After an afternoon spent hiking over the boulders in California's Joshua Tree National Park, my boyfriend and I were ready for a drink. Dusty and clad in sweat-dampened gear, we were in that post-exercise haze where the rush of scrambling over rocks for hours gives way to high-octane thirst.
It was not a thirst for water, however, which we had already sucked from our Camelbaks. We wanted a down-and-dirty drink to celebrate our outdoor victory. Our lust for traversing the mountaintops and unknown valleys of the American West sparked an equal desire to seek out watering holes filled with a frontier spirit: the individualism and no-frills pragmatism sprouting potential for ad hoc camaraderie.
I remembered hearing rumors of a place up the road in Twentynine Palms, home of a United States Marine Corps base, long blocks of desert, and not much else. It was called The Palms, and sat on the edge of Wonder Valley, where sprawling nothingness was occasionally dotted by the decrepit bones of old homesteader shacks. In the middle of nowhere it sat, half cowboy haunt and half ramshackle house.
A cocktail waitress was lining the fridge with cans of Coors from a grocery store bag. Our fellow bar rats consisted of a Marine from the local base, his weathered concubine, some Los Angeles hipsters sporting man-buns, and a very old shirtless man in dingy overalls. His flabby arms were constantly lifting to adjust a pair of prescription glasses held together by a rubber band.
Two blonde, longhaired siblings ran the place. The sister was tuning a guitar while someone grilled burgers in the kitchen. On the walls and shelves that lined the room a variety of wares were for sale: old sunglasses, cast-off clothes, and a couple of vinyl albums. It was better than a place where everyone knew our name; it was a place where we could sink into anonymity with other travelers looking to disappear for a moment in a tumbler of gin. We sipped our strong, cheap drinks and dissolved easily into the communion available only to strangers drinking together.
Back home in LA, we were no strangers to hand-rolled pastas and barrel-aged Negronis. Out here in the desert, we were looking for something different, something that involved cheap booze and random compadres. After our visit to The Palms, we started seeking out similar places whenever we trekked into the natural world.
On a subsequent trip to Death Valley, we found ourselves in one of the world's most bizarre compilations of topography: a densely packed wonder that ranged from salt flats to vividly painted hills to glorious swaths of rolling, white sand dunes. At the end of a day exploring the terrain, the last thing we wanted to do was stay in the overpriced tourist-trap hotels on the edge of the park. We braved the vast lonely road to Beatty, Nevada, which was a mere blip of a city that could be explored on foot within half an hour.
It was there that we found KC's Outpost Saloon & Eatery, where we wolfed down a straightforward pizza alongside a man who had been building roads with heavy machinery all day. He and the pigtailed bartender gave us the lowdown on the cast of characters that perched upon adjacent stools. Three robust women were in competition for our accidental tour guide's attention, and as the hour crawled on, much shameless flirtation ensued.
After a piece of exquisite homemade coconut cake we ambled a block away to the Sourdough Saloon, which looked to have been transported straight out of the Wild West. We were the only patrons, save for a hefty woman at the corner of the bar who sat smoking while she helped fold cocktail napkins. The bartender was an older hippie woman with ample cleavage who regaled us with tales of a local bordello. The next evening we visited again for a slab of steak and were welcomed by the cocktail napkin-folding woman. Only now, she was good-naturedly verbally abusing a drunken fellow who was hitting on a young European couple downing warm beer.
Last year, in Oakhurst, California, the Dirty Donkey Tavern beckoned us from across the parking lot of our hotel after a day spent scaling rock faces and domes in Southern Yosemite. Stumbling in with our elevation-change head rushes, we took a seat next to two drunken bikers. Our drinks came with small paper disks that said, "Gone to pee, don't fuck with my drink," in case we had to hit the restroom. A blonde barmaid was enjoying herself by drawing black marker illustrations on the head of a passed-out bald guy to our left. In the adjoining room two young boys—as high as Harold and Kumar—were playing a woozy game of pool. After a couple shots of whiskey, we gladly joined in a round of selfies with the unconscious dude and his art-filled noggin, our antics peppered by the cackle of a woman smoking on the back porch.
Most recently, after trudging up a cinder-cone volcano all morning, we decided to spend the night in Mount Shasta before heading up its magnificent façade the next day. The cold, dark mountain commandeered the city with its presence, permeating the air with a sense of how very small and inconsequential we all really are.
After a quick bite to eat, we scurried across a darkened street to find solace in The Gold Room. We sidled up to the bar and did our usual few-minute examination of the scene. A couple to our right introduced themselves to us immediately, letting us know they had "checked us out" earlier in the restaurant. Their charged small talk and innuendos led us to believe they were swingers, and we were flattered. Meanwhile, the couple to our left challenged us to a game of darts. The only other person in the bar was a plump woman in a sheer, black negligee who commandeered the jukebox, playing an array of tunes that ranged from Snoop Dogg to mellow classics from the 1970s. Her seductive glance was targeted on the bartender, who responded to my request for a Jameson neat by holding up his hand to give me a high five. He boasted that he had been drinking the same thing all day, up until a few minutes ago when he had arrived at work. We took our drinks over to the pool table and played a few nonchalant games while watching the odd blend of dart-throwing and sensual dancing. When we finally approached the inebriated bartender to pay, he only charged us for a couple of our drinks.
In the past four years, we have hiked over 280 miles, each trip ending with our bar ritual. The last thing we want to do to celebrate reaching mind-bending heights is don formal attire or reenter the structure of polite society. No, we feel just right wearing a loose pair of jeans in a crowd with low expectations where we can nurse our aching thighs with a simple Jack-and-ginger. When a sarcastic bartender answers my request for a Cuba Libre with, "We don't carry that, best I can do is a rum and Coke," I know we've found our joint.
In their own way, these bars are as compelling as our sojourns into awe-inspiring locales, offering a view of the vast and varied terrain of human nature. Just like the moments of splendor we discover out in the world around them, they provide an experience that is both isolated yet further seals our connection with our fellow people, weird and wonderful creatures that they are.