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Twentynine Palms – Murals and Marines

There is no hyphen in Twentynine Palms. There is no Elephant Bar Restaurant, no Marriott Resort and Spa, no Saks Fifth Avenue, and no highfalutin, over-priced hair salons. There is, however, a Carousel Café, a 29 Palms Inn, a Cowboy Attic, and Barber Judi—Marine and Civilian Hair Cuts.

I visited Twentynine Palms several months ago but didn’t have my camera. My bad! Intrigued by signs that read, “Marine Hair Cuts Here,” I knew I had to return, suspecting that there was a poem and a story lurking in the signs.

In early October I decided upon an overnight trip since I didn’t want to come back down the mountain in the ebony-black night. This allowed me the opportunity to hear a new friend play his custom-made Native American Indian-styled flutes at the quaint 29 Palms Inn. And I could see what adventures awaited on the other side of the mountain.

Driving the asphalt ribbon between here and there is like a drive back in time. Leaving the straight-as-a-ruler stretch of I-10, Highway 62 winds you up the mountain through the towns of Morongo Valley and Yucca Valley, before straightening, cresting at 2,728 feet in Joshua Tree, then gradually dropping down into Twentynine Palms. In Joshua Tree I was thrilled by the modes of transportation outside the Joshua Tree Saloon. In the parking lot was a colorful bus that looked like it had been driven from Haight Ashbury in the 60s. On the street in front was a group of tricked-out Harley and BMW motorcycles, one of which sported a license plate that indicated they were on a mission for God. In front of a saloon? Probably Saturday communion. Across the street another group of Harleys was parked in front of a local church. Church on a Harley. I love it!

Twentynine Palms is a high desert town about an hour and thirty minute drive from Palm Desert. Thousands of archaeological sites have been discovered here. It is the gateway to Joshua Tree National Park, the Mojave Desert outback, and the Marine Corps Air Ground Combat Center. Twentynine Palms is famous for its dark night sky in which residents and visitors can view constellations and planets. One of the best places in the world to go stargazing is Joshua Tree National Park.

The town was named for the palm trees located in the Oasis of Mara, at the Joshua Tree National Park headquarters. (“Mara” means “land of little water.”) When the area was settled by gold miners in the late 19th century, there were 29 palm trees growing in the oasis, most of which are still standing today. More than 8,000 years ago, this area was occupied by the prehistoric Pinto culture. By the time Col. Henry Washington surveyed the region in 1855, the Cahuilla, Chemuevi, Serrano and Paiute had all frequented the oasis in their seasonal migrations. There remains a small Indian reservation belonging to the Twentynine Palms Band of Mission Indians.

By the late 1800s, prospectors bivouacked here while seeking their fortunes in nearby gold camps, the most famous of which was Dirty Sock Camp. In 1910, Bill and Frances Keys, among the first pioneer homesteaders, settled at the Desert Queen Ranch in what is now Joshua Tree National Park. Dr. James B. Luckie is credited with populating the community after World War I ended in 1918, by sending veterans suffering from the effects of mustard gas here for the pure, healing desert air. This Pasadena doctor became a prominent citizen and founding father. After decades as a rest stop for wagon travelers on what is called the “Utah Trail” named for a group of Mormon discoverers, the town was established in the 1920s.

In 1952, the U.S. Defense Department established a Marine base north of the oasis for glider training. Now known as the U.S. Marine Corps Air Ground Combat Center, this vast area of the Mojave Desert encompasses the world’s largest marine base. My friend Ken, a Marine veteran, tells me that in the 60s, 29 Palms was the last place on earth any Marine wanted to be stationed. Now, with troops fighting in the deserts of the Middle East, it is the perfect place for combat training.

People living in the area seek the autonomy provided here. It is the perfect setting for artists, writers and musicians to stoke the fires of creativity. The wildness of the desert cradled between the mountains, at one with nature, brings peace to the mind and body. Tourists in hiking regalia walk the streets with artists in tie-dye T-shirts and ponchos, cowboys in Tony Lama’s and Resistol hats, and Marines in buzz cuts and fatigues. At the Wonder Garden Café the unlikely compadres share stories over fresh-ground coffee to jump-start the day, or perhaps a beer to decompress into the evening.

Arriving at The 29 Palms Inn I found it to be, well…just darling! The rooms were a colorful collection of adobe bungalows and historic wood frame cabins set amongst fan palms, palo verde, mesquite, and an oasis lagoon. Dock-tied on a palm-enclosed lagoon was the Inn’s version of the African Queen. My room, one in a triplex of cabins, was immaculate, with a comfy mattress and plump, poofy pillows that could rival any Marriott hotel.

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The owners grow much of their own fruits and vegetables on premises, providing guests with fresh, seasonal fare. They encourage you to stroll through the garden and if you see something you like just pick and eat…right off the vine. The place reminded me of Emandal Farm, an inviting retreat in Willits, California owned by my friend Tamara. Being that most of the Inn’s food was homemade I was hoping for Tam’s delicious home-ground, multi-grain pancakes for breakfast, but alas, it was not to be. However, the Inn’s cinnamon rolls came in a close second.

Many of the town’s buildings have murals painted on the sides that depict the history of the town and are something to see, another reason I wanted to return with my camera. This town is very proud of their history and of their Marines.

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Snoopy that I am, I had to drive to the Marine base. Shadowed by the Bullion Mountains with dry lakes named Bagdad and Deadman, I could see why it wouldn’t be a favored destination, tourist or otherwise. At the entrance I got excited when I saw a sign marked, “Visitor’s Center.” However, upon closer inspection, it looked more like a place where vendors checked in for a frisking than someplace you could pick up brochures titled, “What to see and do here.”

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After making a U-turn and heading back into town, I discovered the one mural I had really come to see, one only seen leaving the Marine base. It depicted various scenes of war. I snapped some photos then sat and contemplated for a while. On the tragedies of war. On unattainable world peace. On Viet Nam and my friends that died there, as well as those that came home but relive the hell trapped in their mind. On how grateful I am to live in America, with all Her faults yet with all Her freedoms. Most importantly, how grateful I am to all the men and women who serve, or who have served, in the armed forces to protect our country and freedoms … freedoms that I, admittedly, take for granted most of the time.