What They’re Looking For

Golf may look different in Joshua Tree, but it feels strangely familiar
What They're Looking For Joshua Tree

Cypress Point is not what I expected.

The Aquafina inside our plastic bottles and the sweat starting to soak the inside of my hat is the only water in sight. The temperature is sprinting into the 90s and the sky has already devolved into a cloudless canvas where the sun is a one-man show. Green isn’t absent from the shrubbery and trees dotting the landscape, but its scarcity gives the impression that the flora is hanging on for dear life.  

At first glance, it appears Roadrunner Dunes Golf Course is too. Temporary greens bookend sandy, dirt-filled fairways, but the grass that does exist, though furry, is alive. There are no signs to indicate which holes are which, but the routing gives just enough direction to make this fixture a touch north of Joshua Tree National Park work. 

“It’s a quirky course,” Vicky Dunn, who, on this particular morning, is starter, clubhouse attendant and bartender all in one, tells us. “It gets green, then it turns brown, then green for a bit again. It’s tough out here.” 

“Out here” is roughly 150 miles east of Los Angeles and 175 miles northeast of San Diego—a desert-mountain marriage that’s headlined by Palm Springs but made more intriguing by Joshua Tree, which has grown in popularity over the years as an esoteric destination akin to Santa Cruz’s Mystery Spot. Enter the gravitational pull of Joshua Tree and you’ll feel less like you’ve stepped back in time and more like you’re in an alternate dimension. 

What They're Looking For Joshua Tree

The actual Joshua trees—which, legend has it, were named by Mormons who laid eyes on them in the 1850s and compared their branches to Joshua leading them to the Promised Land—allow you to lose yourself in the open-faced forest they inhabit. It’s like a maze where you can see every path, yet still easily get lost. 

During the pandemic, people from California’s big cities moved here, thinking they needed to get away from everyone else. But as things have improved, many have struggled to figure out what to do next. Whether you’re camping, hiking or, like the six of us on this trip, golfing, desert isolation in this eerie encampment is for most people an entertaining concept for nothing more than a long weekend.

For those who have lived in the area for decades, places like Roadrunner have become essential hubs where golf can feel secondary. The charm is in the morning scrambles, the sticky golf-cart seats, the white stretch limo permanently parked on the side of the fifth fairway, the bumpy greens—and the sign we see on the sixth tee. At first, we’re not sure if it’s real; the sun is blazing and the water is running out. But there’s no question about it: It’s a green street sign indicating that the dirt road in the middle of the course is named Cypress Point. The cross street on its left? St. Andrews Drive.

A slew of sandy approach shots later, we return to the building that functions as bar, clubhouse and restaurant, and meet the people who cherish Roadrunner like it is their own home of golf. 

Most ventures into the desert are gradual: You drive past office parks and strip malls into neighborhoods filled with assembly-line houses, outlet stores and Olive Gardens, which eventually turn into backyards and front yards. Before you know it, the road is the only thing left.

Rest stops, gas stations and the occasional McDonald’s become checkpoints. On the drive from Los Angeles through the San Bernardino Mountains into the Mojave Desert, it’s the windmills. When they first come into view, it’s hard to tell if they’re 10 feet tall or 1,000 (the answer is 300), but the nearly 3,000 turbines in San Gorgonio Pass are unmistakable, their clockwise-turning blades acting as their own form of welcome.

This desert, though singular, contains multitudes. While Palm Springs occupies the floor and preaches a flashy sun-soaked getaway, the gospel of Joshua Tree, up in the high desert, is about mysterious escapism.

What They're Looking For Joshua Tree

Native Americans, cattle rustlers, religious wanderers and gold-hungry miners have been passing through the area for 5,000 years. Around 1900, LA residents began coming up here to remove Joshua trees, cacti and other plants to bring home for their gardens. That came to a halt in 1920, when a Pasadena activist named Minerva Holt lobbied local government to protect hundreds of thousands of open acres by creating Joshua Tree National Monument. More acreage was added when the monument was elevated by the federal government to national-park status in 1994.

Well before either of those designations, artists, mystics, writers and searchers of all kinds had been making the pilgrimage, often armed with every mind-altering substance imaginable, to Joshua Tree. Locals will tell you the story of when Mick Jagger and Keith Richards were having a quiet sunrise moment when they were loudly interrupted by Jim Morrison, who was on a completely different trip. Josh Homme, founder of Queens of the Stone Age and co-founder of Eagles of Death Metal, hails from the lower-elevation Palm Desert area, but frequents this higher plane. He was the star of a particularly memorable 2011 episode of Anthony Bourdain’s show No Reservations, where they ate and drank (heavily) at local bar/concert venue Pappy & Harriet’s.

Then, of course, there is U2’s The Joshua Tree, one of the best-selling albums of all time. The project was originally slated to be called The Desert Songs or The Two Americas, but Bono spent one day with the crooked, mesmerizing branches of the local trees and renamed it. 

Despite the area’s well-deserved reputation, we notice something while traveling to a second course. The folks up here are fiercely independent and free-thinking, yet they also have a tight hold on their community. While it may look different than just about anywhere else, golf out here still has the universal effect of pulling people in.

What They're Looking For Joshua Tree

At Hawk’s Landing Golf Course in Yucca Valley, just northwest of Joshua Tree, the story is just as good as the walk. The first thing you notice is the temperature: This is the high desert, where mountains enter the fray and the temperature drops by about 10 degrees, making it a more inviting destination during the scorching summer months. (U2’s The Edge says the band looked so serious on the album cover of The Joshua Tree because the desert was actually freezing.)

The cooler temperature is matched only by the vibe at Hawk’s Landing, where grass papers over a unique property at the foot of the hills. What was once 18 cramped holes that turned into a foreclosed, abandoned property became a revitalized 12-hole course after its current owners, Cindy Melland and her parents, who were local-newspaper publishers, completely redesigned it.

“We wanted it to be environmentally conscious,” Melland says, “and we wanted people to be able to design their day of golf however they wanted to.” Sustainability and playability were at the top of Melland’s parents’ priorities when reviving Hawk’s Landing. It’s why the choice to go to 12 holes was easy. Unlike Roadrunner, Hawk’s Landing owns an allotment of water (585 acre-feet) that doesn’t roll over from year to year, so dispensing it takes some strategy.

“Being in the desert, we have to be water wise,” Melland says. “We designed it with native areas in the middle for the water that we do get to percolate down to those native areas and back into the golf course.”

It’s impossible not to juxtapose a place like Hawk’s Landing with the shinier version of golf found in Palm Springs, which is tied to hotels and can run anywhere from $100 to a number you can barely stomach. Up here, you can play for $43 on a weekday, $45 on the weekend. Save for a monstrous swarm of bees that descended upon the second-hole flag, making it the most dangerous pin location perhaps ever, the playability factor could not have been more evident during our round. Wide corridors and drivable holes make the course all about angles, short game and putting. It’s a golf playground complete with a view, one you can loop as many times as you’d like. 

Twelve? Perfect. Eighteen? Sure thing. Twenty-four? Why not?

“I remember how many people hated it,” Melland says with a smile. “They were like, ‘What are you doing? You’re killing the game of golf!’ And I’m thinking, Trust me, you’re going to love it. For a while we had some locals that totally boycotted it. They were like, ‘It’s not a real golf course.’ And now they’re here every single week.” 

Roadrunner Dunes may look different, but its story is a familiar one. The course was owned by the city, which eventually tired of funding it and sold it to a private group of local businessmen. But the new owners couldn’t afford to hire a crew to maintain it. Local volunteers became the only way for the course, which doesn’t close during the summer months, to survive.

“It’s getting better every year, but at one point it got pretty bad,” George, one of the volunteer groundskeepers who helps mow and water the course by hand, tells me. “It’s a bit like playing golf on the moon.”

Following a handshake par-4 opener that runs alongside the sandy driving range, the tee shot on No. 2 is a field-goal short iron through two palm trees and over a pond, which is the lifeblood of the course during the summer months and gets used primarily on greens and tee boxes to conserve water.

What They're Looking For Joshua Tree

“It’s a labor of love for us,” says Ken Mapes, another volunteer who helps with managing the course. A worn-down shack to the left of the fourth green looks closed. The signs saying “RESTRICTED AREA” and “DANGER, HIGH VOLTAGE, KEEP OUT” tell me that hot dogs and Gatorades are not beyond those ragged wooden walls. The tee shot on the fifth is blind and once again over the course’s pond, its only true hazard. Just before pegging it, I notice another sign: “NO FISHING.”

After we tee off, not knowing whether we’ll find dirt, water, grass or some lunar surprise, we walk around the pond and notice the tall grass shaking. A closer look reveals shadows moving inside the water: catfish the size of baby sharks. A dry cooler sits nearby with fish food. It’s my first turn-house experience that’s about feeding rather than eating.

“Talk about things I’ve never done on a golf course,” says a member of our foursome.

After we finish our nine, we settle into seats next to the locals-turned-volunteers, who also have finished their customary morning scramble. They’ve paused after their first nine too, and, as the heat index climbs, the 70- and 80-year-olds debate whether to go back out for another loop.

As they trade hole-in-one stories in between sips of water and exchanges of dollar bills, any wonder why they’re here dissipates. They came from Orange County, Canada and points in between and stayed. Their origin stories, their decisions to never leave, could probably fill books most people would never read. Golf is the mechanism, but the glue that keeps them together is the daily ritual that paces their slow-motion lives alongside friends with similar lifestyles, schedules and swings. It’s why it could not matter less to them that Roadrunner is half sand, half grass, and that the greens are temporary. There is nothing out there beyond what needs to be: an open space, a green, a flag, a hole and enough people who are enamored with the quest to put their ball in it, over and over again.

“People just love the course. That’s why they volunteer,” George, who lives in a nearby RV park, says. “They love the people. They keep coming back.”

Sure, they’ve played other, better courses, but they keep returning to Roadrunner, just like they return to Hawk’s Landing, even alongside the yearly influx of snowbirds, to claim what is theirs: not the golf itself, but the experience of being able to enjoy and cherish the golf they have here.

As we get comfortable on the idyllic back patio of the Hawk’s Landing clubhouse later that afternoon, watching the sunset—the orange glow allowing for another six-hole loop should one want it—I think about the people who moved to Joshua Tree during the pandemic, then moved back. Of course they couldn’t last out here. They came with the intention to isolate. And if there was anything Roadrunner Dunes and Hawk’s Landing and Pappy & Harriet’s had shown me over the course of 24 hours, it’s that what made all these people stay was the opposite.

They weren’t seeking some mystical getaway, some psychedelic adventure into the depths of Joshua Tree or even some manicured golf course to play every day. They were seeking community. And once they found it, neither age nor temperatures nor course conditions were going to keep them from it.