Berne's job is to look after some 36,000 acres owned by the Wildlands Conservancy, a private nonprofit organization that started as the Pioneertown Mountains Conservancy eight years ago to preserve unique sites. A burly guy in early middle age, Berne wears a uniform and enforces rules, something new in a community that has never been incorporated and thus never had anyone stopping locals from shooting guns or telling them where they can ride dirt bikes.
"There was a lot of gunplay," Berne remembers. "About a mile up from here, we'd hear an automatic weapon up there every weekend." Some people don't like the new rules, others welcome them, figuring a little less shooting is the price of progress.
At first, Berne's wife and kids weren't so excited about moving to Pioneertown, but the desert worked its magic and it has grown on them. Berne has seen others transformed. "People, when they move out here from Los Angeles, at first they'll be making lots of trips . . . and then over the years they're going down there less and less [until] they get to the point where it just seems like some sort of an excursion into an insane asylum, basically."
Somewhere around Redlands, that's where Berne starts to feel the craziness, and it only gets more intense as he closes in on downtown, where it's overwhelming and he can see it in people's eyes as they swerve around him, their heads cranked forward, working phones, making time, getting things done, getting ahead.
I'm taking a hike when I stumble on Madelyn Beatty's place. Dozens of dogs splay themselves against her fence growling as I hustle by. Car carcasses are visible beyond the dogs and, in the distance, a horse. Rim Rock Jack, the caretaker of a cabin I sometimes rent, had told me to steer clear. Beatty likes her solitude, and she has a gun. On the other hand, she knows Pioneertown best. She's been here since the beginning.
When Beatty came to work on the Westerns in 1948, Mane Street was a stretch of cattle trail, horses could ride right up to the bar in the Golden Stallion Saloon, and part of her job description was chasing cows out of the way so that Gene Autry's plane could land. Back then Beatty also ferried "movie people" down to Yucca Valley to find a telephone.
Today you still need to go down there to find a lot of things and, if you ask Beatty, it's too bad the phones made their way up the hill. "Most of the people who came up here had been in the movies and they'd had enough of 'down below,' as they called it . . . .They wanted to get away from things. From the whole thing." Fifty-five years later, the "whole thing" is still well at bay. The lava flow of asphalt that has covered most of Southern California stopped well short of Pioneertown, and life here isn't so different from the life acted out in those Western movies.
After the movie business failed, a huge resort, the Golden Empire, was to be built in the area. Its brochures promised a 1,200-unit apartment complex, three lakes and a golf course, as well as several shopping areas. But when sound waves and drilling failed to find water, the resort plan blew away--and took Pioneertown's growth potential with it.
"Thank God for the lack of water," Suppes says. "It saved this place."
"Saved" is not the word Bob and Nita Vick would use. The Vicks are real estate agents who, over the decades, parcel by parcel, have slowly sold off a huge portion of the land Jones and Murphy obtained. Working out of a home office on Pipes Canyon Road, about a five-minute drive from the town, the Vicks look out at the same vista Gamble staggered through on his way into town. Bob points out the picture window at roadrunners skittering across the driveway. Flattops loom in the middle distance. They talk about water.
They wanted a tiny lawn, which meant drilling a second well. The driller bored to 300 feet--the depth of their existing well. No luck. He kept boring. Finally, at 600 feet, he found a small flow, just enough to support the little patch of green.
Year by year, the area's water table falls. Recently, high levels of arsenic were found in wells, and San Bernardino County posted notices warning people not to drink the water unless it is treated. In 2006, stricter new EPA drinking water standards will take effect, putting the arsenic levels at Pioneertown under even more scrutiny.
Bob recalls seeing a warning on water several years before. "You see the county put a notice on the Post Office wall that said if you drink two liters a day for 70 years, you will get cancer."
"No, No," Nita says. "It said a percentage would. Ten percent."
Their eyes meet. Bob turns back to me. "When you get old, 10% of the people are gonna have cancer anyway. Or something. So what's the difference?" The water situation, Bob concludes, is largely psychological.