How to move from LA to Joshua Tree’s growing gay community

by Danielle F. Winter

After living in Yucca Valley, California, just north of Joshua Tree National Park for over a year, former Angelenos Kit Williamson and John Halbach learned some hard lessons about the high desert.

“Occasionally, nature reminds you that the desert is trying to kill you,” Williamson says. “I’m thinking about writing a horror movie about it.”

“It’s like ‘Lawrence of Arabia’ here sometimes,” Halbach says of the raging desert winds. “We haven’t seen tarantulas, rattlesnakes, or bloodsucking insects yet, but we know they are there.”

The couple, who married in Keys View in Joshua Tree National Park in 2015, has also learned that the desert can be a welcoming environment.

How to move from LA to Joshua Tree's growing gay community

John Halbach left, and Kit Williamson at their Yucca Valley home.

(David George Zimmerman)

“We’ve met so many queer people since we moved to the desert, including the owners of the Station, the Beauty Bubble, Geode and Gypsum, and Joshua Tree Blanket Company,” said Williamson, 36, who wrote and starred in the Op Silver Lake. Based gay soap “EastSiders,” which Halbach, 42, co-starred and co-executive produced. “Two of our favorite restaurants here, La Copine and Frontier Cafe, are both gay owned. It’s a huge change from when we first came here ten years ago.”

Unlike the famous gay cowboy song “Cowboys Are Frequently Secretly Lond of Each Other,” it’s no secret that Palm Springs has long been a popular destination for the LGBTQ community. But recently, residents of the high desert — comprising Morongo Valley, Pioneertown, Yucca Valley, Joshua Tree, and Twentynine Palms — say LGBTQ visibility is growing, thanks partly to rising interest in the desert during the pandemic.

“Today, there is a very vibrant and visible gay community here,” said Dave McAdam, founder, and co-owner of Homestead Modern Short-Term Rentals, who moved from San Francisco to the high desert in 2003.

The couple’s home sits on 5 acres in Yucca Valley.

(Safik Wahhab)

“I lived in San Francisco full-time then and had a second home in Palm Springs. Coming from those two very gay-friendly communities, I felt apprehensive about what a gay man might find in the high desert — especially in some of the more conservative communities here,” McAdam adds.

A lot has changed. Visit the shops along Route 62, and pride flags greet you in the shop windows. (You’ll also occasionally see an anti-Biden “Let’s Go Brandon” flag in town.) Famous desert dancer and choreographer Ryan Heffington recently began hosting a popular gay dance party at the Out There Bar at Twentynine Palms. Another choreographer, Spencer Liff, turns an abandoned farmhouse into a dance studio. When gay, fringe-masked country western singer Orville Peck performed at Pappy and Harriet’s in April, station owners Glen Steigelman and Steve Halterman dressed Big Josh, the 5-foot-tall fiberglass cowboy outside their Joshua Tree gift shop, in a fringed pink mask. That matches the country crooner’s signature disguise.

A wood-burning fireplace adds warmth to the living room.

(Safik Wahhab)

“It was my cowboy fantasy in the high desert that came to life,” Halbach says of seeing Peck and Tanya Tucker perform just minutes from home.

The couple considered the desert after struggling to work from home in their one-bedroom apartment in Silver Lake during the pandemic. “I was writing screenplays in bed,” Williamson says. They were also inspired to watch their friends build a life for themselves in the Yucca Valley: Ryan Carrillo and Luke Prusinski opened the glamping site Castle House Estate, and Erica Beers and Rebecca Slivka took over Hicksville Trailer Palace.

When many Los Angeles residents are buying desert homes for weekend getaways and Airbnb, Williamson, and Halbach decided to make a big life change and move to the desert year-round. “We were priced out of LA,” Halbach says.

Finding a house was not easy. After losing several properties due to cash offers, many of which were $100,000 above the asking price, the couple purchased a two-bedroom cottage on 5 acres for $475,000 in February 2021.

Can two gay city dwellers survive on a dirt road in a desert town just a few doors from an alpaca ranch?

It took some adjustments.

“The previous owner did the hard work of making the house livable and comfortable, and we came in and made it gay,” said Williamson, who is currently in post-production on “Unconventional,” a television project he created that will feature the plays, recorded in Joshua Tree and Palm Springs.

To turn the house into a home, or their “gay homestead,” the couple spent $50,000 on upgrades, including renovating the two bathrooms and creating outdoor spaces overlooking the Joshua and cholla trees. Cacti from the property (a coyote burrow is also in the back of the property dotted with bones).

Kit Williamson, Front, and John Halbach at their Yucca Valley home.

(David George Zimmerman)

The house has all the elements of what they call “Midcentury Modern meets bohemian cowboy”: rattan, leather, gold, metal, and natural materials that blend in with the view. A new wood-burning fireplace backed by graphic concrete tiles from Villa Lagoon Tile adds warmth, as does the kitchen’s pink tile from Concrete Collaborative.

In the backyard, there are now several places to lounge, including a covered patio and outdoor dining room, a trio of hammocks where the couple likes to watch the sunset, the 1950s RV trailer they drove across the country in “EastSiders,” and an aqua blue dyed cowboy bath from H2O Tank Avenue.

Finding contractors proved difficult after so many people migrated to the desert. “It was a saga,” said Halbach, the video and social media director for LGBTQ media company Q. Digital. “We approached four contractors. We had to find people who specialized in certain things instead of handing over the reins. We became owner-contractor and managed the property ourselves.”

The cost of many materials, including wood, skyrocketed during construction. “We built a mini-deck that cost much more than we expected,” Williamson says. The handyman didn’t know how to grout when they hired someone to install a tile accent wall outside the house. “I was frantically Googling ‘how to do tile work’ and spent the next two days finishing the project,” Williamson says. “We’ve gotten handy.”

Joshua Tree Pride Events on June 18

A group exhibition of work by LGBTQIA+ artists, 10 am to 2 pm, at Queerated Art Gallery at the Beatnik LoungePatio Pride Dance Party, 12 pm to 4 pm, with a Mermaid Parade Splashdown at 3 pm at Station The Desert Split Open Mic: Queer Voting, 5-7 pm at Joshua Tree Lake RV and Campground Pride Party with local DJs, 8 pm to midnight at the Tiny Pony

Sidestepped by supply chain issues, the pair shopped at many local stores, including Geode and Gypsum, Acme 5, Cactus Mart, Joshua Tree Blanket Company, Black Luck Vintage, and Los Angeles-based Bend. They even picked up tiles from Concrete Collaborative in San Marcos and drove them back to the desert in a U-Haul, assembling Burrow modular furniture.

The couple says they miss their Los Angeles friends but are not lonely. “Oddly enough, we met more of our neighbors on this dirt road than ever in Silver Lake,” Williamson says. Moreover, it is a place that people want to visit. Another bonus: for the first time in their adult lives, they have a dishwasher, a washer/dryer, and, most importantly, accommodations for visitors. Their parents live in Mississippi and Minnesota and have visited all of them since the duo moved.

Oddly enough, we met more neighbors on this dirt road than ever in Silver Lake.

—Kit Williamson

“We have a room for our parents,” Williamson says. “It was very special to share this with them.”

Growing up in Jackson, Miss., Williamson finds it surprising that the circle has come full circle. “I never saw myself returning to a rural area,” he says. “But gays have always been pioneers, and I feel like this is the start of a new chapter for the high desert.”

The guest bedroom is left, and an outdoor patio connects the main bedroom.

(Shafik Wahhab)

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