“There is no better way to end a Vegas night on the town than at The Garden, a queer nightclub that recently opened in the Arts District. This place is crazy fun.” — Jason
It’s late in the day on a strikingly hot and bone-dry September afternoon in Los Angeles, the kind where one best not light a match. Right about now I should be angling my iPhone in order to take the perfect selfie while standing in front of El Capitan, the photogenic rock formation that towers over Yosemite Valley. But because wildfires are raging across Northern California, I’m changing course last minute and for the first night of my road trip, I am trading Half Dome for a full moon—several in fact. That’s because I’m barreling down I-10 and will soon to be lounging poolside at Desert Paradise, a men-only, clothing optional resort in Palm Springs, where bare butts abound.
Palm Springs devotees may remember Desert Paradise as the resort where rooms were themed to gay icons like Bette Midler and Barbra Streisand. All evidence of the Divine Miss M and the like has been scrubbed away, but the lush grounds containing a steam room, dry sauna, hot tub, outdoor massage area, and sparkling pool remain intact—as does the water feature of an erect, and continuously erupting, phallus which I nickname the Penis de Milo.
But Palm Springs is not the finish line, it’s only the starting gate. I’m on an ambitious Wild West road trip that will swing through six states and include visits to several National Parks, three big cities, and a plethora of small towns and roadside attractions. It’s my way of giving a great big middle finger to COVID-19, and I’m determined that this safe and socially distant vacation still chase the queer rainbow.
It happens right away, actually. Tonight, I am dining at Copley’s, a downtown restaurant that is the former Palm Springs residence of bisexual actor Cary Grant. A ranch-style abode, Copley’s features a series of French doors that swing open out onto a lavish courtyard with a water feature in the middle and surrounded largely by two- and four-top tables spaced six feet apart. A lot of the diners are deeply tanned men north of 40 wearing buttoned-down shirts and khakis. The charred porterhouse pork is perfect, but the sides, crispy fruit polenta and vanilla endive, less so. It’s a Wednesday night and also off-season, so when I return to the resort it’s pretty quiet. The alien green lighting of the pool envelopes me as I lounge naked on a floatie, and it’s nearly 100 degrees out so the water feels great. I could do this forever, but this Californian needs to rise and shine early. More than 2,000 miles of open road awaits.
My first stop the next day is Pioneertown, a kitschy desert outpost about an hour north of Palm Springs that was constructed in the 1940s to satisfy the American hunger for Wild West movies and TV shows. The genre faded and so did the “town,” but youthful entrepreneurs found a revival irresistible and today the faux saloons, brothels, and general stores have become backdrops for Insta-happy daytrippers. The town is anchored by Pappy and Harriet’s, a legendary honky-tonk boasting plenty of cowboy swagger. Its sprawling backyard (where Paul McCartney once showed up and crooned a few classics like “Back in the U.S.S.R.” and “Hey Jude”) is where I lunch before hitting the high desert.
It feels like I’m kicking up enough dirt to put out at least one of the many wildfires raging across the state as I drive backcountry roads through the Mojave. First up is Barstow (skip it), then onward to Baker (stop to snap a pic of the World’s Largest Thermometer) and Death Valley Junction, former home to desert diva Marta Becket, the actress, dancer, and choreographer who passed through the fading company town in 1968, purchased the community center, renamed it the Amargosa Opera House and began performing recitals to a literal audience of none. She continued to do so on and off for more than 40 years until her death in 2017 at age 92. The Amargosa Opera House and Hotel is still in operation, the only open business for miles around (the town’s population is 4).