When most East Coasters think of California, we think of Hollywood, the beaches of LA or perhaps foggy San Francisco, that city by the bay. The high desert area of Southern California does not spring to mind. On a recent trip to visit some friends who have moved to Joshua Tree, California, we got to experience the “other” California. It is far, far away from Disneyland, though it does bear some resemblance to Roadrunner of Looney Tunes fame (beep beep).

Joshua Tree

Joshua Tree

Our friends Gail and Doug have long been enamored with the wild and raw and most assuredly untamed beauty of the area. They purchased a real fixer upper and dug in, literally. As summer approaches in the high desert, the daytime temperatures can soar into the 100s and the rattlesnakes search out cool spots, like the concrete slab floor on which the house is built.

Let me in!

The first plan of action was to seal up the points of entry for the rattlers and scorpions, also abundant in the area and wanting in. As Gail climbed out of a huge rented pickup trip full of building supplies, she wryly noted, “I am so far out of my comfort zone.” Our work party of four pitched in and began to bring a sense of civilization to the desert.

The house they purchased was originally part of the last of the Homestead Acts passed by Congress in 1938. The Act was designed as a non-agricultural way to entice settlers to the area, which sits on the edge of the Mojave desert. The five acre plots were cheap and buyers were required to build a house on the land. WWII intervened and, with gas rationing and the difficulty in getting to the far flung desert area, few houses were built. That all began to change by the end of the war. By the mid-1940s, houses began to spring up on the five acre plots. Most of them were quite small, some in the 400 square foot range.

Full tilt renovation

Gail and Doug’s house has been added onto over the intervening years and is now a three-bedroom, two-bath house. Some of the additions are unsympathetic to the whole and their goal is to unify them into a cohesive unit while retaining the enticingly quirky aspects of the home. They have begun to work toward that goal and have already sheet rocked walls and ceilings, removed nasty wall-to-wall carpeting, gutted the kitchen, and color stained and sealed the now exposed concrete floors.

Crowbar city

The dark pressed-wood Georgia Pacific paneling in one room has still yet to come down. I am itching to take a pry bar to it. Having removed this type of paneling before on another project, I can attest that peeling off the sheets gives instant and enormous gratification. Gail and Doug have promised me that they will leave that pleasure to me for our next visit.

The roof has recently been snow coated (no, not that kind of snow but rather a coating of white material that is waterproof and reflects the light to keep the house cooler). Snow Coat is an acrylic polymer elastometric roof emulsion which is applied with a roller or push broom. Gail has a sea of blisters on her hands after the roof coating DIY project. A ‘swamp cooler’ has also been installed. This term always makes me smile as there is no swamp anywhere near the Mojave Desert. Swamp coolers are often used in the desert as a less costly alternative to air conditioning. Swamp coolers are in effect water towers that blow air across water saturated cellulose pads that in turn cool the air and add moisture, much needed to keep that dewy, youthful complexion upon which the desert can wreak havoc.

The glamour of renovation

A trip up to the high desert feels very much like a trek to a wild and woolly place, full of harsh realities paired with sublime beauty. It quickly becomes obvious why Gail and Doug have chosen to become pioneers, carving out and creating a place to call home that they hopefully will not have to share with the creatures of the desert.

Doug and Gail

Our friend Doug is a professional photographer.  Check out his amazing work at his website www.unknownforces.com.