California cool: Sounds of the desert

Just a two-hour drive from LA lies Pioneertown, a desert town with an attraction equally as otherworldly as the landscape surrounding it.

By Julia Buckley
Published 8 Apr 2019, 23:53 BST
Joshua Tree National Park
Joshua Tree National Park.
Photograph by Getty Images

It’s not how I expected my first time communing with aliens to be. Sure, to my left, a woman from LA is twitching rhythmically, her arms jerking up and then back down every couple of minutes. And yes, the man guiding our session did tell us to enjoy our “flight”. But I didn’t expect that something as outlandish as this would pack such a physical punch. Because, lying on the floor, looking up at the perfectly rounded wooden roof, I can feel my own body sizzling. Is it the aliens? Or the vibration from the quartz bowls being played under the acoustically perfect cedar dome?

Here in the California high desert around Joshua Tree, it’s hard to tell the kooky from the clinical, or the hippy from the hipster. It’s even harder at the Integratron, which marries all four. It was built in 1960 by George Van Tassel, supposedly under instruction from residents of Venus, who promised it had rejuvenating properties. Today, it’s been repurposed as a place for ‘sound baths’: half-hour sessions where participants lie on the floor and a series of quartz bowls are ‘played’ to them. Due to the Integraton’s uncanny acoustics, whatever’s going on opposite you is amplified, so you hear it as clearly as if it were coming from inside your ear.

As we lie on mats in a circle — the smell of cedar mixing with palo santo wood (burnt to ‘cleanse’ the air between baths) — our leader starts to play the bowls, rising in octave increments, note by note. The dome reverberates, the air feels charged and the sound is so penetrating, it fizzes through my body. After the session, I feel renewed.

I’m 16 miles north of the town of Joshua Tree, which sits alongside Joshua Tree National Park, in an otherworldly landscape of desert and scrubland, dotted of Joshua trees, cacti and stacked boulders. The area’s ‘alternative’ reputation has long attracted high-profile visitors. U2 named an album after it, while Paul McCartney played a secret gig a few years ago at Pappy & Harriet’s, a bar in nearby Pioneertown.

Tiny Pioneertown started out as a movie set for Westerns; the saloon-style buildings on its single, street now sell everything from vintage clothes to pottery. It’s also the location of the Integratron, and after my session there I drive back to Joshua Tree. Sitting outside my desert cabin, watching the rocks flame orange and the Joshua trees throw long shadows is as spiritual an experience as any sound bath.

Four of the best National Parks

Death Valley
The lowest point in North America, this below-sea-level desert valley is the site of the hottest temperature ever measured on Earth.

This iconic park is home to towering granite walls, gargantuan waterfalls and giant sequoias.

Channel Islands
Spread across five isles off the coast of Santa Barbara, the Channel Islands are known for their coastal flora and fauna. Camp here for a blissful escape from the mainland.

Redwood National and State Parks — named after the world’s tallest tree, which dominates the temperate rainforests here — comprises five coastal parks. The 1.5-mile Lady Bird Johnson Grove Trail is a great place to start.

Published in the March 2019 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK) 

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