Cowpoke?s Mirage

It’s midnight in the Mojave, the land on both sides of the highway
all mooned up and flat. I’m doing 90 past exits with B Western
names like Roy Rogers Way and Rawhide Road, closing in on
Pioneertown, and I’m getting that spiritual feeling that hits my
lower chest every time the humidity dips to zero, the horizon
depopulates and widens, and I start to catch the dusty-rain scent
of chaparral–all pure conjurers of my Arizona childhood. The
American desert has always been for me both mother tongue and
foreign language; it’s an impenetrable other, but also an
inextricable part of my makeup. Being out in it disquiets but also
focuses me, and brings me back to my senses. I need time with the
desert like some people need time with a shrink. I want to stop
right now, jump out of my car, and run into the acid moonlight, but
I’ve got a date with Gene Autry’s ghost at the Pioneertown Motel. I
keep driving.

I live in San Francisco now, so I’m always looking for an excuse
to go into the desert, to work on my personal research project:
figuring out how and why people project their fantasies and fears
onto this inhospitable landscape. That’s why Pioneertown, a faux
Wild West town constructed in the 1940s by entrepreneurial cowboy
actors and extras from Hollywood, became a blinking red dot on my
road map the minute I heard about it from a bemused friend.
Pioneertown was meant to be more than a set for TV shows; its
utopian founders, who probably believed that these movies would be
made forever, imagined a place where bit players, seamstresses, set
dressers, wranglers, electricians, and carpenters could live
year-round.

And from 1946 through the mid-1950s, this scheme actually
worked. Depending on the show being

filmed there, Pioneertown became Rattlesnake, Laredo, San
Lorenzo, Silver City, Satan’s Cradle, Nugget. It even turned into a
magnet for folks who weren’t necessarily associated with the
business: During the boom years, for example, two Chinese guys who
loved cowboy pictures–a Mr. Jew and a Mr. Gee–moved to
Pioneertown from the East Coast to run the Golden Stallion
Restaurant and Saloon. It was written into their lease that they
had to make themselves scarce when an interior needed to be shot,
but they didn’t mind, since they made good money feeding the cast
and crew. From its inception, Pioneertown (population now 500,
according to the sign at the entrance) was both a real working town
and a desert mirage.

I have a hard time finding the motel. There are, of course, no
lights. Nor is there a gas station, a Denny’s, or an all-night
convenience store where I can ask directions.

After driving up and down the only paved road, I turn onto dirt
and find myself on Mane Street, where Gene Autry filmed parts of
The Gene Autry Show from 1950 to 1955 and where Annie Oakley, as
played by Gail Davis, raced Target. Mane, on which the Cisco Kid
fell in love with the beautiful saloon gal Lil. The moon and my
headlights illuminate the faux frontier buildings, which are low to
the ground, wooden, and–apparently–inhabited. There are lights on
in some of them.

I locate the Pioneertown Motel, finally, at the end of Mane;
it’s across from Pappy and Harriet’s Pioneertown Palace, and dark
as hell. I’m a little scared, because it looks like I am the only
guest, and it happens to be the opening night of Gus Van Sant’s
questionable remake of Psycho–the radio has been yammering about
lonely motels and psychotics for the past 10 hours. I wish I had a
gun. A note and a key are tacked to the manager’s door: Ernie had
gone to bed, but ‘Club 9’ is made up and waiting. (I’d requested
room 9 after reading, in a Pioneertown brochure, that after a hard
day of shooting, Gene Autry had used it for poker parties.) Using
the hitching rail that runs the length of the motel to keep my
balance, I race down the noisy wood-plank sidewalk to my room,
where, instead of the cowboy memorabilia I’d imagined, I get
posters of flowers, paintings of flowers, and ceramic plates
painted with floral arrangements.

By the light of day, I am further sobered and distressed by
post-boom Pioneertown. It’s almost entirely deserted, like a ghost
town with active P.O. boxes. I am unprepared for the displeasing
effect of the town’s deliberate blurring of fact and fiction, its
conflation of present and past. There are Wild West facades with
Goliath satellite dishes out back and rusting cars parked on Mane;
the ‘OK Corral’ is so run down it wouldn’t hold a lame horse. Then,
finally, other people: one lone carload of disappointed, overheated
German tourists.

I’d expected a certain lack of distinction between real and
unreal, but the banality of it all makes me nostalgic for the
purely imaginary world. So I raid Ernie’s video library of TV
serials made in Pioneertown during its heyday and retreat to my
room. Over and over again, good guys in white hats triumph, freedom
resists repression (except in the case of Indians, of course), and
industriousness turns out to be more powerful than avarice. Safe
inside Club 9, I know a world where no one good ever grows old or
dies, and where seldom is seen a retired extra collecting his
Social Security check from the post office.

PostñWorld War II America yearned for a world like Pioneertown,
where everything is orderly and pristine, in a dusty sort of way,
and where, when things do get messy, a hero like Gene Autry–whose
ongoing appeal lies precisely in his unworldliness (he sings to his
horse, for God’s sake, and orders milk at the bar)–can always be
counted on to clean it up again. I sympathize with that yearning,
but isn’t there something wrong with so reducing the complexity of
frontier history?

Pioneertown has become a corpse with a pulse, a talking cowboy
puppet. Even as kitsch, it is neither quaint nor forgettable.
That’s why, after just one day of watching this real fake town come
to fake real life on TV, I succumb to a nauseating
disorientation.

The next morning I burst into Ernie’s room–he is piling
hundreds of stuffed animals onto his double bed, which he seems to
have to do every day–and tell him I wasn’t going to be staying
after all. I give him back his videos, he tears up my credit card
slip, and I drive off. A few miles out of town I stop, put on my
backpack, and start walking: no trail, no map. But I know where I
am going.

From Hermenaut (#15). Subscriptions:
$20 (4 issues) from Box 141, Allston, MA 02134.

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