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Remake of the Old West

Built as a Movie Set in the 1940s, Pioneertown Has Become the Real Thing--Eccentrics and All.

November 23, 2003|E.S. Bentley | E. S. Bentley is a freelance writer who lives in Santa Monica.

Buzz Gamble made his way down from the sawtooth mountains, across the wash and onto the dusty cattle path that ran from Big Bear down to the Morongo Basin. Dried out and craggy, Gamble's face wasn't so different from the desert around him. He had spent the last few months hiding out in the remote wilderness, tending a crop of high-grade marijuana.

"Everything came off," he recalls. "Everything went well. And I had done my part . . . I had an old beat-up horse named Buck. It was snowing and I was freezing. Had about six kilos of sinsemilla on my back. Didn't have a dollar to my name." Winter was falling sharp and hard, and the nearest town was still a long ride off. Or so Gamble thought before the blurry outlines of an old Western settlement came into view through the snow.

As he got closer, the town began to look more like something out of an old cowboy movie: weathered brown timber and rickety porches, all with hitching posts. He was pretty sure he hadn't smoked or dropped or shot up.

Not today. Not yet.

He rode down the main street, past a shooting gallery, the sheriff's office and jail, a general store and a saloon. He tied up Buck at the post office and climbed the steps. Inside, he met Fran Aleba, the town's saucy saloonkeeper. She offered to rent him a tiny shack next to an enclosure labeled the "OK Corral." The next day she brought him a cot and a wood-burning stove.

That was in 1976. The place he had stumbled upon was Pioneertown, a tiny desert community about 120 miles east of Los Angeles that was built in 1946 as a permanent location for Western movies. Gene Autry, Roy Rogers and Russell Hayden all rode the celluloid range around here. Rent their movies and see the scene in grainy black and white: the same Sawtooth Mountains, the same General Store, the same Likker Barn.

As a movie set, the place fizzled after nine years. But the buildings left behind have become home to some 275 flinty souls who, like Gamble, happened upon the place and never left. Today Pioneertown may represent a postmodern simulacrum: Intended as a copy of the long lost Wild West, it has over time become the reality. It attracts new pioneers, those drawn to simplicity, open spaces and that mythic allure of the Old West.

My first trip to Pioneertown, in 1994, was for the clean air. And after the air, I went to clear my head, and then to get work done or to get away from the phone, or just to get away. I've told myself a lot of things over the years as I feverishly throw groceries into my trunk, fill the tank and aim for the long, straight 10 Freeway out of L.A.

But recently I've started to wonder if the reason I love Pioneertown is simply the enduring promise implicit in its dusty streets and pristine horizon--the freedom to reinvent myself, to become my very own kind of cowboy. Just look at Gamble. He hobbled into town as an ex-con with dope-stuffed saddlebags. Today he's one of Pioneertown's leading citizens--drug and prison free since '97.

Gamble and I sit by the fire sipping hot cider. Outside the desert night is so black that I couldn't find his door without my headlights. Gamble's home is a generous one, built by an original Pioneertown settler, movie extra Cactus Kate. Twenty-three years in prison left Gamble with a nose like a car wreck, though it's been broken just three times. A down-home racounteur, Gamble spins stories that conjure a world where armed robbery and drug-addled frenzies are about as remarkable as doing laundry.

The first time I met him, he was singing at the local saloon, Pappy and Harriet's Pioneertown Palace. He sings the blues with his eyes shut and his clenched hands smashing at the air. There is something familiar about him, almost reassuring, as though I met him a long time ago. And, in a sense, I did. The outlaw-made-good, with the taste of the bad still in his throat, Gamble is an archetypal character from the dozens of old Westerns that seep together to form my movie memory.

When Gamble muses about how he got to the hills above Pioneertown in the first place, it's as if he's adhering to every rule of the Western movie genre. The fire crackles, our cider's almost gone, and Gamble's voice scratches along with a wizened knowingness:

"Yeah. Armed robbery. Stupid thing. I did a stitch of time on that and when I got outta that I came out here cause I didn't know anybody here. I did one of those things where you lay the map out on the bed and pick a spot."

It's one of those things outlaws do in the movies.

"the mustard gas in world war I, that's what brought some of the first people out," says Ernie Kester, referring to people who settled the area before the birth of Pioneertown. "Suppose you came back from the war and the doctor told you you'd get 10 more years if you moved here?"

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