Deep in the Mojave Desert, a photogenic band of artists, musicians and models have taken over an old Western set and transformed Pioneer Town into LA’s coolest outpost. It was Jonathan Thompson’s story about this intriguing place, for fashion glossy Tatler, that won him the Visit USA Media award for a story in a general consumer magazine. This story really painted a picture of how its residents live the good life - and crucially, really makes you want to visit Pioneer Town.
You can read the full story below. Read more about Jonathan’s travels on his website here, find out more about where he's been on his instagram
and twitter feeds
The new pioneers
Deep in the Mojave desert, an Old Western movie set is fast becoming one of the coolest towns in America
High noon, and Pioneertown’s dusty main thoroughfare is alive with activity. Emphatic bangs and clangs spill from the saddle shop while a few doors down, a cluster of locals gossip on the steps of the old bank. Across the street, four out-of-towners dismount, roping their horses outside the sheriff’s office.
Arriving here under the sweltering Californian sun feels rather like stepping onto a Western movie set. Which is apt, because that’s exactly what Pioneertown used to be.
Built in the 1940s by a group of Hollywood actors and producers, hundreds of hours of TV and films were shot here during the golden era of Westerns in the Fifties and Sixties. But unlike other movie sets, there were no balsa wood buildings or fake facades here. Pioneertown was built properly - and it was built to endure. So much so that it outlasted the very oeuvre it was created to serve. When the filmmakers finally rolled out and the tumbleweed rolled in, Pioneertown remained standing quietly in the desert, 30 miles north of Palm Springs.
Quietly that was, until recently. Because now - 70 years after its creation - Pioneertown is having a renaissance. Where Hollywood legends once rode, another posse has arrived.
The new denizens of the old town are outlaws of a kind too: hipsters, artists, musicians and photographers forced out of big cities by high rents, low wages and a dearth of creative space. Drawn by the affordability of Pioneertown, the expanse of high desert surrounding it - and the sheer quirkiness of what must be one of the weirdest towns in America - the good, the rad and the lovely are flocking here, from LA, Las Vegas, New York… and the UK.
London-born artist Alice Batliner-Sutton is one of the new pioneers. Three years ago, she bought Super X Ranch, a few minutes from Pioneertown’s Mane Street (so called because horses are the only ‘vehicles’ allowed there).
“This place has an incredibly positive energy,” says Alice, who runs creative retreats. “It’s about the old film set of course - that’s ultimately why any of this is here - but it’s also about the sense of freedom and the incredible Mojave Desert all around us. It’s just so inspirational. As an artist, it’s the perfect escape.”
Another Brit embracing that escape is record producer Rocco Gardner, a Londoner who bought his own ranch on the edge of Pioneertown with the proceeds from a tiny one bedroom flat in Chelsea. By contrast, his new home – ‘Rancho V’ - has everything from a state-of-the-art recording studio and private helipad to a Mayfair-worthy bar in a converted goat shed. Not to mention a toilet which plays inspirational Winston Churchill quotes, and a hillside hot tub with some of the most spectacular views over the Mojave you’ll ever find.
“It’s all a bit bonkers really,” laughs Rocco, a larger-than-life thirty-something who zips about, welcoming paying guests to his ranch in a Rolls Royce golf cart. “I’m a guy from London living in the desert on the edge of an old movie set. I’m aware it’s completely random, but it’s turned out to be absolutely perfect. I was searching for a place where people could retreat, create and have some fun, and Pioneertown was ideal. We’re only 40 minutes from Palm Springs and two hours from LA, but we can be completely cut off up here if we want to be.”
One of the biggest draws for Rocco was a specific venue at the end of Mane Street: Pappy and Harriet’s Pioneertown Palace. On first impression, it’s an old American roadhouse like any other - but it’s recently morphed into a major music venue, attracting A-listers more used to playing sold-out stadiums than dusty desert shacks.
“A massive turning point for Pioneertown was when Paul McCartney played Pappy and Harriet’s about 18 months ago,” says Rocco. “That was ridiculous: a Beatle playing to 300 people crammed into this tiny wooden bar in the middle of nowhere.”
The bar’s co-owner Linda Krantz, a self-confessed “city-quitter” from New York, agrees Sir Paul’s impromptu gig helped put Pappy’s, and Pioneertown, firmly on the map.
“Pioneertown was already an extraordinary place with all of its Hollywood history, but that McCartney gig was a genuine gamechanger,” says Linda as the bar whirrs about us, a hot young merry-go-round of denim, leather and cocktails. “The secret was out - and we haven’t looked back since.”
After that extraordinary performance, other major acts (from Lorde to Franz Ferdinand) followed - and Pappy and Harriet’s graduated into a satellite venue for the Coachella Festival, held in nearby Indio.
The bar is little more than a lasso’s throw from the heart of Mane Street, where Old West frontages like the bank, the bath house and the ‘Likker Barn’ now house an art gallery, a record store and an eclectic clothes shop. Many of the old buildings remain abandoned, giving the place a slightly spooky feel - more Westworld than Disney World – although a new museum is soon to open in the old saloon at the eastern end of the street.
“Pioneertown started with the Westerns and it’s important to remember that,” says local historian Kenny Gentry, part of the museum team. “People like Gene Autrey, Roy Rogers and Dick Curtis - some of the global superstars of their day - lived and worked here.
“At its peak there were two or three productions going on at any one time. That’s why Mane Street is twice as wide as a regular street: so they could all film without backing into each other.”
The stories are legion - from hijinks on the set of Judge Roy Bean and The Cisco Kid to a drunken horse race down Mane Street, with a “pile of cash” won by the King of the Cowboys himself, Roy Rogers. “There’s nothing like this anywhere else in America,” says Kenny. “This is a living, breathing movie set. If you know your Westerns, the history here is mind-blowing.”
But what of the future? What does Kenny think about the new wave of trailblazers lighting up Pioneertown?
“Ultimately this place was built by creatives, so it’s wonderful that a new generation are expressing themselves here today,” he says. “There’s always been a different set of rules up here in the high desert than down the hill in the real world anyway.” One of the new residents playing by her own rules is Magda Wosinska, a hugely successful photographer and model from Los Angeles, who became an Instagram sensation with a series of inventive self-nudes entitled ‘The Magdalena Experience’.
“All the raddest people I know are buying in Pioneertown,” says Magda, part of a stylish LA circle that includes fellow model Emily Ratajkowski. “I have six good friends from LA who’ve bought here; it’s just so affordable. Everyone’s excited to be in this young, artistic community with like-minded people all around us. The whole place is an enormous blank piece of paper; it feels like we can create anything here.”
With prospective residents, curious visitors and music fans alike flocking to Pioneertown, the town’s solitary hotel has been inundated with guests. Originally built alongside the film set as a place for actors and crew to live while filming, the Pioneertown Motel was sold three years ago to Matt and Mike French, two brothers from Portland, Oregon. They’ve subsequently transformed the dusty 20-room property into a breezy boutique stopover (think airy rooms with cowhide rugs and cosy woollen blankets). Like the rest of town, business at the motel is proceeding at a gallop.
“Word is spreading fast; this year we were completely booked for Coachella more than six months beforehand,” says Matt, 33. “Pioneertown has become the ultimate escape from LA - a way to get into nature and feel inspired, but close enough to be an easy drive from the city. Ultimately, we want it to be more than just an old movie set. We’re building a community here and we see it as a haven for artists of all kinds.
“The momentum in terms of young creatives arriving in the last 12 to 18 months has been astonishing, but I don’t agree with people who say we’re in the middle of some sort of trend. I’d say we’re right at the start of one.”
Book it: Norwegian (Norwegian.com) flies nine times a week between London Gatwick and LAX, with return fares from £285. Seven days’ economy car hire from LAX with Hertz (hertz.co.uk) from £146. Doublesat Pioneertown Motel (pioneertown-motel.com), from £130. To plan your trip, go to Visit Palm Springs
and Visit California
. For more on Rancho V, visit Escape.