Australian shepherd, Alice. That's one reason, but far from the only reason, we return again and again to the 29 Palms Inn.

There's also the allure of nearby Joshua Tree National Monument, which, for the price of driving only an hour beyond Palm Springs, offers a complete release from urban pressure--captivating geology, very few people, a rich history--and, of course, the ugly-but-gorgeous "forests" of Joshua trees (which aren't trees at all).

Rob and I planned a three-day weekend of total decompression, one or two challenging but not life-threatening hikes, a massage, maybe even some lazy hours around the pool. We got the decompression, but the weather wrought some surprising changes in the plan.

On a gray and cloudy Saturday morning, we bought sandwiches at the deli and headed out in our rented Ford Explorer (a real indulgence at $69.95 a day from Enterprise Car Rentals, but a necessity for reaching some otherwise inaccessible places in Joshua Tree). It was nearly noon when we hit the Interstate 10 freeway headed east, mostly because any vacation story that begins with "We rose at dawn" isn't one I want to emulate. When traveling with a dog, you can't be sure of finding a fully shaded parking spot at a restaurant, so pack a picnic. Otherwise, you get to eat drive-thru fast food in a vehicle with a drooling, greedy animal.

We turned north on California 62 near Palm Springs and pulled into the high-desert town of Twentynine Palms about 30 minutes of steady climbing later. "Twentynine" is best known for the enormous Marine base of the same name five miles north of the town center.

*

The inn is a throwback sort of place. Zero glitz. No room service, golf, tennis or manicured lawns. Old bathrooms and questionable water pressure. No room phones. No color TV (just a grudging little 13-inch black-and-white. How 1950s.).

But here's what it does have: One-room guest cottages of hand-cut adobe bricks, each with a fireplace. Poems (Pablo Neruda) painted on the outside walls. Handmade wooden doors, Mexican tile floors, bent-twig headboards on the beds. Hand-decorated textiles. A genuine palm-ringed desert oasis. A flock of geese. A huge vegetable garden. Ownership by the same family since 1928. Kids and pets welcome. Free homemade muffins and coffee for breakfast. And best of all, the romantic little "adobes" go for $60 a night ($85 weekends).

By the time we were settled, it was windy and chilly and late in the day. Instead of a hike, we went for a quick drive into the Joshua Tree National Monument, 870 square miles at the junction of the Mojave and Colorado deserts, encompassing terrain from lowland desert to high-altitude forest and the largest expanse of Joshua Trees anywhere.

If the pending Desert Protection act is made law, Joshua Tree will become a national park, with a bigger budget and eventually more visitor services. Now, there is not a single place to buy food, gas or lodging inside the park, though there are several small campgrounds. Another consequence of national park status will be the barring of dogs (which are currently welcome, leashed, on nature trails but not in the back country). Poor Alice.

We paid homage to the sunset at Keys View (a 5,000-foot viewpoint named after Bill Keys, a rancher whose 1930s holdings form the core of the monument). We hopped out for an admiring gaze as the sun dropped behind the San Jacinto range and, teeth chattering, raced back to the car and downhill 3,000 feet in altitude to the inn.

Michelle, the bartender, handed us the key to the Japanese-style shoji-screen gazebo that houses the hot tub, tucked in a grove of trees at the edge of the Oasis of Mara (a desert treasure that the inn shares with the monument's nearby visitor center). Most of the inn's business is conducted at the bar and restaurant, next to which, in warmer weather, is a very inviting pool.

During our visit, the inn was full to the last bed with fashion shoots. One for French Elle (shooting winter wear), the other for Eddie Bauer (summer clothes). OH OH. This unpretentious, ingratiating little place is getting awfully discovered, which means reservations are advisable on weekends.

Our bed was a cramped standard double, with the saving grace of a really good mattress. Restless sleepers should ask for twin beds. In the middle of the night, we were awakened by pouring rain, with thunder and spectacular lightning. The next morning, temperatures were near freezing with a brisk wind.

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