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Staking claim to a new bohemia

Way beyond Palm Springs' Modernist metroplex, a new tribe of expatriate Angelenos is pushing into the scrub, boulders and reimagined shacks of the high desert. A special issue on its changing landscape.

February 10, 2005|Barbara King | Times Staff Writer

A cold, insistent wind twirls about the high desert sands of Joshua Tree, pushing through doorways, penetrating layers of wool and leather and whipping errant strands of hair across the face.

Up a remote twist of uneven, cleft-ridden dirt roads made more precarious by recent rains, vehicles bump and wobble as if they're mule-drawn wagons. Here and there, cottontails and kangaroo rats scuttle through the scrub brush of the uncompromising terrain.

A water tower breaks into view, and just beyond it a rough-hewn, one-room cabin that is the second home of Ron Radziner, an L.A. architect known for designing boldly contemporary multimillion-dollar houses, and his wife, Robin Cottle, a graphics designer.

They couldn't be more content out here in rattlesnake and black widow country in what they call, with but a slight exaggeration given that it has no electricity and only a pull-down screen to separate the bathroom, "our shack." Look at the rocks, they point out, their colors, the trees among the boulders, the quality of the light, the 360-degree view, the wildlife: roadrunners, hawks, a gliding raven in the distance. And notice the silence. The utter, astonishing quiet. Could they ask for more?

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Friday February 11, 2005 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 52 words Type of Material: Correction
Joshua Tree businesses -- An article in Thursday's Home section referred to a B&B and gift shop owned by Mindy Kaufman and Drew Reese as Slim and Margie's. The businesses are Spin and Margie's Desert Hideaway and Spin and Margie's Trading Post. Also, the Desert Hideaway is a motel, not a B&B.
For The Record
Los Angeles Times Thursday February 17, 2005 Home Edition Home Part F Page 6 Features Desk 1 inches; 54 words Type of Material: Correction
Joshua Tree businesses -- An article in last week's Home section referred to a B&B and gift shop owned by Mindy Kaufman and Drew Reese as Slim and Margie's. The businesses are Spin and Margie's Desert Hideaway and Spin and Margie's Trading Post. In addition, the Desert Hideaway is a motel, not a B&B.

Superlatives fall freely from the lips of the hardy pioneers in Joshua Tree who have been snapping up acreage with a fervor that has so intensified over the past five years, real estate values have shot up by close to 50%. Although it's still relatively affordable in L.A. terms, "lower-end inventory, the typical little cabin on 5 acres for as low as $10,000 or $15,000, is now almost extinct," says Barbara Weeda, a Realtor. "But if you can pay $250,000 or $300,000, you can still find good property" -- often within walking distance of the Joshua Tree National Park entrance.

The existing architecture in Joshua Tree is by and large undistinguished, shack or not, and many houses are all but uninhabitable without tearing them down to the studs and starting over. But it's more the lay of the land, the surrounding views and the general atmosphere that buyers clamor for.

Others besides Radziner and Cottle who bought in time talk too about the silence, although they might call it stillness instead, and they talk about the solitude and the clear expansive sky of day and the inky velvet sky of night splashed with stars that seem more intimate and brilliant in this smogless desert area where they say they can breathe and clear out the psychic cobwebs.

Sandwiched between Yucca Valley and Twentynine Palms in the Morongo Basin, the tiny unincorporated community of 10,000 is the anti-Palm Springs of the Mojave, attracting the chic-phobic looking for serenity, anonymity and the nitty-gritty of the wild.

"The mountains around Palm Springs are beautiful," Radziner observes. "But when I'm there I don't feel like I've really left L.A. Here I feel alive and back in touch with nature. I'm looking for isolation rather than a social environment."

You're not likely to encounter the Polo and pedicure set unless they're lost or on their way somewhere else. Joshua Tree is the new mecca for the artistically inclined who want to escape the chaos and distractions of city life to produce their work. Musicians, painters, sculptors, designers and writers and the occasional recovering corporate refugee make up a good portion of the recent migration.

Eric Burdon has a house here and so do singer Victoria Williams and former Jayhawk Mark Olson, who live together, Johnette Napolitano of Concrete Blonde, the trio from Gram Rabbit, actress Ann Magnuson and her husband, architect John Bertram, furniture designer Blake Simpson, ceramist Juanita Jimenez, Steve Hall of Your Mother Underground Films and installation artist Andrea Zittel, to name a few of the more visible counterculturists. Painter Ed Ruscha is off somewhere in the rural environs, and rumors circulate that Joni Mitchell, Lucinda Williams and Bob Dylan are house-hunting. The late objet trouve assemblage artist Noah Purifoy lived there in a double-wide trailer and left behind a wondrous 2 1/2 -acre sculpture garden of scores of works created out of everything including the kitchen sink.

Adam Peters -- an English-born cellist and composer formerly of Echo and the Bunnymen and currently heard on the No. 1 album in England playing for a group called Athletes -- moved here from New York on the spur of the moment last month with his singer-artist wife Korinna Knoll, with whom he has formed a "left-field European pop music" duo, Neulander.

The couple had never been to Joshua Tree before taking a house on the basis of a realty photo, but "we just felt a kind of calling to come here," he says. "We wanted to live out in the middle of nowhere close to somewhere. We'd seen enough galleries and been to enough gigs and I didn't want to see or hear anything else. All I wanted to do was work."

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