Beyond Boulders at Joshua Tree National Park

By Mackenzie Weinger

Joshua Tree National Park
Riverside County
California, USA

“Why would anyone choose to live out here?” Park ranger Pam Tripp asks as we stand in the remains of the Desert Queen Ranch, its long-abandoned cabins still mostly upright in the rugged, desolate landscape.

"I’ve had that question myself sometimes,” she says, laughing.

Today Joshua Tree National Park has a mystical quality to it, with piles of rocks zigzagging between yuccas under an open sky. The land, just 140 miles east of Los Angeles, is a magnet for climbers and stargazers and hipsters looking for that one perfect Instagram shot. But there’s another side to the beautiful national park more commonly known for its iconic boulders and U2 connection.

Once it drew people looking to build a life in between its boulders or to find a fortune beneath its sands. And out here, where your cell phone is as good as the nearest rock, there's a lonely example that shines light on the park’s homesteader past.

At the Keys Ranch, also known as the Desert Queen Ranch, you can explore that side, a history filled with cattle rustlers, pioneers, the promise of gold  — and a couple of gunshots.

Visitors need to book a tour and caravan their cars together down a dusty dirt road to find the isolated spot where Bill and Frances Keys made their home. Behind the wheel, it’s hard to ignore the feeling you’re being wrangled just like the cattle the early pioneers rustled up.

Bill arrived in 1910 after an adventurous early life, where he signed up with the Rough Riders and worked as a copper miner before drifting out to the desert. For nearly 60 years, the Keys family had quite the life in this seemingly bleak ranch; they mined the land, planted fruit trees, built a school and fished from a lake where water now seems unfathomable. There was tragedy, too, as several children died, and disaster, as Bill went to San Quentin for five years for shooting a neighbor dead (he was later pardoned).

As we wander through the abandoned homestead, still peppered with junk from old cars and buildings and failed mining ventures, one rule of desert survival emerges: don’t throw anything away. The Keys never did, hoarding things from fellow homesteaders and from town in the hopes of always having something to fashion into use at their fingertips. They adapted to desert life, sleeping outside in the harsh heat of summer, canning hundreds of jars of food to prepare for winter, and collecting every piece of machinery and equipment they could get their hands on to repurpose and reuse later.

And luckily for visitors, most things remain on the now deserted land, preserved by the National Park Service, which is marking its 100th anniversary this year. A small piece continues to belong to the Keys, however — a cemetery off to the edge, still the final resting place for those in the pioneer family who wish to be buried amidst the boulders and yuccas.

“The desert has a way of grabbing onto you, and keeping you here,” Tripp says, guiding us around the humble dwellings that still pop beneath the stark blue desert sky. A thought flits across your mind in the quiet: maybe you could live here, take a piece of land and make it your own, too.

But just like that, the tour is over and we’re back in our cars, being rustled to the main road.

Published: 11/30/2016

Mackenzie Weinger is a writer and reporter with experience working with The Financial Times, Politico, The Cipher Brief, Playa Vista Today and other publications.