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

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

“Once in a while, nature serves to remind you that the desert is trying to kill you,” Williamson says. “I’m thinking of writing a horror movie about it.”

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

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

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

(David George Zimmerman)

“We’ve met so many queer people since moving to the desert, including resort owners 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 “EastSiders”, in 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 definitely a huge change from when we first started coming here 10 years ago.

Contrary to the famous gay cowboy song “Cowboys Often Secretly Love Each Other”, it’s no secret that Palm Springs has long been a popular LGBTQ destination community. But recently, residents of the high desert — including Morongo Valley, Pioneertown, Yucca Valley, Joshua Tree and Twentynine Palms — say LGBTQ visibility is on the rise, thanks in part to growing 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 modern farmhouse short-term rental, who left San Francisco for the high desert in 2003.

A house in the middle of the desert

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

(Safik Wahab)

“At the time, I was living full time in San Francisco and had a second home in Palm Springs. Coming from these two very gay-friendly communities, I felt a real apprehension about what a gay man might find in the high desert, especially in some of the more conservative communities here,” he adds. .

Many things have changed. Visit the shops along Route 62 and you’ll be greeted by pride flags in the window displays. (You’ll also occasionally spot an anti-Biden “Let’s Go Brandon” flag around town.) Famous dancer and choreographer Ryan Heffington, who lives in the desert, recently began hosting a popular queer dance party at Out There Bar in Twentynine Palms. Another choreographer, Spencer Liff, transforms an abandoned cabin into a dance studio. When masked fringe gay country-western singer Orville Peck performed at Pappy and Harriet’s in April, the station’s owners Glen Steigelman and Steve Halterman crew Fat Joshthe 21-foot-tall fiberglass cowboy outside their Joshua Tree gift shop, in a pink fringe mask to match the country crooner’s trademark disguise.

A living room with a fireplace

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

(Safik Wahab)

“It was my high desert cowboy fantasy come to life,” Halbach says of seeing Peck and Tanya Tucker perform just minutes from his property.

The couple considered the wilderness 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 watching their friends make a life for themselves in Yucca Valley: Ryan Carillo and Luke Prusinski opened the Domain of the castle house camping glamping, and Erica Beers and Rebecca Slivka took over Hicksville Trailer Palace.

At a time when many Los Angeles residents are buying desert properties for weekend getaways and Airbnbs, Williamson and Halbach decided to make a dramatic life change and move to the desert year-round. “We were kicked out of Los Angeles,” says Halbach.

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

Could two gay city dwellers survive on a dirt road in a desert town just doors down from an alpaca farm?

It took some adjustments.

A bathroom
A kitchen with a patterned tile back wall

“The previous owner did the hard work to make the house 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 starred in, filmed in Joshua Tree and Palm Springs.

To make the house a home, or what they call their “homo homestead,” the couple invested $50,000 in upgrades, including renovating both bathrooms and creating outdoor living spaces overlooking the Joshua trees and cholla cacti on the property (there’s also a coyote den at the back of the property littered with bones).

A man in a speedo in a round pool and a man behind him in a speedo holding a pool net

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 into the sight. A new wood-burning fireplace backed by graphic concrete tiles from Villa Lagoon Tile adds warmth, as do pink tiles from Concrete Collaborative in the kitchen.

In the backyard there are now several places to lounge, including a covered patio and outdoor dining area, a trio of hammocks where the couple enjoys watching the sunset, the 1950s camping trailer which 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 task after so many people migrated to the desert. “It was a saga,” says Halbach, director of social media for the LGBTQ-owned media company Q.Numeric. “We went through four entrepreneurs. We had to find people who specialized in certain things rather than passing on the baton. We became owner-entrepreneurs and managed the property ourselves.

Joshua Tree Pride Events June 18

  • A collective exhibition of LGBTQIA+ artists, from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m., at the Queerated Art Gallery in the Beatnik Lounge
  • Patio Pride Dance Party, 12 p.m. to 4 p.m., with a Mermaid Parade Splashdown at 3 p.m., the Station
  • The Desert Split Open Mic: Queer Voices, 5-7 p.m. RV and Joshua Tree Lake Campground
  • Pride Party with local DJs, from 8 p.m. to midnight, the Tiny Pony

The cost of many materials, including wood, skyrocketed during construction. “We built a mini-deck that cost a lot more than expected,” Williamson says. When they hired someone to install a tile accent wall on the exterior of the house, the do-it-yourselfer didn’t know how to grout the tiles. “I was frantically Googling ‘how to tile’ and spent the next two days finishing the project,” says Williamson. “We got really practical.”

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 Bend, based in Los Angeles. They even picked up tiles from Concrete Collaborative in San Marcos and took them back to the desert in a U-Haul and assembled modular furniture from Terrier themselves.

The couple say they miss their friends in Los Angeles but they are not alone. “Strangely, we 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 advantage: for the first time in their adult life, they have a dishwasher, a washer/dryer and, above all, accommodation for visitors. Their parents live in Mississippi and Minnesota and have all moved since the duo moved.

“Strangely, we met more of our neighbors on this dirt road than we ever did in Silver Lake.”

“We have a bedroom for our parents,” Williamson says. “It’s been really special to share that with them.”

After growing up in Jackson, Mississippi, Williamson finds it surprising that he’s come full circle. “I never saw myself coming back to a rural area,” he says. “But gay people have always been pioneers, and I feel like this is the start of a new chapter for the high desert.”

An airy central room with a bedroom on the side

The guest bedroom, on the left, and the master bedroom are connected by an outdoor patio.

(Shafik Wahhab)

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