The tarted-up CHEEZ-IT corporate nightmare pictured above squatted in downtown Joshua Tree for several weeks recently.
Everything written about it seems to have been cut and pasted from press releases, so I thought I’d offer up a critical, local perspective. I was horrified to see a giant CHEEZ-IT advertisement sprout up in Joshua Tree. So this will be a counterpoint to the positive, press release quote-laden glorifications published elsewhere.
The “town” of Joshua Tree is a small place. You could walk from one end of downtown Joshua Tree to the other in about 20 minutes. I put “town” in quotes because Joshua Tree isn’t even a town; it has no government. It’s a census-designated place.
The CHEEZ-IT atrocity occupied a place called The Station, a souvenir shop. Joshua Tree has had a souvenir shop for almost 20 years. You could argue (as I would) that we don’t need a souvenir shop, but they’re inevitable when a National Park is nearby. Whether or not we needed one, we sure as hell don’t need two.
The gentlemen who own and operate The Station, Steve Halterman and Glen Steigelman, seem determined to kill any remaining old-school Joshua Tree vibes that struggle to resist extinction. I can’t understand why they would turn their store over to Kellogg’s and let them transform it into a shrieking orange CHEEZ-IT abattoir.
Well, that’s not true. We know why they did it. For the money. What I mean is I don’t know what purpose it was supposed to serve. (Turns out it was just a CHEEZ-IT promotion, that was its sole purpose.)
The details don’t matter. The Station’s raison d’être isn’t to be of use to the local community; it’s to separate tourists — and now large corporations, apparently — from their money. So this development shouldn’t have been surprising. It’s tragic, ugly, and misguided, and another nail in Joshua Tree’s coffin, but it’s not surprising.
Is it too late to protect Joshua Tree?
When I talk about old-school Joshua Tree “vibes,” I’m talking about the reasons the Joshua Tree area is known at all. What it was before the Instagram hordes trampled it in a desperate search for an artisanal latte.
Joshua Tree had a reputation for being a desolate place full of people who wanted to (or had to) get away from civilization. People who love and respect the harsh high desert and are willing to live without all the conveniences of the city. A breathtakingly beautiful, spiritual place to connect with nature and the bits of us that are still human.
It used to be a place to get away from things like The Station.
But it isn’t a place to escape the ceaseless commercial machine anymore. It’s become a tourist town. The crowds on the weekends are unbelievable and would shock anyone who knows Joshua Tree but has been away for 15 or 20 years. People say it’s always been a tourist town, and while that may be true in spirit, the fact is, not so long ago, downtown Joshua Tree was still essentially a tumbleweed factory. And that was fine by most of the people who lived and visited here.
Joshua Tree is a National Park town — sorry, a National Park census-designated place — and obviously, tourism comes along with that. But the tourism of 20 or more years ago feels different than the tourism of today. That old-time tourism looks quaint in retrospect next to 21st-century internet culture tourism. The tourists used to be people who loved the desert or were curious about the desert. There was nothing else to come here for.
I know everything changes. But as humans living in an ever-devolving, increasingly hostile society, we need some places to remain as they were so they can be experienced as something different. Special, different places need to be protected from corporate kudzu like The Station and their ilk. Some fragile spots can easily be destroyed by commercialism, and I feel Joshua Tree is one of those spots.
At the root of everything I’m writing here is the fact that it pains me deeply to see the Joshua Tree I know and love being destroyed before my eyes. Maybe you don’t think things like this are harmful. I do. They are a slippery slope. We’ve been on the slope for a while now, and at some point (and maybe this is that point), it will be impossible to escape the fall.
One person’s “progress” is another’s nightmare
I’m not anti-business. I’m anti-businesses that don’t provide anything useful to the community and exist only to take from those passing through. I complain about tourists – as those who don’t profit from them tend to do – but I’m not anti-tourist. I’ve been trying to convince people to visit Joshua Tree for 35 years. I think everyone should experience the desert and have a chance to fall in love with it.
Ayin and I patronize the local businesses and use the local resources that are available to us. But most of those things were built for the residents of Joshua Tree (and the considerably smaller number of tourists we used to host). Plenty of local businesses survived before the Instagram invasion, and I hope they’ll all still be here when Joshua Tree isn’t hip anymore.
Some people see any new businesses coming to any town as “progress.” But indiscriminate “progress” – progress measured by American Dream consumerism – is in opposition to what the desert means to those of us who want to protect what’s unique and beautiful about it.
The town west of Joshua Tree, Yucca Valley, is driven by business and consumerism, and it looks like it and feels like it. That’s fine; that’s their thing. I use their businesses, too (I love you, El Guero! I need you, Walmart!). I’d never deny that. But I wouldn’t live there.
I may be in the minority these days when it comes to commercial intrusion like the CHEEZ-IT Station. I recognize that. I know some people thought it was “cute,” and tourists jammed into it the weekend it was open to stare at CHEEZE-ITs and buy CHEEZE-ITs and CHEEZ-IT-branded disposable trinkets.
But that doesn’t mean the majority is right or that the majority even knows what they want or like. Think about it, who on earth loves CHEEZ-ITs so much that they would drive more than a hundred miles to stand in a giant CHEEZ-IT advertisement? Nobody. They came because it was Instagramable. The same reason most new visitors come to Joshua Tree these days.
And my opinion possibly being the minority (though I don’t believe it is necessarily a minority opinion among my friends and neighbors) doesn’t change the fact that the whole thing is a dusty orange stain on a beautiful town and will forever, in my mind, be a stain on The Station.
The men behind the cracker
I’m sure Steve Halterman and Glen Steigelman are lovely fellows. They moved here, after all, so they must love Joshua Tree. Even if what they’ve foisted onto it is contributing to its death.
Steve Halterman called me a “hater” in an article published on the Desert Sun website. A word – a tactic – used to deflect legitimate criticism and dismiss out of hand anyone who disagrees with you or exposes something about you that you are uncomfortable having exposed.
Mr. Halterman would have you believe that “The people who want it greatly outweigh the people who don’t.” But of course one of the men who seem intent on selling Joshua Tree to the highest bidder would say that. I’d hazard a guess, though, that a poll of long-time Joshua Tree residents would prove him wrong.
I’ve been taken to task by a few people about my critical posts on Instagram. They tell me the Station lads are queer, and they support “the community.” I’m not sure what I’m supposed to do with that information. I think there’s an implication that because I’m queer and they’re queer, I shouldn’t be critical of them. They’re queer, so I should support them. They’re queer, so they can do no wrong.
Sweethearts, no. That’s not how it works.
I’m critical of anyone who contributes to the denigration and destruction of this unique and beautiful place. Whoever they are. And I’m doubly critical of clueless opportunists who do so just to line their pockets.
National Park or theme park?
If you strip the souvenir shop (and the cruel corporate CHEEZ-IT joke made at our expense) from The Station, you have classic desert weirdness and creativity. A couple of people taking an old building and making it into a personal piece of art. That’s awesome, and it’s what you expect in the desert and one of the things that makes Joshua Tree wonderful. When the giant muffler man appeared one day, I thought it was funny and perfect decor for an old gas station.
But then they turned it into a souvenir shop. Or maybe I was late to the party and only learned it was a souvenir shop when it always had been. I don’t know. Either way, now it’s not so funny. It’s just more exploitation of Joshua Tree. More carpetbagging – coming from elsewhere to exploit a place and its people for personal gain.
Isn’t that what’s happening here?
That’s what it feels like to me.