Like some of the best spots in Los Angeles, Mojave Sands Motel in Joshua Tree is easy to miss. And yes, after months of anticipation, thrift store detours, and a relatively painless 2.5 hour drive, we passed right by the place. While gazing at one-pump gas stations and front yards dominated by the spindly cactus trees that give the national park it’s name, suddenly the town of Joshua Tree shrinks in your rear-view. The town ends as quickly as it begins, and if you’re not careful, you’ll find yourself in 29 Palms.
Nestled amongst squat desert bushes and cacti at the corner of Sunburst Circle and 29 Palms Highway only a few blocks from Joshua Tree’s Park Boulevard entrance, Mojave Sands is the last stop in town. A quick glance and the exterior of the building resembles its 1950s version, complete with a modest neon sign. But drive through the back gate, and you’ll notice that this isn’t the run-down motor lodge from ten years ago. It opens to a small, protected parking lot lined with succulents and woodpiles. We parked the car and stepped into the courtyard, which felt more like your favorite backyard from childhood. It was immediately vibrant and comfortable, as if we had just been transported to a lazy afternoon on the verge of an evening gathering of friends. After exploring our home for the next two days, it felt right to drop our bags, find a chair in the shade, and start reading.
Blake Simpson, owner and designer of the motel, greeted us a few minutes later. Accompanied by two of his dogs, Scout and Stella, he grabbed some towels and showed us to our room. Blake’s been living 4.5 miles up the road for about fourteen years, but he’s owned Mojave Sands since 2002. When he bought the 1952 building, it was a drive-in motel littered with cigarette burns, smoke stains, shag carpeting, and La-Z-Boy recliners. He gutted the entire place and constructed walls. At every step of the renovations, he was unsatisfied, “The only cool stuff I could find was too expensive. I met a guy in town with a machine shop. I got carried away with making everything by hand.” Boy I’m glad for this. Aside from the expertly curated details from other designers past and present–Eames chairs, artwork, found wood slabs, ceramics–the interiors are fabricated recycled materials.
It’s not terribly challenging to buy a building, gather a smattering of vintage goods, and call it a boutique motel. Mojave Sands is absolutely not one of those places. For eight years, Blake put everything he owned into the upkeep and constant improvement of the facilities, and continues to do so. In the two years the motel has been open, it’s attracted an international clientele comprised of artists, musicians, hikers, climbers, and anyone who wants a distinctly relaxing experience in tune with the Joshua Tree landscape. The only unsatisfied customers left in a huff when they discovered that there were no televisions. Laughing, Blake recalled, “I tried to tell them that we have a great selection of books and vinyl!”
Looking back on my stay, I’m captivated by the details. Throughout the courtyard, fire pits with fresh wood and kindling beg to be lit. Charcoal and propane grills, as well as two communal cooking and eating areas encourage guests to truly make themselves at home. The beds–designed by Blake, reminiscent of Nakashima–were masterfully constructed of American walnut. Each of the five rooms share a common back porch separated by low stonewalls, creating a neighborhood atmosphere while maintaining privacy. In addition to being a dog friendly motel, you can request one of Blake’s irresistible pooches for a sleepover (I recommend Agnes).
Endlessly ambitious, Blake has some exciting plans for the next few years. In addition to converting the entire property to solar power, eight more rooms, a pool, vegetable garden, greenhouse, and chicken coup will be added to the adjacent lot by the end of 2013. At his home up the road, he is currently cutting and manipulating two giant shipping containers to house a recording studio, welding shop, and woodshop. And for his behemoth undertaking, he plans to convert a recently purchased12,000-foot military cargo plane from the 1950s into a multifunctional bar-restaurant to house gallery shows and events. According to Blake, “I want to have a place where people can leave the city to come feel inspired and energized. I want this to be a place to collaborate. I want to facilitate creative relationships amongst the community and world at large.”