I caught a charming Tuesday-night performance at Jeremy's by the Barbers, a Texas-based husband and wife who perform mostly original compositions. While I sipped a fresh-squeezed apple juice (a bit pricey at $4, but cold and tangy), the Barbers held forth on guitar, antique pump organ and harp. (Elaine Barber plays the same harp for the Austin Symphony.)
"We went out driving amongst the rocks today," singer-guitarist Lee Barber drawled between numbers, addressing a crowd of about a dozen. "Fairly odd out there."
I began my rounds of all these places about noon on a warm September Monday and took to a strategy that lasted most of the week: By day I usually kept to my car and the insides of cool buildings. (Want a sure-fire conversation-starter? Ask a local about the merits of swamp coolers versus air conditioners.) Around sunrise and sunset, I hiked and scrambled around rocks.
But for the Desert Queen Ranch, I made an exception.
The Desert Queen is just off the beaten path, not far from the dangling rock climbers on the boulders in Hidden Valley. Though it hasn't become as famous as Scotty's Castle, its counterpart in Death Valley, the place carries just as many odd historical echoes. Access is limited because of the ramshackle site's delicate condition, but since 1976 rangers have led tours from October through May.
By disclosing my journalistic mission, I wrangled a private tour from ranger Laureen Lentz, who drove me out the sandy dirt road to the old ranch and outlined the long, strange life of William Keys, crotchety pioneer.
Born in Russia, raised in Nebraska and friendly with Death Valley miner Walter Scott, Keys acquired the 160-acre ranch site in 1917 at age 38. After marrying the following year, he and his wife, Frances, raised five children in the remote desert, scraping together a living by mining and serving as landlords and provisioners to other miners.
The site today is full of Keys' improvised solutions to desert challenges--from a homemade dam to the old bedsprings used to strengthen concrete walls. The property features a schoolhouse, an old Ford and countless bits of iron and steel that Keys used for irrigation or mining.
The remarkable thing about the Keys family's pioneering is that it happened so recently. The ranch didn't begin until World War I was mostly done, and the boldest of Keys' exploits--when he killed rival settler Worth Bagley in a shootout over property rights--didn't happen until 1943. Keys was 64 when the shootout took place and served five years in prison before being paroled and pardoned. He returned to the ranch for 20 more years.
My favorite artifact on the tour was a tombstone Keys made to mark the spot where Bagley died--or, to use the phrase Key scratched onto the stone, the spot where Bagley "bit the dust."
On my last full day in the desert, I headed out into the flatlands several miles from the park's western entrance to the open-air studio of Noah Purifoy, a place glimmering like a plumbing supply salesman's hallucination.
Purifoy, now 83, has filled most of his spread with art installations. Here, a circle of reclaimed toilets; there, a row of bowling balls on strings. Beyond, constructions of cigar boxes, dice, a tuba.
To the uninitiated it may look like junk, but Purifoy's work can be found at the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York.
Visitors turn up regularly, and are usually given free reign to wander the property. (Purifoy asks that visitors call his associate Sue Welch at  382-7516 before coming.)
The artist moved to the desert from Los Angeles 10 years ago, because, he said, he "wanted to do an 'earth piece.' "
The piece is an untitled landscape of white walls, bridge and trenches. Purifoy still hasn't decided what to call it or "what we want it to do." But he likes the way it looks, mysteriously baking out here in the sun and the dust, adding a dash of human idiosyncrasy to the natural wonder all around.
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Enjoying Joshua Tree and Twentynine Palms
Getting there: Joshua Tree National Park is 150 miles east of Los Angeles via Interstate 10 and California 62, about a 3 1/2-hour drive.
Where to stay: Mojave Rock Ranch Cabins, P.O. Box 552, Joshua Tree, CA 92252; telephone (760) 366-8455, fax (760) 366-1996, Internet http://www.mojaverockranch.com. Each of four houses has two bedrooms and one bath. No pool. Rates: $275 to $325.
Rosebud Ruby Star, P.O. Box 1116, Joshua Tree, CA 92252-0800; tel. (760) 366-4676 or (877) 887-7370, Internet http://www.rosebudrubystar.com. A two-room bed-and-breakfast attached to the home of the innkeeper. Rate: $140 double, with private bath. Two-night minimum on weekends. No pool. Also on property is the B'iltmore Bunkhouse, cabin with kitchenette; $152 nightly, or $193 nightly with the upstairs sleeping loft.