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A Traveler’s Story: Twentynine Palms, Living in Harmony, and the Harmony Motel U2 Sign Restoration

By Andie Bottrell, Twentynine Palms, CA – February 15, 2011 — As I drove into the town of Twentynine Palms, the sun had just taken its lonely place upon the horizon and there was nary a bustle or sound a stir, besides the morning birds and gusty breeze of the Santa Ana winds. One of the first things I noticed as I drove into this desert oasis on California State Route 62 was the sign for theHarmony Motel, which seemed fitting, as it was not only my destination but, as I would soon discover, a sign which has come to encompass the meaning of the city as a whole. To live in Harmony is to live in peace and this is something that Twentynine Palms has down to a science, from being home to the largest Marine Base to bringing the rights of their cohabitant wildlife into their city planning meetings. This is a town that works hard to preserve their vast and cherished natural desert habitat and one that, while succeeding at that, has, like so many other small American cities in our current economic climate, struggled to grow and find its audience as a desert getaway.

The first person I meet is Ash Maharaj, current owner of the Harmony Motel. The Harmony Motel has 6 stylish rooms and a cabin known as The Jack Kerouac Cabin. Its pool was a featured location in the 2001 Kirsten Dunst movie Crazy Beautiful, but that’s hardly the main celebrity story the folks of Twentynine Palms recount when speaking of the Harmony Motel’s famous faces, Ash tells me. Ash is a South African immigrant who became, rather serendipitously, the owner of the Harmony Motel 7 years ago. Since that time she has poured her heart, soul and livelihood into fixing it up and finding new ways to bring people in.

This dusty city gets some of the draw of the Joshua Tree National Park, of which it hosts the main entrance, but for the most part it seems to be a town that people drive right through without so much as a second glance toward its many city murals, sculptures, art galleries, and people who are so rich with tales of the town’s history, you feel like you’ve been transported back to a time when people actually sat around and talked to each other over food and drinks, unlike today when most conversation has become virtual and many people simply have no time for old stories. I can relate, which is why it was so refreshing to walk the grounds, to eat, to drink and hear the tales – of which you’ll have to find yourself in Twentynine Palms to hear as I am not allowed to print them.

The next person I meet is the Mayor himself, Jim Harris. We are sitting in the kitchen area of the Harmony Motel amongst a fine spread of muffins and cookies. I can tell immediately that this is the kind of man you want in charge of things. He launches into this touching tale of how he’d just returned from scattering his late wife’s ashes in the sea, as I unsuccessfully struggle to choke back tears. He apologizes for the departure from topic, but it is unnecessary and we, along with Ash, launch into the questions I’ve prepared for the day, which he answers with an honesty and genuine charm that I am unaccustomed to.

The reason I was brought to the city was to write an article about how the Harmony Motel is restoring its original Harmony Motel sign. This is a pretty big deal because this sign has been an attraction for the motel and the city since the 1980′s when a then still relatively unknown band — compared to their status today — by the name of U2 saw the sign and decided to stay at the Harmony Motel. It was there, at that time, that they were working on the Joshua Tree album, and they proceeded to take hundreds of photographs in and around the Harmony Motel and the Joshua Tree National Park, including the now famous photograph of the band in front of that original Harmony Motel sign. This sign was taken down not long after they left due to damage which was more costly to repair than to simply replace.

When Ash took over the Harmony Motel and began looking for ways to bring more people in, she immediately thought of restoring the original sign. After all, people still stop by several times a week to take pictures in front of the new sign (which bears no resemblance to the old, original sign), just think how many more would come if it was the original sign. U2 is still using that photo they took in front of the sign on their world-wide tours. Ash tells me just last week a young couple from Australia booked their stay at the Harmony Motel just minutes after seeing the photo flash on the big screen at a sold out U2 concert.

Restoring the sign was no cheap feat, however, and Ash has laid it all on the line in hopes that it will pay off. It helps that she has the support of her city neighbors and the Mayor, though that seems to be standard for these desert folks. Perhaps it’s the rough terrain or the fact that they are so far from other cities, but it seems like these are the kind of people the world needs more of. These are the kind of people you can call in any emergency and you know they’ve got you covered. If I sound a little enamored and biased, I apologize, but I can’t help myself.

Truth be told, I drove off into the desert, leaving my big city Los Angeles home in the rearview mirror and I headed straight into the eye of a dry, sandy monster I was certain to hate. I thought the desert was dead and depressing. I thought the people must be crazy to enjoy living there. I didn’t understand it and I didn’t expect to when I left, but something changed me. It turns out even the desert isn’t all desert. They’ve got some desert greenery, trees and water, too! They’ve got laid back people who live their lives day-to-day enjoying the sun, enjoying their company, their critters, their drinks, their food (a lot of which they even grow themselves… in the desert.) They help each other, support each other and are determined to grow their city with integrity. To not sell out to the highest bidder, but to show the rest of the country how to live in peace with their surroundings. To show the world how to have an open mind and find ways to compromise with its cohabitants of human, animal or environmental origin.

I also spoke with Ash’s Harmony Motel neighbor, Ken Tinquist who arrives just as the Mayor is leaving and they enthusiastically catch up after not seeing each other for a few days since they were both out of town. Both Ken and Mayor Jim wonder why its taken so long for the sign’s restoring to happen. Ash’s own $3,000 and ruthless, catching determination is what’s making this happen. It’s a daring investment in her business as well as in the city she’s grown to call home.

After speaking with Ken, Ash and I head off to a local restaurant not too far away. It’s there, sitting next to another pool while eating wonderful food, the sounds of laughter echoing in the background- a nice accompaniment to the relaxing music playing out of the radio, that a familiar, but long-lost feeling washes over me and my body automatically lets go of all its big city tension. I let the sun soak into my skin and feel the breeze take away the heat when it gets too hot. I can’t stop repeating how relaxed I am and how it feels like I’m on vacation in some tropical island. Simple words, but so powerful for someone who rarely gets away and never expected to like a thing about any desert.

Ash regales me with the amazing tale of how she came to Twentynine Palms and what it means to her as I begin to realize I’ve heard this same theme before — from the Mayor and from the neighbor. It’s a small city that’s managed to do what we as a country have struggled at for centuries. They are living in perfect harmony with each other, with their rare and beautiful surroundings and wild creatures. They may have brought me in to write about how the new sign will be a great new draw for past and future U2 fans and how it will help the city to grow, and I’ve no doubt that it will, but the thing I keep coming back to is the people. I understand many folks go on vacation to get away from people, but Twentynine Palms is the kind of place where you can relax by a pool, soak up the sun, see amazing art, see amazing wildlife in their natural habitat, have climbing and hiking adventures to rival any place on earth, and do it all with amazing local company that will leave a footprint on your heart forever.

The original sign goes up, surrounded by a celebration of the city’s finest, on Thursday, February 17th. Check out the Harmony Motel online at www.harmonymotel.com where you can see pictures, including the famous photos of U2 in front of the soon to be restored-to-its-rightly-place sign and read the touching stories of desert life on Ash’s blog. Most importantly, make your reservation today and take the whole family. It’s not often that you stumble on a town that can give you the relaxing feel of a tropical vacation while instilling the values American families used to be made of. To quote Sallust, “Harmony makes small things grow, lack of it makes great things decay.” For this reason I have no fear and no doubt in the future of Twentynine Palms; that it will grow with integrity seems, to me, as close a promise.

The Desert Howler

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