In the middle of the desert, a few miles north of the "main drag" of Joshua Tree, down bumpy dirt paths marked with handwritten street signs, "No Trespassing" markers of every shape and size, American flags billowing in the dry breeze, and probably all sorts of hidden bunkers filled with artillery and canned food (and, sure, meth) is an artist's retreat/hotel/oasis-of-wonder called Hicksville. It's the kind of place where, once you stay for a night, you spend the next few days telling everyone about it.
It's usually when I mention the hotel's archery and BB gun range that people's ears really start to perk up.
The retelling always begins with the site's amenities. There's a small saltwater pool, rooftop jacuzzi, ping pong table, dart board, horse shoe pit, bean bags (or, as they're known by their less family-friendly moniker, "corn-hole"), a free jukebox full of great music, and a teepee where you can build a small fire and roast marshmallows. After this listing, people tend to already be sold. But if not, the two varieties of projectiles available to use clinch the deal. And that's without even going into the actual sleeping quarters: renovated trailers.
For between $75 and $225 a night, guests rent out their own trailer, each with its own theme. I stayed in "The Sweet," a camper themed around 70s vinyl. But there are also options like "The Lux" -- dedicated to the music of The Cramps, complete with a mini-jukebox filled with them -- and "The Integratrailer," an homage to the alien communication dome found in nearby Landers. You can also stay in "Project Z," a stand-alone shack-like cabin a block away from Hicksville's proper campus modeled after a "zombie apocalypse" movie.
"I decided they all had to be themed," says Morgan Higby Night, the creator of Hicksville, "because that's just the person I am." This is the central ethos surrounding the place: It's not something that was organized, or intricately planned as a way to make big bucks. Night isn't Disney. When I mentioned to him one of my favorite small details about the place (the underwater speakers), he responded, "It's weird, but my brain doesn't think that way. It's like, of course we're going to get an underwater speaker. Duh. Why would we do something without that?" The place exists, in other words, because Night wanted it there. No loftier goals than that.
Some Other Desert Adventures
Besides hiking and Hicksville, there's plenty to do in and around Joshua Tree:
50800 Seminole Drive
Cabazon, CA 92230
Once a benign sideshow attraction, now your friendly Creationist museum. Make sure to pay extra attention to the various drawings of Cro-Magnon Man in the gift shop, which kind of cuts the legs out of the Creationist argument.
2477 Belfield Boulevard
Landers, CA 92285
A dome-shaped "rejuvenation machine," put together from instructions sent down by visitors from Venus, where us Earthlings can go to meditate in "acoustically-perfect" sound baths. Whatever those are.
Natural Sisters Cafe
61695 29 Palms Highway
Joshua Tree, CA 92252
A modestly-priced and delicious vegetarian cafe. Perfect for sustenance before and/or after a long hike in the desert.
Pappy & Harriets
53688 Pioneertown Road
Pioneertown, CA 92268
One of the great roadhouses in California, with nightly live music performances and expertly grilled BBQ ribs. Take a look around back and check out an old main street set from western TV shows.
Night speaks to me on the phone while he's heading back to Joshua Tree from L.A., a two-hours-each-way commute he makes about twice a week, splitting his life between city and country. "I like to live in two places at once and just have a balance that way," he says. "I don't like sticking in one place." This schizophrenic nature has led to his involvement in a wide array of projects, from curating the burlesque show in New Orleans, to running the popular Devil's Night Drive-In film series on a downtown L.A. rooftop, to DJ'ing at Bar 107 regularly, to directing and editing his own shorts and music videos, to programming an Internet radio station. He's the kind of eccentrically-jobbed multi-hyphenate you occasionally stumble onto in Los Angeles. But with all of the hustle-and-bustle associated with juggling so many artistic balls, he needed a place to unwind and focus. Which is where Hicksville came in.
"For a long time, I started percolating about a compound like Skywalker Ranch, where bands could live and record whenever they felt like it," says Night. "I always thought that's the way to make great art: get away from it all and not have distractions." So when a house down the block from his normal Joshua Tree abode went on the market up, he took a peek inside. "It had two tiny bedrooms, a kitchen and a bathroom, and this huge living room. I was that, 'that'd be a perfect recording studio.'" The recording studio fantasy lead to logistical questions about where everyone was going to stay, which quickly morphed into your classic kid-in-a-candy-store story. Except the candy was old-school trailers, and this kid had some dough.
Night would spend nights scouring eBay and Craigslist for old beaters for sale, and days shipping them off to Funky Junk Farms in Fillmore, California for renovations. Meanwhile, with the assistance of innkeepers Christie Carter and Jamie Hafler, the small touches and intricacies of the yard (fake grass, picnic tables, cabin-like front porches) were taking shape. The whole project, from purchasing the plot to opening night, only took about a year. But, as you'd imagine, the cost of putting all of this together so quickly wasn't cheap. "If I don't have a producer working with me," admits Night, "I have a hard time staying in budget."
His loss, then, is everyone else's gains. Because of the hit to his bank account, Night had to make the decision to open Hicksville up to the public rather than keep it an art compound filled exclusively with his friends. But the public's immediate positive response--rare is the lower-than-five-star review on Yelp--still shocks Night. "It was so weird to see people pay so much money, like $100," says Night. "And you have to go out of your trailer to use the bathroom? You don't even have your own bathroom!" But when you have archery, BB guns, and get to soak in a jacuzzi in the clear night of Joshua Tree, amenities like "personal bathrooms" are simply luxuries you can do without.
As far as the future of Hicksville goes, Night remains steadfast that he's done. The project is off his plate. "There's only so many hours in the day," he repeatedly states, saying he's going to now focus on filmmaking, perhaps with a hint of overly trying to talk himself out of putting any more time into the site. But Sisyphus pushes his boulder, Sarah Winchester builds her house, and Morgan Higby Night searches for trailers. "A couple of months ago I saw a Caravan wagon, and it happened to be one that was in 'Big Top Pee Wee,'" he says, "it was so hard not to buy it."