After living in Yucca Valley, just north of Joshua Tree National Park, for more than a year, former Angelenos Kit Williamson and John Halbach have learned some hard lessons about the high desert.
“Every once in a while, nature serves to remind 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’ out here sometimes,” Halbach says of the desert’s ferocious winds. “We haven’t seen any tarantulas, rattlesnakes or blood-sucking insects yet, but we know they are out there.”
The couple, who were married at Keys View in Joshua Tree National Park in 2015, have also learned that the desert can be a welcoming environment.
“We’ve met so many queer folks since we’ve moved to the desert, including the owners of the Station, The Beauty Bubble, Geode and Gypsum and Joshua Tree Blanket Company,” says Williamson, 36, who wrote and starred in the Silver Lake-based gay soap opera “EastSiders,” in which Halbach, 42, co-starred and co-executive produced. “Two of our favorite restaurants out here, La Copine and Frontier Cafe, are both queer-owned. It’s definitely a huge change from when we first started coming out here 10 years ago.”
Unlike the famous gay cowboy song “Cowboys Are Frequently Secretly Fond 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 in part to surging interest in the desert during the pandemic.
“Today there is a very vibrant and visible gay community here,” says Dave McAdam, founder and co-owner of Homestead Modern short-term rentals, who moved from San Francisco to the high desert in 2003.
“At the time, I lived full-time in San Francisco and had a second home in Palm Springs. Coming from those two very gay-welcoming communities, I felt some real trepidation about what a gay man might find in the high desert — especially in some of the more conservative communities here,” he adds.
A lot has changed. Visit the shops along Route 62 and you’ll be greeted by pride flags in the windows. (You’ll also spot an occasional anti-Biden “Let’s Go Brandon” flag in town.) Celebrity dancer and choreographer Ryan Heffington, who lives in the desert, recently started hosting a popular queer dance party at the Out There Bar in Twentynine Palms. Another choreographer, Spencer Liff, is turning an abandoned homestead cabin into a dance studio. When gay, fringe-masked country-western singer Orville Peck performed at Pappy and Harriet’s in April, the Station owners Glen Steigelman and Steve Halterman outfitted Big Josh, the 21-foot-tall fiberglass cowboy outside their Joshua Tree gift shop, in a pink fringed mask to match the country crooner’s trademark disguise.
“It was my high desert cowboy fantasy come to life,” Halbach says of seeing Peck and Tanya Tucker perform just minutes from his homestead.
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 after seeing their friends make a life for themselves in Yucca Valley: Ryan Carillo and Luke Prusinski opened the Castle House Estate glamping campground, and Erica Beers and Rebecca Slivka took over Hicksville Trailer Palace.
At a time when many Los Angeles residents are purchasing desert properties for weekend getaways and Airbnbs, Williamson and Halbach decided to make a big life change and move to the desert year-round. “We were priced out of L.A.,” Halbach says.
Finding a house wasn’t easy. After losing out on several properties due to all-cash offers, many of which were $100,000 over the asking price, the couple purchased a two-bedroom homestead cabin on five acres for $475,000 in February 2021.
Could two gay city slickers survive on a dirt road in a desert town just a few doors down from an alpaca farm?
It took some adjustments.
“The previous owner did the hard work of making the home livable and comfortable, and we came in and made it gay,” says Williamson, who is currently in post-production with “Unconventional,” a television project he created and stars in, shot in Joshua Tree and Palm Springs.
To make the house a home, or what they are calling their “homo homestead,” the couple invested $50,000 on upgrades including a remodel of the two bathrooms and the creation of outdoor living spaces that overlook the property’s Joshua trees and cholla cactuses (there is also a coyote den at the rear of the property littered with bones).
The house has all the elements of what they are calling “Midcentury Modern meets bohemian cowboy”: rattan, leather, gold, metal and natural materials that blend into the views. A new wood-burning fireplace backed by graphic concrete tiles from Villa Lagoon Tile add warmth, as does pink tile from Concrete Collaborative in the kitchen.
In the backyard, there are now several spots for lounging, including a covered patio and outdoor dining room, a trio of hammocks where the couple likes to watch the sunset, the 1950s camper trailer they drove across the country in “EastSiders,” and an aqua-blue-painted cowboy tub from H2O Tank Avenue.
Finding contractors proved to be a difficult pursuit after so many people migrated to the desert. “It was a saga,” says Halbach, director of video and social media for the LGBTQ-owned media company Q. Digital. “We went through four contractors. We had to find people who specialized in certain things rather than hand over the reins. We became owner-contractors and managed the property ourselves.”
The cost of many materials, including lumber, skyrocketed during construction. “We built a mini-deck that cost a lot more than we expected,” Williamson says. When they hired someone to install a tile accent wall on the outside of the house, the handyman didn’t know how to grout the tile. “I was frantically Googling ‘how to do tile work’ and spent the next two days finishing the project,” Williamson says. “We have become really handy.”
Joshua Tree Pride Events on June 18
- A group show of work by LGBTQIA+ artists, 10 a.m. to 2 p.m., at Queerated Art Gallery at the Beatnik Lounge
- Patio Pride Dance Party, Noon to 4 p.m., with a Mermaid Parade Splashdown at 3 p.m. at the Station
- The Desert Split Open Mic: Queer Voices, 5 to 7 p.m. at Joshua Tree Lake RV and Campground
- Pride Party with local DJs, 8 p.m. to midnight at the Tiny Pony
Sidelined by supply chain issues, the couple shopped at many local stores including Geode & Gypsum, Acme 5, Cactus Mart, Joshua Tree Blanket Company, Black Luck Vintage and Los Angeles-based Bend. They even picked up tile from Concrete Collaborative in San Marcos and drove it back to the desert in a U-Haul and assembled modular furniture from Burrow themselves.
The couple say they miss their friends in Los Angeles but aren’t lonely. “Weirdly, we have met more of our neighbors on this dirt road than we ever did in Silver Lake,” Williamson says. And besides, it’s 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 important, accommodations for visitors. Their parents live in Mississippi and Minnesota and have all visited since the duo moved.
“Weirdly we have met more of our neighbors on this dirt road than we ever did in Silver Lake.”
“We have a room for our parents,” says Williamson. “It’s been really special getting to share this with them.”
After growing up in Jackson, Miss., Williamson finds it surprising that he has come full circle. “I never saw myself coming back to a rural area,” he says. “But then queer people have always been pioneers, and I feel like this is the beginning of a new chapter for the high desert.”