Episode 120: Tourist Towns with Ken Layne
Desert mythologies, like Desert Sasquatch and Yucca Man (they’re different). The desert economy, and opening restaurants in a tourist town - if you're a resident, you might not eat at them. But still, if you're visiting Joshua Tree and Yucca Valley, Ken’s got some recommendations. (Listen here.)
Katherine: Hello my fellow food nerds. This is Katherine Spiers with Smart Mouth. Thanks for coming back this week. I'm gonna go through the social media stuff first. Please feel free to jump aboard the Patreon train. I'm at patreon.com/smartmouthpodcast. I'm also on Instagram at Smart Mouth Podcast and on Facebook, it's a secret group, so you'll have to search for Smart Mouth. That's two words.
Katherine: We have a listener call in, a woman named Lily. She's explaining to us what you must have to have a good cheese plate. Here we go Lily.
Lily: Hi Smart Mouth, this is Lily and I think you can't have a good cheese plate without brie and that's a fact.
Katherine: There it is. You have to have brie. I like a woman with an opinion. Speaking of women with opinions, multiple, next week, my guest is Katie Parla. She is an Italian food expert who is based in Rome, but she is swinging through Los Angeles and coming on the show. So please tell me if you have any questions for Katie or you can tell me and her, what is your favorite Italian dish? I want to know what your favorite Italian dish is and also, is it really Italian, or maybe it's Italian-American, or maybe something else? So please call in at 209-566-2253. That's 209-566-2253 with any questions for Katie Parla and or some information about your favorite Italian or Italian-ish food.
Katherine: On to this week's episode, my guest is Ken Layne. He's a journalist and we both worked at Gawker Media at the same time, but had never actually met. Now he lives in Yucca Valley which is in California's desert and he has his own publication and podcast. They're both called Desert Oracle. They're both interesting. They're both very trippy. They're very cool. I suggest checking them out.
Katherine: We recorded in his office and there's a lot of background noise, but like I say in the episode, I promise, it really just sounds like soothing ocean waves. I swear it. We open up right in the middle of a discussion about how Desert Oracle came to be. Thanks for listening.
Ken: I bummed around for a year, which I had never done in my life. I started working at papers when I was 15.
Katherine: Me too.
Ken: It's hard to get out of, huh?
Katherine: Yeah. I know. There's something addictive about it 'cause it's a really stupid industry to be in.
Ken: Yeah. Self-defeating and I just kind of wondered for a year what to do and then I thought, "I hate the internet so much after having spent half my adult life working on the internet that I'm gonna do something that's not on the internet." So I started the magazine.
Katherine: Right. Desert Oracle.
Katherine: So you started it, but then-
Ken: I started it in 2015.
Katherine: And you did kind of work your way back to the internet a little bit with this.
Ken: And I did because I do pretty much everything from ... I do all the design, the layout. I write most of it. I distribute it. I do mail order out of here. When a new issue, a new book comes out, I have 3,000 subscribers that I stand here for a week stuffing envelopes and everything.
Katherine: Oh my god. Oh no.
Ken: It's kind of nice to do everything. I can't blame anyone else, but then I started falling behind. I did four issues the first year, then I've averaged two a year since then. I have another one coming out right before Christmas. Then I thought, "You know what I really want to do now that I've started this thing and am anchored to it, is do a local radio show like a Art Bell kind of show." I went into the radio station. It's locally owned. One of the only locally owned radio stations around.
Katherine: That's very cool.
Ken: Yeah. The guy knew the magazine and I said, "I want a show." And he said, "All right. We have local shows on Sunday nights." I said, "No, no." Or Sunday afternoons. I said, "I want Friday night when people are driving up here so that-
Katherine: Oh that's such a cool.
Ken: It starts coming in. So that's ... and then the podcast was, honestly, a afterthought.
Katherine: Well once you're already on the radio, you just post it on the internet.
Ken: Yeah, you just copy it on the ... right.
Katherine: Call it a podcast.
Ken: But people were ... and I finally have realized, "Oh podcasting is this big industry."
Katherine: Yeah, people really go nuts for it.
Ken: That I've fallen into backwards, ignorantly.
Katherine: The best things often work out that way. For context, we're in Joshua Tree. We're sitting in your office which is 10 feet away from the freeway, highway?
Ken: Yeah, eight feet perhaps. You'll really sense it when a semi-truck comes by, which they do about every 20 or 30 seconds all day long.
Katherine: You can just tell yourself it's the ocean though.
Ken: It's true. It is wave like.
Katherine: Yeah, exactly. You moved here to Joshua Tree in 2008, correct?
Ken: Yes or Yucca Valley first.
Katherine: Yucca Valley first and those are two towns that are right next to each other.
Ken: Mm-hmm (affirmative).
Katherine: They are on the north side of Joshua Tree National Park?
Ken: Yes, about an hour north of Palm Springs.
Katherine: Right. If you're heading east from Los Angeles, you would turn a little bit more southward to go to Palm Springs and a little bit more northward to go to the towns of Yucca Valley and Joshua Tree.
Ken: Right, there's highway 62 that branches off and it goes up the Death Shoot up the canyon and then you're in the beautiful high desert.
Katherine: Yeah and high desert versus low desert is a thing that I didn't know about until I moved to this part of the world where it makes a difference.
Ken: It does. The low desert, where Palm Springs is, is the Colorado Desert named for proximity to the Colorado River is part Sonoran Desert, so it's low, hot. The Mojave Desert, where we are now, is higher elevation, colder in winter, and we have the beloved on Instagram Joshua trees.
Katherine: Right. A Joshua tree is a name for, how do you pronounce it? Yucca brevifolia?
Ken: That is very good. Yes.
Katherine: Okay. 'Cause I think they're so treasured partly because they only grow in such a small area of the planet.
Ken: They do. They're the indicator species for the Mojave Desert, so wherever you see a Joshua tree, you're in the Mojave, but they only grow in the high elevations that get more rain and a little snow.
Katherine: Oh, okay.
Ken: So three to 5,000 feet is their range.
Katherine: Oh, okay. I see. Is it true that Mormons named them from the story of Joshua?
Ken: It's true. It's true.
Ken: This is one of my favorite pieces of Biblical trivia. So Joshua is the same name as Jesus. They're both Yeshua and so the Greek version of that name became English Jesus and if the Mormons had used the real name, they would be Jesus trees.
Katherine: That would be more interesting? Maybe?
Ken: Yeah, #JesusTree.
Katherine: #JesusTree. That would be-
Ken: Jesus Tree National Park.
Katherine: Oh, that would be kind of fun.
Ken: But the Mormon pioneers named the Joshua trees for Joshua from the Old Testament in that way that overly religious people often do. A real stretch, you know? They look to these monstrous things full of spiders and rats with spines sticking out that look like some kind of hell monster and they said, "Oh, it's like Joshua praying to heaven."
Katherine: Listen, you gotta make the best of your situation.
Ken: I guess you do and they did in Utah. They certainly did.
Katherine: Yeah, but there were a lot of Mormon settlers that came out this way too.
Ken: There were and there are Joshua trees in a few other places that have large, or at one time large, Mormon populations. The Arizona Strip area where a lot of the old polygamists still live, they have Joshua trees there. There's Joshua trees around Southern Nevada and there's Joshua trees in all the way to the 14 going into the mountains of Los Angeles outside of Palmdale and Lancaster.
Katherine: Yeah. You know, I don't think that most visitors to Joshua Tree think about the religious affiliations and history of it. It was FDR who designated Joshua Tree a national monument, correct?
Ken: That's right.
Katherine: Then it became a national park years later.
Ken: It became a national park with the California Desert Protection Act in 1994 and that expanded several national monuments in the desert up to national park status, including Death Valley. Then it created Mojave National Preserve, which is a national park that did not get the name national park because a right-wing congressman in Palm Springs decided to have a filibuster over it.
Katherine: Really? Why was it important to him?
Ken: Hates parks. Hates parks. Hates public lands like many of that affiliation and gave Mojave National Preserve a budget of $1 for its first year.
Katherine: Did he think that if it wasn't a national park, he could mine in it or something like that?
Ken: Some mining did persevere and you can also hunt once a year in deer season, so it had been public land for as long as California's been part of the Union.
Katherine: Okay. Sure. Well, I guess we're glad that those parks and preserves got whatever protections they did because tourism has grown exponentially in this area in the past few years. What is it? It used to be that there were 300,000 visitors a year to Joshua Tree National Park?
Ken: I think early in the century, yeah.
Katherine: Yeah, and 21st century right?
Katherine: Is what we're talking, so it's not that long ago and now it's four million?
Ken: I don't know what the total is going to be this year. It doubled from about one million to over two million 2016 to 2017 and from the looks of things, it's still increasing because we have traffic jams now, which is lovely.
Katherine: Yeah, so sorry, I just saw in my notes that it's actually on track to break three million visitors this year, which breaks all kinds of records and the traffic jams that you referenced, there are people who live very close to the entrance to Joshua Tree National Park.
Katherine: They sometimes can't get home in a reasonable time, right?
Ken: It's true.
Katherine: I heard that every single campground in the park was booked all of Thanksgiving weekend.
Ken: Yeah, it's like Yosemite now. It's very weird.
Katherine: Has the type of person who visits the park changed?
Ken: I think so. I think it has become a popular, fun vacation spot for millennials in a way that maybe previous generations would've gone to the beach or gone to Palm Springs or gone to Big Bear, so there's fashion in vacation choices of generations, but it's also not affordable for anyone who's not very wealthy to spend weekends at the beach or at Mammoth and that kind of stuff anymore. So Joshua Tree, because it is still relatively affordable as a place to come visit, you can camp, you can get a motel for $50 if you book three years in advance, but you can also get a thousand dollar a night Airbnb, of which there are more of than full time resident homes now.
Katherine: Yeah, I think that this is fascinating, the change, the really rapid change that this area is going through and lots of other people think it's fascinating too. There's no end to articles about it in the Desert Sun, which is the local newspaper. It's just changing the way that your town looks so quickly and I feel it went from a small desert town to a tourist destination within the span of 10 years.
Ken: It did, yeah, definitely since the last recession, since we crawled out of that, this place got hit like everywhere. It had started getting this intentional resident kind of thing in the 2000s. You had people who were moving out of, say, the Bay Area and living here full time, maybe even having a vacation rental, maybe painting animals, whatever.
Katherine: You mean pictures of animals, right?
Ken: I don't mean to say ... Yeah, right. You just wait for a tortoise and paint your name on it. Do not do that, if anyone possibly thinks that's a good idea.
Katherine: The problem is a lot of people do.
Ken: It is true. It's true. My favorite kind of idiot is the kind that paints a peace sign on a boulder.
Ken: It's like, "I'm sorry your mom dropped you on your head so often while playing fish or something."
Katherine: Is that a felony to do that in national parks?
Ken: It's death penalty.
Katherine: Okay, if that's what we need to tell people so that they won't do it.
Ken: It's death penalty and justice is handed out by vigilantes or Yucca Man.
Katherine: What's Yucca man?
Ken: Oh, Yucca Man is our Sasquatch, our Big Foot, the Desert Big Foot.
Katherine: Okay, so this took me by surprise 'cause growing up in the Northwest, I thought Sasquatch was ours.
Ken: Well you have Sasquatch. You have that kind of Chewbacca looking guy, right?
Katherine: Yeah. Mm-hmm (affirmative).
Ken: Are there families of them or are they all male?
Katherine: I think that the mythology is usually around the lone male Sasquatch.
Ken: The family lives in a suburb, I guess.
Ken: It just goes out gathering, working for the tourist department. Yeah, we have, in fact, there are monsters, BHMs, they're often called in the cyrptozoological world, big hairy monsters, all over the world. There's the Yeti in the Himalayas. There's Sasquatch in your native land, the Northwest, British Columbia, Washington, a bit of Idaho. Here, we have Tahquitz down in Palm Springs and you'll see that name everywhere. Tahquitz Canyon is the place where this monster lives and it's a big hairy monster with red glowing eyes.
Katherine: Are they cousins with Sasquatches and Yetis?
Ken: Well there are theories about what they are, but they're consistently found in any wilderness area on earth, in the urban wilderness interface, as the firefighters say. So whatever they are, they're seen everywhere where mountains and trees and wild lands sort of meet where people live and we have the Yucca Man, so named because a tall Joshua tree or a tall Yucca, Mojave Yucca, can look like kind of a lumbering monster with arms in the night.
Katherine: I see. Okay. That all makes sense.
Ken: There's a desert Sasquatch over by Edwards.
Katherine: That's different?
Ken: That's a little bit different. It usually is reported as having blue eyes, so blue eyes, like lasers. You know, just kind of-
Ken: Yeah, so that's a consistent thing.
Katherine: So when I asked you ahead of time what your favorite foods were, you said you had many, but you didn't want to talk about them because you live in a hell hole with no good restaurants.
Ken: It's true. It's very sad.
Katherine: Can we expand upon that? I want to know more about what it's like living in a place that's a small town, that maybe people, most of the people on the globe think of it as a vacation destination?
Ken: It's depressing. When it felt more like a backwater, you could allow for it a little more because it was part of the adventure. You were living out in the middle of nowhere. No one came here on purpose. You get out town before the sun sets, that kind of thing. You'd appreciate your handful of local eateries and you made excuses for them because you were up in the desert and everything is shoddy and half-assed and that's just how it is. But then, it becomes this tourist destination, and especially tourists from Los Angeles and San Francisco and New York and Europe, you know the lands of food, and it's just outrageous. There are theories and reasons why it's difficult to have a restaurant here. One is that Joshua Tree is not a town. It has no government. It is unincorporated San Bernardino county.
Katherine: Oh, who are you ruled by? County?
Katherine: Okay. Are they county official morons?
Ken: Asses. We no longer even have a county supervisor who is based in the high desert. The guy we had just got elected, I think to the state senate or assembly, which I should know better, but it's depressing. Then, Twentynine Palms is a city that is the older town that is around the Marine Corps base about a half hour east of here. Yucca Valley is a city, but Yucca Valley was created as a city only 20 years ago and marketed as a low cost retirement community.
Katherine: Oh, interesting.
Ken: So it's full of kind of cut rate suburbia and Walmart and fast food and that kind of thing. You have layers of populations and because of the housing insanity in Southern California, this area has also become an affordable exurb for people who can no longer afford a house in Palm Springs or Beaumont or Banning or the Inland Empire. It has these kind of layered populations, some that are transient, like tourists, some that are weekenders, some that are the kind of typical Joshua Tree oddball, the musician, the painter, usually they live off Airbnbs.
Katherine: Renting out Airbnbs.
Ken: Mm-hmm (affirmative). Then you have the old white retirees in Yucca Valley, so it's, for numerous reasons, it's very difficult to start a restaurant here and if you do, and it's any good, you're utterly swamped with people, so it doesn't become a viable place to go if you live here. La Copine is the great example of that.
Katherine: So La Copine is, for people who are vaguely aware of where Coachella is and where Pappy and Harriet's is and all that kind of stuff, it's up north the road from Pappy and Harriet's. Is that right?
Ken: Yeah, it's in Flamingo Heights, the kind of Landers, Flamingo Heights area, about 10 minutes northeast from Pioneer Town. This was an old catering business that sat there, unused, with cyclone fending around it, for god, 10 years or something. It was called Hero Catering. Then, Claire and Nikki, god bless 'em, had a vision and they saw this dumb place and said, "We can make this work." They turned it into this beautiful restaurant. It was a breakfast and lunch restaurant for its first two years and then they changed to kind of a lunch, early dinner sort of restaurant. They're open oddball hours.
Katherine: Isn't it, it's 2:00 to 7:00 pm, I believe.
Katherine: They talked about that, their reasoning for having weird hours. They felt like, and I don't know anything about anything here, but that more locals would be able to go?
Ken: I think that was part of it and Claire is a musician. She wanted to spend more time making music and playing and clubs and not having to get up at 4:00 am or however early you have to get up to run a breakfast restaurant, but they're open, I believe Wednesday through Sunday, so they're open almost a full week. They make great stuff, but it's ... Once they were in the New York Times, it was kind of out of the question that you were just gonna stop by and eat.
Katherine: It's that tension between wanting to do well as a business, so needing some sort of media attention, and then getting the media attention and getting overwhelmed. I don't know that there's a solution to it because also, journalists, lifestyle journalists, and I know this because I am one, love to discover new things.
Ken: Oh yeah, yeah. I do too. It's part of what I do with Desert Oracle is try to promote our culture in whatever way that it exists, whether historical or accidental or local businesses and I'm very happy for their success and if there were more restaurant buildings like that sitting around, you'd have more restaurants opening. It's just so expensive to build a restaurant from scratch, so we tend to have a couple of old places here and there. Then you have the chains that are built by real estate developers.
Katherine: Yes and who you know that you're going to make money off of having a McDonald's or a KFC. That's almost a guarantee.
Ken: You'll make money and even if you don't, you build it and you sell it to somebody who has ... You know, it's like these Dollar Generals you see everywhere. Worthless places. We've successfully fought for years and year having a Dollar General in Joshua Tree. There was one planned for just down the road here.
Katherine: And you fought it off?
Ken: People fought it off. Yeah, we had protests, legal defense funds, and some people turned it into a real legal effort and blocked it.
Katherine: Oh, that's great.
Ken: For now.
Katherine: Yeah, down for community organizing. There's a place called, is it Pie for the People or Pizza for the People?
Ken: Yeah, that's the pizza place, Pie for the People.
Katherine: Half hour waits.
Katherine: For pizza.
Ken: Yeah, half hour wait if there's no one there.
Katherine: Joshua Tree Coffee Company, line's around the block.
Ken: Yeah, so those places are in a little building that's at the corner of Park and Highway 62, actually it's one street in from Park. It's called Starlight Plaza and that is owned by local people who moved out here many years ago, John and [Clea 00:26:20]. They fixed that place up. They have the yoga studio and the pizza place replaced a bakery that had been there originally, a decade or so ago. The pizza place was started by this character who has one of those food vans for music festivals.
Katherine: Oh sure.
Ken: So, they go to, I don't know, Sturgis or whatever. What's the one in Tennessee?
Katherine: Mm-hmm (affirmative).
Ken: So they started this place and it was nice because it was the only locally made pizza, not a chain, in the area, but because it's right there at the intersection where people come pouring out of the park. Yeah, you'll wait an hour and a half to get a pizza, which is fine pizza, but it's-
Katherine: It's kind of an unfathomable time to wait for a pizza.
Ken: Yeah, it's absurd, but there's nothing else here. There's the Joshua Tree Saloon which serves hamburgers and chicken wings, you know, usual kind of bar food. Locally owned, it's a quirky kind of place and it used to be my bar. I went there several times a week. You go and meet people for lunch. I go in there with a book and get a drink and talk to the people sitting around me, but you go in there now and they give you one of those little radio flashing buzzer things like you get going to Cheesecake Factory for brunch or whatever. We're just kind of outnumbered.
Katherine: I was reading an article that Eater did a couple years ago that was specifically about chefs from big cities moving into small towns. Sometimes small towns just means less than 300,000 people, but we're talking towns more like this side, which is like 7500 people. It was interesting to see how some of the chefs at least knew how to present themselves well, in terms of being like, "Oh, we just think it's a great opportunity to be in this community and we love knowing all of our customers," but there were restaurant groups who said to the reporter writing this article, "Well you have to change the kind of food you do in small towns, 'cause they don't understand it, people in small towns." I feel like that's just condescending.
Ken: It's condescending a little bit, but the thing about Joshua Tree in the high desert is there's a different population here than the population that comes up for weekends and comes to have weddings and holidays and photo shoots. Oh, we have so many photo shoots.
Katherine: I mean, I can tell because I'm on Instagram.
Ken: Yeah, yeah. It's crazy. There are times when the place where I go walk my dog, which is near the park. It's a county open space, a place that we have driven the illegal campers out of. It took several years, but now there's a gate and it locks at night. There have been weeks when I finish work and go to walk the dog there where there's a different shoot every day for a week. Models standing on top of Airstreams, music videos with 50 people, TV shows, crews, all in this ... which I mean, it's a beautiful place. I've taken photographers there when they are doing a story on Desert Oracle because as beautiful as my office is, you want to see some Joshua trees and boulders. I just wandered so far off the point there.
Ken: The income disparity between visitors and a lot of the full time residents is such that going out for a hundred dollar dinner at a restaurant, like you might do in L.A. once a week on a fairly normal full time salary, is much more out of the question if you're making half that and you have kids or you're retired and on a fixed income, so the Sizzler does very well at senior hour or whatever it's called, early bird. The fast food places like in every rotten part of America, they do well because they're cheap and you just don't have ... It's that balance of trying to find a restaurant that you could make that would serve locals for special occasions and for dinner night out and that kind of thing, and that could also take up some of the human traffic on holiday weekends and our busy season, which is now October through May is pretty much non stop.
Katherine: Right, so I would think about places in Yucca Valley, there's, I don't know if it's Frontier Café or Café Frontier.
Ken: Oh, Frontier, yeah, the coffee place.
Katherine: Okay, so they do breakfast sandwiches that are really, really good and I did have a thought that I think might be bit city condescension too, when I had them, I thought, "Oh, these are better than they have to be."
Ken: Well, those guys moved here from L.A. a couple years ago.
Katherine: Oh, so does that explain it?
Ken: Yeah, yeah.
Ken: Now, no one here ... It'd be great if it happened. It'd be something you can put on a food channel show or but the people here who run places like La Copine, they came from Philadelphia. That's where they had a pop up restaurant, Claire and Nikki, and then they came out here, fell in love with the place, found that building, and did that. Even the pizza place, that's a guy that does music festivals for hipsters. The Frontier used to be a locally owned café and they closed. It was leased to these two guys who came out and god bless 'em, they've done a good job and you need something there on that intersection, Old Town Yucca Valley.
Katherine: I know that in Palm Springs, there's a ton of people from Vancouver who live there and have opened businesses, usually coffee shops or restaurants or bars.
Katherine: I thought that was so interesting. It's so specifically from Canada, I guess that's how communities work.
Ken: Oh, Vancouver loves both the high desert and the low desert so much.
Ken: Yeah. I was in Victoria a couple of summers ago and walking through the old town and all the stores had some sort of shared display for some kind of local thing happening. The displays were all Joshua trees.
Katherine: Oh interesting.
Ken: This was in Victoria. There aren't Joshua trees there.
Ken: But, yeah, the Canadians pour into the desert in their winter time, as do people from Portland. We get tons of people from Portland. I was doing a event at the Ace Hotel on Wednesday night and met a couple afterwards and they were from Portland. They own a record label. They're doing, in sight unseen, they set up a music festival at the Palms out in Wonder Valley, which they're doing this weekend. Now the Palms is a place that is locally owned and run and most people would drive by and not think that they've got good food, but they've got good bar food.
Katherine: I like that sort of thing. I like the unexpected places. My mom and stepdad live in Park City, in Utah, so it's somewhat similar to this. The year round population is the same as this and it's mostly tourists year round, but especially in the winter, some in the summer. Tourism is changing though because it used to be that in Park City, a lot of the restaurants would shut down in the fall.
Katherine: Not all of them do that anymore because tourism is year round. I think Park City is very nice. I think it's beautiful in the summer and winter. I don't understand taking, Matilda doesn't either, taking vacation time to go to Utah in the fall, but that's what people do. A lot of the restaurants in Park City are pretty bad and the theory, or maybe the fact, is that they are catering to visitors, so they don't need return business, so it doesn't matter if it tastes good, 'cause it's not a place where a local ... They aren't going after that audience anyway.
Ken: Yeah, and you see that in places like Mammoth.
Katherine: There's one restaurant in Park City that's in a Latin grocery store. You just walk through the grocery store and in the back and you order at the counter. It's some of the best Mexican food I've ever had. It's called Anaya's.
Ken: We have one of those.
Katherine: It's also called Anaya's?
Katherine: Or you mean a-
Ken: In the back of the grocery, the ... I should drink more coffee. I'm forgetting how to talk. There's a Hispanic grocery in the same old strip mall in Yucca Valley that has the Panda Inn, not Panda Express. There's a local Chinese restaurant there and they are said to have the best burritos around town.
Katherine: I love places like that and I think it's important when visitors go to a small town or a tourist town, to try and seek that sort of thing out.
Ken: Oh yeah, yeah, and the Yelp and that sort of stuff helps because you can, without any local knowledge, look through and find places like that. We just don't have a lot of places like that in general. A lot of people are kind of astounded when they come up here and find that we don't really have any good Mexican or Central American places to eat. That one is pretty easy to figure out.
Ken: We have a now growing, but relatively small, Hispanic Latino population, compared to anywhere else in Southern California and there are various reasons for it. One is because the general population is lower income than the rest of Southern California and so you have a lot less in the way of service jobs that often draw new immigrants, gardening, restaurant work, that kind of stuff. We just don't have a lot of that.
Katherine: That makes sense. It sounds like you are not totally angry at tourists.
Ken: No, no, no. I'm not angry at tourists and I'm part of the problem.
Ken: Well, I publish a magazine romanticizing exactly where we are. I do a radio show and a podcast that is heard by more people outside of this area than in the area. My biggest zip codes for subscribers are Silver Lake and Brooklyn. I'm guilty, so I can't sit here as many people do anyway around here, complaining about the numbers of people who come that make up your customer base, whether you have vacation housing or you sell your paintings of tortoises and bunnies. You can't put a gate on Highway 62.
Katherine: Right, you could try.
Ken: You could try. We put a gate up in section six here to stop people from illegally camping, which they did for many years without being bothered by anyone because there weren't that many of them and because we don't have any local government, so we're hindered by various-
Katherine: Yeah, that would be difficult.
Ken: Things, but a lot of people who live here full time who moved here intentionally to live in the desert, which is a different thing than drive until you qualify, which is how will ... Have you ever heard that term?
Ken: Oh, it's a great L.A. term. Drive until you qualify means you get in the car and you keep going out to the new developments until you hit one that's cheap enough or that you can get into with your current credit or work situation, so you end up in Palmdale or Victorville.
Katherine: Oh, I like that, drive until you qualify. Hadn't heard that, but I know about exurbs, which I think is the same idea.
Ken: Yeah, so Yucca Valley is an exurb and we are at the end of the Los Angeles metropolitan area here, so it doesn't feel like it when you come out from L.A., but-
Katherine: Well, and it's so far. It really makes me feel ill when I think about people who do live here and in Palm Springs and commute to their job in Los Angeles every day.
Ken: Yeah, I don't know many people who do that, but we have a ton of people who commute to the low desert or to the Inland Empire.
Katherine: Okay, that still makes me feel ill.
Ken: So, yeah, you get in the ... I don't like getting up at all, but especially early, but when I have to, if I have a flight or if I'm going whatever, I'm leaving early, it's ... You get rush hour traffic down this mountain from about 6:30 to 7:30 or 8:00 every morning. Of course, it wouldn't impress you if you're in L.A., but it's a reality. This is a exurb, a bedroom community for San Bernardino, Riverside, Palm Springs. A lot of people who work in service jobs in the low desert live up here in Yucca Valley because it's more for our Twentynine Palms 'cause it's more affordable and because we have so few amenities up here, if you live here, you end up going down the hill, as we say-
Katherine: To Palm Springs?
Ken: To Palm Springs for ... I go to Palm Springs to the dentist 'cause the dentists up here are not good. You know it's like a lot of the services up here, they kind of got kicked out of respectable places, so you try. You want to support local businesses and stuff, but yeah, you don't want 'em messing up your teeth.
Katherine: No, you wouldn't want that.
Ken: You go get blood work here and they can't find your vein, that kind of thing. It's like, I have the idea that if you don't get hired somewhere else in Southern California, they say, "Well, we've got an opening in Yucca Valley."
Katherine: But you must love it here.
Ken: Oh, I love the high desert. I love the high desert. If I could, I would live in the middle of Mojave National Preserve and have no neighbors in view and go to Las Vegas once a month to go to Trader Joe's and eat in a restaurant. I am not here for the charms of the 1970s residential architecture in Yucca Valley or the Walmart or the pickup trucks with Confederate flag stickers. That is kind of like universal American trash.
Ken: National trash, I shouldn't say universal, but what I love is these mountains, the night sky, the animals. You know, you live in a place like Joshua Tree, less so in Yucca Valley if you're in a kind of neighborhood where it's all sort of stucco and concrete, but you can just sit there looking at your window, drinking your coffee, and the whole nature parade goes by, the roadrunners, the antelope ground squirrels, the red tailed hawks, the coyotes, the bobcats-
Speaker 4: Go inside your fucking house.
Ken: The local scumbags. Isn't that charming? I don't think a single word that came out of their three mouths was not a vulgarity.
Katherine: I know. I know. Matilda, it's okay. She's a fancy lady. She doesn't want to hear that sort of thing.
Ken: That's right. Don't want to hear that kind of talk.
Katherine: But if people come to visit, they will. You'll be happy that they're here?
Ken: Within reason. I mean, one nice thing is that pre-this current wave of being a very Instagram-able destination, it was painful to live here when so many people thought of the place as a place where you come and run your off-road motorcycles and dune buggies and shoot stuff. That kind of American-Western suburban redneck kind of thing, so people would come out here with their giant trailers full of dirt bikes and dune buggies and then they'd just destroy the desert. You know?
Ken: People have no idea. People think, "Oh, it's just sand and rocks and cactus." Mountain bikes will kill a place of vegetation as you see here as the mountain biking has gotten very popular. People think, "Hey, you know, it's better than motorcycles, at least sound wise." But people come out, they ignore the trails. They tear up the desert crust. That's the kind of invisible microbiotic layer that holds the desert together so it can grow things like Joshua trees and creosote and then it just turns to sand.
Ken: It'd be nice to have less visitors, personally. You know? I think everyone here would agree that it'll be nice when this fad goes down a little bit, but I like the change to a place where people come here because they like the quiet and they like the wildlife and they like the quirkiness and they like the vistas and the night skies and everything. It's not just a place to go, you know, cook meth and shoot up people's garages and cabins and off road and et cetera. I think that part will stick.
Ken: I think this is going to be the Palm Springs or Big Bear or something for this generation. There's lots of people coming out, buying little cabins, fixing it up. Maybe they rent them as Airbnbs when they're not here, but they come here and they spend their holidays here and they spend Thanksgiving and that kind of thing. It becomes their lifelong get away sort of thing, which that's the biggest change, I think, for Joshua Tree over other points in its short history.
Katherine: What I'm hearing is that tourists, visitors are great, as long as they're respectful.
Ken: Even with that, the numbers become the issue. It's not an individual. It's the numbers. The idea of the desert for me has always been secluded, isolation from humanity, and if you go into the national park and you're in a line of cars for two or three hours to get in and then you drive around looking for a parking space like you're at Costco. Then you get out and you're literally in a human train of people on a trail, it's not the same experience. If you like the desert because of the quiet and the small number of humans and everything, I would not come here.
Ken: There's places that you can go in the California desert that have much more open space where you're not going to see people standing every six feet on the side of the trail modeling dresses, which is really the stupidest thing. I mean, when you're taking a hike and I don't go into the park anymore because it's just too crowded, you know?
Ken: I used to get my annual pass every year and when people would visit, we'd go in, but yeah, I don't ...
Katherine: Well the thing about taking pictures in dresses for Instagram is that some people get paid that way, so that, I'm like, "Well, the economy is so bad."
Ken: No, but if you're getting paid, why not rent a cabin where you have the same kind of Joshua trees and rocks behind you and do it there? I see people changing clothes on the trail.
Katherine: I mean, they probably do both. They gotta create that content.
Ken: I know. I know.
Katherine: I know. It's rough.
Ken: Well, once Russia shuts down Instagram, it'll all be over.
Katherine: Oh, that's one way of looking at it.
Ken: No, it's just a funny thing. It's what becomes ... There have always been creative people drawn to Joshua Tree. There have always been musicians and artists and writers. Donovan and his family moved here in the '70s. Eric Burdon from Animals is my next door neighbor in Joshua Tree.
Katherine: Oh funny.
Ken: He lives here half the time. So many '90s and '80s musical figures moved out here. Victoria Williams lives in Joshua Tree. A lot of the low desert kind of grunge alternative people bought houses up here or built recording studios, so there's a long tradition of that. I think what has changed is the idea that you'd want to go here for basically a backdrop.
Katherine: That sentence was so simple and so devastating 'cause I think, I mean, you haven't asked, but I'm sure you assumed correctly that I'm here for some sort of celebration and I'm staying in an Airbnb while I'm here. You figured it out.
Ken: Of course.
Katherine: Yeah, so that is ...
Ken: But there's nothing wrong with that. I think that the next recession, which is starting, is going to have the same effect that it's had here previously and it's gonna calm down the real estate. It's going to take a lot of people's jobs away and it's gonna make a lot of other people nervous about losing their jobs as we're used to, being lifelong journalists, but now everybody's like that, you know? Everyone's disposable and-
Katherine: Yeah, it's not the circle of life, but it's the circle of capitalism.
Ken: Yeah, yeah, circling the drain of Lake Capitalism, so when that next nightmare happens, which it's starting. We're seeing the beginning parts of it. The visitors will go down, I think, to a more manageable level here and it will probably be a more pleasant place to go. It's fun to go to a place when you can go get a beer.
Ken: It's sad to go to a place where you can't.
Ken: It's sad to go to the Vons on a Saturday morning and they don't have any good wine left because the visitors who got here Friday night cleaned them out and they're not gonna have a delivery again until Monday.
Katherine: Oh, interesting, interesting and so different from where I live in L.A. and there are probably five different grocery stores equidistant from my house.
Ken: Yeah, we have Stater Brothers, which is okay and then we have a Vons, which is our fancy stores. You know? You can get an organic apple or something, and that's it.
Katherine: For almost 8,000 people and then a ton more visitors.
Ken: And a ton more visitors, yeah. Well, and there's a Walmart, which has a grocery. Half of it is a grocery. That's the kind of thing that's grim. We always had a Walmart here, but it wasn't big enough.
Katherine: Oh geez.
Ken: So they left the old Walmart and they left half a mile of retail space empty in Yucca Valley because of that and then they built a new horrific one that has a giant grocery store as part of it. Then two of the other grocery stores closed because Walmart killed them. That's what they do and that's where we are. We do have a nice little health food store and fresh food store in Joshua tree and we have a nice farmers' market where you can see in the era we're currently in, hundreds and hundreds of people all dressed like Fleetwood Mac covers, very delicate lace and hats and Waylon Jennings boots and all that kind of thing. If you can get through those people, you can get some food.
Katherine: That's what it looks like. That's what it looks like right now. So for people who want to learn more about the desert and the way that you view the desert, which I think is really interesting and I don't want to ascribe spirituality to you, 'cause I don't know you, but there's some level of spirituality, metaphysical, all that kind of stuff. Where can they find all of your projects?
Ken: Okay, so the radio show is best heard on a car radio when you're up here, 10 o'clock, Friday nights on KCDZ 107.7 FM is Desert Oracle Radio. It's a half hour radio show. Each one with these ambient soundscapes made by a guy who calls himself Red Blue Black Silver here in Joshua Tree, so it's a very atmospheric kind of show. We talk about UFOs and Yucca Man and wildlife and the night skies and weird history and military projects, but you can hear that with your podcast player as well. It's Desert Oracle Radio. It's on all the stuff, iTunes and Stitcher and TuneIn and Spotify.
Ken: Then I publish a supposedly quarterly pocket sized yellow field guide to the mysterious American desert called Desert Oracle. You can get that at all the hip little stores in the high desert, like Hoof and the Horn and all these places. When you're going to get your outfit for the Farmers' Market, you can also pick up your Desert Oracle or you can subscribe. It's DesertOracle.com or PO Box 1735, Joshua Tree.
Katherine: So people who subscribe have to also be comfortable just with the idea that they're getting roasted by the guy writing it.
Ken: No, no, no.
Katherine: All in good fun.
Ken: The L.A. Times did a story about Joshua Tree National Park's popularity two summers ago, two falls ago, I think. They sent this guy out, this freelancer, and this guy had his story all set. His story was locals furious about all the tourists. This was two years ago. The numbers weren't quite what they are now, but what I said then and still believe is that I would rather have people come out here who are intentionally coming to the desert who appreciate the mystery of it and the wildlife and things like that than people just coming here because it's a little cheaper than San Bernardino or people coming here to off-road or whatever.
Ken: In things like our local land trust and the land conservation that the community has done, these are things that you can only do if you have outside people coming in who want to protect it, even as they're destroying it. No, I welcome visitors, but the main thing is you go to the ... To me, and I've been traveling in the desert, hiking, and camping, and road tripping around for 35 years now, since I got my driver's license, that was always my favorite thing is to go to the middle of nowhere and have this wild kind of alien environment and eventually moved here.
Ken: That solitude, I think, is such a crucial part of the desert experience that if you come out here and you're just in traffic and waiting to get a piece of subprime pizza, that you're not getting the main thing about the desert, which is to be kind of stripped of civilization, to be removed for a while from humanity. That's when the weirdness of the desert has its effect. You know, it doesn't have it if you're surrounded by other people from your neighborhood. You still get to enjoy the beauty and everything, but you don't get the philosophical part. You don't get the Charles Manson going crazy in the desert part or Moses on the mountain talking to bushes. If you want that, go to Mojave National Preserve.
Katherine: That's where that sort of thing-
Ken: It's a easy place to go, you know, but it's two hours further out, so because of that, you have less people.
Katherine: Makes sense. Ken, thank you so much for explaining all.
Ken: Thank you for coming.
Ken: Thank you for having me on the show.