Surrounded by a canyon of sharp cliffs and large boulders, I gaze over at the worn, sunbaked wooden buildings, more like shacks now, that make up Keys Ranch. I have just walked back into time a century ago to when Bill Keys homesteaded a life in a seemingly forsaken desert. The ranch is now part of Joshua Tree National Park.
Today I’m listening to National Park Service Ranger Pam Tripp tell me and about 20 other park visitors the amazing story of a man and a family that for 60 years built something out of virtually nothing, a story of survival where many others had failed, a tale of spirit, hard work, and independent thinking.
Keys’ ranch house, a tiny store, a schoolhouse, an outhouse, and Bill’s workshop still stand. Here also are the family’s old Jeep, a 1922 Mack truck, and a scattering of tools, mining equipment, rusting parts, old washing machines, and three horse-drawn wooden wagons. As Tripp leads us around the property, we stop to peek through hazy glass windows. I can see a dining table, still set for a meal, chairs, beds, kerosene lanterns, books, and other personal items. After an hour of her story-telling, we head back to our cars, leaving with a greater appreciation for how a pioneer father, mother, and their seven children, three of whom died in childhood, lived and even prospered in the Mojave Desert, one of the West’s greatest deserts.
Visiting the ranch site, preserved in a state of arrested decay, is strictly controlled, and only ranger-guided tours are allowed. Reservations are required and there is a fee for the tour.
Two of Joshua Tree National Park’s entrances are just off Highway 62. The West Entrance is about five miles south of where Highway 62 and Park Boulevard intersect in Joshua Tree Village. The North Entrance is three miles south of where Highway 62 meets Utah Trail in Twentynine Palms. The newly remodeled visitor center is there. For more information, visit the park’s Web site at www.nps.gov/jotr/index.htm. Bring lots of water when hiking and watch for rattlesnakes.