Correction to This Article
An earlier version of this article incorrectly described Allie Wrubel as the composer of the "Gone With the Wind" score. Wrubel wrote a song of the same name, but Max Steiner composed the movie score.

A Hushed Oasis Of Art in the Desert

By Laura Randall
Special to The Washington Post
Sunday, May 18, 2008

The 60- to 100-foot-long murals in the California desert town of Twentynine Palms sneak up on you like a rattlesnake behind a barrel cactus. Often invisible from the main drag, they cover the sides of auto-parts shops and Christian bookstores, or simply appear as your eyes follow a ball of tumbleweed across a deserted road or handball court.

Dubbed the "Oasis of Murals" by the Twentynine Palms Chamber of Commerce, the vivid outdoor canvases tell the stories of the hardy souls -- miners, Chemeheuvi Indians, bighorn sheep -- who settled on this patch of desert on the northeastern edge of Joshua Tree National Park.

In this sleepy town of 27,000, finding touristy activities requires some creativity, thus our scavenger hunt for the 18 murals. During a weekend visit, my husband and I also enjoyed digging into Jack Daniel's-glazed salmon and baby back ribs slow-cooked on an outdoor grill at the Rib Company and taking a Geology 101 tour of the 7,000-year-old palm oasis that gives the town its name. We also liked the throwback prices: $5 double features at Smith's Ranch Drive-In (now playing: "Street Kings" and "The Ruins") and $2.50 bowling at the Bowladium, a 16-lane alley and cocktail lounge.

In the end, though, it was the silence, interrupted only by the occasional hoot of a great horned owl or the whispered dash of a roadrunner, that captivated us, leaving me calm and unknotted. It made up for the treeless landscape that so closely matches Iraq's desert conditions that the local Marine Corps base requires units to train here before leaving for the Middle East.

The stillness also was inescapable. It enveloped us while reading by the fire in our cottage at Roughley Manor; navigating the rows of kale in the 29 Palms Inn's garden as the sun's rays danced on distant blue-gray hills; and soaking up the views of the Coachella Valley from the top of Ryan Mountain south of town.

"At night out here it's so quiet you can hear the air hissing in your ears," said Bill Souder, a retired aerospace engineer who lives in nearby Yucca Valley and is part of a group preparing to open an observatory at the park's edge.

The facility, which will open later this year, will feature amateur telescope sites, a model solar system and a sun circle modeled after the calendar used by Southwestern Indian tribes.

Twentynine Palms' universe is expanding.

* * *

About 150 miles east of Los Angeles, Twentynine Palms is home to the largest visitors center in the 780,000-acre Joshua Tree National Park, which is known for its squat, spiky-limbed trees, steep rock walls and the Oasis of Mara, a palm-fringed lagoon created thousands of years ago by an active fault line. The town also claims one of the country's largest Marine Corps bases, which sprawls to the north. You can sense the military presence in the large number of barbershops and furniture rental stores scattered throughout the area.

The town's most influential citizen was James Luckie, a physician who advised World War I veterans suffering from tuberculosis and mustard-gas poisoning to relocate here for the dry climate. Luckie is honored in one of the Oasis murals, as are a mining settlement known as the Dirty Sock Camp and the founders of the town's first roller rink

Other towns adjacent to the park along Highway 62, such as Joshua Tree and Yucca Valley, offer more shopping and culture than Twentynine Palms. But most people eventually find their way here, if only to grab maps from the visitors center, take an easy half-mile walk around the Oasis of Mara or replenish their liquids. In the spring, daytime temperatures average 80 to 90 degrees, but they often hit triple digits in July and August. Few businesses, though, close for more than a week or two in the scorching summer.

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