Pioneertown

Photos: Shawn Hanna
Words: Adam Johnston

In the deserts of Southern Tunisia pilgrims search for the ruins of Tatooine, the imagined world of binary sunsets and Luke Skywalker now buried under the sand drifts of time. These lost production sets, no more than scraps really, are as charged and coveted as Christian relics, fraught with the religious fervour of fandom.

Every faith is a world, and every world has its own mythologies. The Ancient world, the Christian world, the worlds of Endor and the Death Star; we live in their ruins and seek out their fragments, even if those objects are mere toys. Our Marvel Universe may live in pixels but was created in print – colored pages wrapped in cellophane, protected against the ravages of time and grubby fingers. Comic books tell the same stories we have always told; the superhero blockbuster may be relatively new but the arcs of its narrative are not.

A genre is a shell, a chassis; it is built with the stuff of history and commerce but legitimized and made worthy by its own logic and its own nostalgia. Whether it’s the Western world or the world of the Western, these genres, these mythologies are just different branches of the same tree, languages describing in detail their own kinds of utopia.

Every faith is a world, and every world has its own mythologies.

Here’s a daytripper: Go east on the 10 for a while; get off at Exit 117 before you are distracted by the charms of Palm Springs just beyond; go north on Route 62, the Twentynine (not 29) Palms Highway; pass the Blue Skies Country Club and turn left on Pioneertown Road – if you hit Old Woman Springs then you’ve gone too far. You are now in Pioneertown. You can’t miss it because you are in it. Here you are, you are here.


Along Mane Street (spelled that way) there is a strip of facades, a Western Potemkin village, constructed to look like how we imagine the Old West:

In 1946, a group of filmmakers built a Western-style movie set in the high desert 25 miles north of Palm Springs for the cowboy actors Roy Rogers and Gene Autry. Production designers decorated the facades of Mane Street with a Western saloon, bank, chapel and a cantina. Pioneertown and its cantina were used in more than 50 films and television programs throughout the 1940s and 1950s, including The Cisco Kid and Judge Roy Bean.


This brief history comes from Wikipedia, that shape-shifting repository of our beliefs, be they cast off or ascendent. Isn’t it appropriate that our primary source of knowledge, the sage of our age, turns out to be as malleable as our mythologies? A kind irony.

So welcome to Pioneertown, the West that never was. Perhaps it is a falsehood, perhaps the structure is a lie, but it is built on the same foundation of our more favored faiths. And we are running through its ruins, joyful, silly, free.