Desert Vibes - The SmithHönig Summer Road Trip
When I’m close to an artist’s personal compound, or any quirky outsider installation, I take a detour to visit. I’m completely fascinated by folk art, craftiness and the commitment to a creative vision that goes on for years. There are several unique folk art destinations in my home state of Georgia, including the Calhoun Rock Garden, Pasaquan and of course, Reverend Howard Finster’s Paradise Gardens.
Tinkertown evolved from a hobby in 1962 to a complex universe of rooms, installations, bottle walls and gardens. Artist Ross Ward began carving miniatures while in junior high school. He went on to paint circus backdrops and it shows in his home-turned-museum.
Ward had an offbeat sense of humor, which is evident in the Barbie and Elvis installations, the circus miniatures and animations, and the annotated timeline collages.
From Tinkertown, we hit Route 66, the road once synonymous with road trips. Today, the infamous highway has been chopped up and buried by “progress,” with once booming destinations turned into ghost towns. Still, you have to honor what once was, with a cup of coffee at a diner, or a stay at a wigwam hotel or a 1950s motor inn.
Route 66 once stretched from Los Angeles to Chicago and was named the Mother Road by John Steinbeck. It is immortalized in song, film and literature, but it was almost forgotten after the advent of the interstate highway system.
The American road trip was practically invented on Route 66, in the 1920s, as car culture and newly paved highways enveloped the nation. Route 66 has a built in soundtrack in my mind—from flapper jazz to rock and roll. You can listen to our personal soundtrack for this part of our drive on Spotify, here.
Skirting the El Malpais conservation area, we followed Route 66 through the Laguna Pueblo, a thriving community of Native Americans with a richly detailed history.
The name “pueblo” is a Spanish term which was used to define the homes and people that Spanish explorers found living in the desert southwest in the 16th century. Tribes have been living at these sites since 6500 B.C., well before the Spanish colonized the area.
These tribes have been particularly adept at preserving their languages (Keresan, Tanoan and Zuni, among others), their spiritual practices (despite the Laguna Mission being established by Catholic missionaries in 1699), their lands and their tribal laws and systems.
In modern times, they’ve invited visitors to their villages and to their traditional dances, created a worldwide market for tribal handicrafts and more recently, opened a casino. Interestingly, the tribally owned Laguna Construction Company is also one of the largest U.S. contractors in Iraq.
Our next stop on the journey through eastern Arizona was the Petrified Forest National Park and the Painted Desert, together a celebration of organic color and pattern that has inspired visitors for centuries.
The local visitor centers reflect traditional and native architecture and blend beautifully into the surroundings.
We made a pilgrimage to Winslow, Arizona, just to say we did, and began meandering through the Apache-Sitgreaves and Tonto National Forests and then the desolate mountains just north of the Kofa National Wildlife Refuge.
Still, the wide, empty spaces and series of dry dirt roads (15 miles of them) we traveled to get to the Blythe Intaglios were somehow disconcerting. Our cell phones stopped working. I’ve never felt quite so small, and so aware of the vastness of the planet.
The colossal ground drawings known as the intaglios are best seen from the air, but the scale of them can’t be fully appreciated from a photo. This Google Earth ® image shows the edges of one of the best preserved intaglios against a barren landscape.
In real life the human figure’s head (shown above via Google ®) is a vast smooth area scraped into the desert floor. The entire figure is 171 feet long, or about half a football field.
No one knows exactly what the intaglios depict or what their purpose was. Native tribes have sometimes used them for ceremonial purposes, but none claim creating them. The mystery is intact and in that space, you feel a definite sense of the unknown.
We took time to document our existence in the vast desert…
Joshua Tree National Park is over 790,000 acres of preserved wilderness that has featured prominently in western and road trip history. The Joshua tree silhouette is an evocative symbol of the west. The park signifies where two deserts meet. The plant is believed to have been named by Mormon settlers crossing the Mojave.
And then on to our destination hotel – The Ace Hotel in Palm Springs.
Palm Springs is known for mid-century modern style. The annual Modernism Week in February is known as the ‘epicenter of mid-century architecture and design’ and features over 350 events including the world-renowned sale, films, lectures, home tours and the double-decker bus driving tour. There are parties and live music, fashion shows, and a vintage travel trailer show, too.
We chose The Ace Hotel for its rock-and-roll vibe and chic, desert casual style. There’s a minimal aesthetic punctuated with color and texture that is at once beachy, bohemian and California cool.
The rooms feature posters and prints casually clipped to slatted architectural elements, along with patterned rugs and textural pillows.
They’re also equipped with a record player and vintage vinyl to inspire your inner DJ.
My favorite piece was the graphic list of random but meaningful world events clipped above the bed.
The windows are defined with canvas tenting, for a true desert nomad vibe.
We enjoyed a swim and a late lunch at The King’s Highway, the in-house diner. Then another swim. I wandered around with my camera. The day was fading but we were not.
We lit a fire in the kiva-style hearth in our walled patio. There was music and laughter just outside the gate, quietness and crackling twigs in our personal oasis.
I thought about the similarities between desert cultures around the globe, and how the creators and designers of The Ace Hotel had managed to tap into that. They’d supplied djallaba, the hooded robes worn in the Maghreb region of North Africa, instead of standard hotel robes, for instance. And of course, I bought one!
I thought about the adobe structures of the pueblos and the similarity to the polished tadelakt walls of houses in Morocco, a look Kellie and I immortalized in wallpaper.
The veiled desert women in vintage photos of New Mexico and the Bedouin women Kellie and I had purchased embroidery from in the Negev Desert.
I thought about rock and roll and mid-century glitz.
I had a sudden memory of my doctor’s office as a child, the lobby designed with Charles and Ray Eames furniture and a sunburst clock.
I reflected on desert isolation and how a minimalist backdrop can inspire wildness, excess, even maximalism.
The desert was definitely stimulating. Palm Springs has been home to creative types for decades. Perhaps all that exposed and barren land opened up something internally, and emotionally?
But for our next jaunt, we were headed to another source of inspiration – the coast.