At Garth’s Place the Desert Blooms and So Do Your Spirits
For three decades, former Mormon preacher Garth Bowles has been turning his patch of Southern California into a strange paradise, with a little help from his friends.
The trippiest part of the psychedelic festival in the California desert last weekend was not the bendy guitar chords or the stalls selling mushroom-shaped chocolate. The real VIP room was a 15-minute walk from the main stage, up a sandy track, past clusters of prehistoric boulders, jackrabbits, and heart-shaped purple cacti, through a crystal garden, past a stucco-covered tipi blasting out Madame Butterfly, and into a shabby chic living room over 100 million years old.
Here, on one of four beat-up outdoor couches, sat a man who resembled a heavy metal roadie crossed with Orson Welles crossed with a giant in a fairy tale. But Garth Bowles is a benign giant, because he invites young people to his 640-acre garden and lets them play. He was hosting the weekend festival, the SoCal Psycheout, complete with vendor stalls, art, reiki sessions, and underground bands from across California.
It’s a tiny event—only 200 tickets have been issued—but most of the attendees have never been to such a spectacular venue. Garth has turned some of his rocks into pools and dwellings and a sauna and the most luxurious hen house you ever saw. And he grows peach trees and lettuce patches, all with the help of the “children” who pass through his land.
Most incredible of all, though, are the mysterious boulders that loom up in the landscape like ancient creatures. Forget Joshua Tree National Park down the road, with its rest room areas and its Don’t Do This signs everywhere. At Garth’s, you sit on a stone in the heroin-pure dazzle of the desert light with several hundred empty acres surrounding you, and you feel as though a dinosaur might walk past at any moment.
Garth is actually a Green Giant before his time. When he bought the land 30 years ago, he wanted it “to be an example of how to live with nature without destroying it.” At night he retires to the cozy Aladdin’s cave of his tipi, but “in the day this is my living room.” His large hand swept the horizon of the domain he refers to as “sacred” and which locals know as “Garth’s Place.” Now in his late seventies, the former Mormon preacher continues to welcome spiritual seekers, healers, travelers, and anyone with a good work ethic who feels they don’t fit into the “other world,” as folk who stay here more than three days come to call it.
When I asked him what his message is, he thought then replied with a shrug, “Live simple. It makes life a lot easier.”
I discovered Garth’s Place around five years ago when I asked a man in a curio shop in nearby Yucca Valley if he knew of a “middle of nowhere experience.” He drew a map on the back of a brown paper bag. That’s as official as directions get. There is no website. There are no flyers or brochures. But if you want to find it, you will.
Secrecy is currently a moot point. Garth has always loaned his place out to yoga schools and meditation groups in exchange for upkeep donations. But some locals wondered if a music festival—even if the 200 ticket holders were sent directions via private emails—was going to give the game away. Shouldn’t this place remain somehow underground?
This was the subject of debate last weekend in the ancient VIP room. Two Burning Man habitués who’d been at Garth’s for a week were sitting on the couches talking about the other festival taking place at the same time: the swish Bombay Beach Biennale, a two-hour drive away at the Salton Sea, where the Beach Boys used to weekend until the lake dried up and the land got cheap. So a group of high society entrepreneurs recently bought up a lot of land and jazzed it up with art. It’s sort of guerrilla gentrification, and the land is now becoming an increasingly attractive real estate opportunity. One of the Burners said he can’t stand the “Plug-In-And-Play” rich bohemians, but his friend, calling himself Jesus Chrysler, said that he needs to “lose the hate and try and feel love” for more privileged types. His friend considered that and nodded as Jesus Chrysler added that the Bombay Beach festival has better art but that Garth’s Place is the most incredible location this side of New Zealand.
Daniel Gayler, the owner of SkyShip Records and the organizer of SoCal Psycheout, prefers to call his jamboree a “friends and family event.” He said that he’s “trying to help out the DIY musicians movement.” It was how Burning Man got its start. They just want to remain independent and hidden, somehow, in a corporate world where “global” has come to be a dirty word meaning poke your nose in, buy it up, airbnb it out.
The debate was quashed by a croaky voice: “The festival people say there’s going to be $5 pizza. Anyone know when the van’s showing up?”
The croaky voice belonged to Don. In his sixties now and a runaway for much of his life, he’s been at Garth’s for 25 years digging ditches and walking barefoot. (The real rock stars of the desert are people who know how to do practical building work rather than just sitting around fomenting real estate revolution).
Also on the couches were a couple in their thirties, David and Rifa. You could tell they’d been here for two months because they didn't feel the need to endlessly chatter. Originally from New Jersey, where he was a computer programmer and she was a school teacher, they left everything behind a year ago. They have no savings, unless you count the $19 in their ruck sack. “We didn’t want that crazy life anymore,” Rifa said. “We don’t regret it.”
The concept of “Seeds” comes up a lot over the weekend. How, back in the ’60s, people thought the future would be about living in communes. But now it’s about “seeding,” i.e., staying in places like Garth’s and then travelling on and spreading the love. David believes we need gardeners as well as seeds: people who stay and help build alternative realities and put down roots.
“America is a huge country,” David said, “so there should be more places like Garth’s where you can come and get lost for a while.”
Some of the young people attending the festival dared to come up to Level Garth to pay their respects. An artist from San Francisco who goes by the insta name of @enlightenmentbarbie presented him with a bracelet of stones. Garth thanked her and attached them to a lion headdress he happened to have, immediately transforming himself into a radiant Cowardly Lion.
Then the Tin Man and the Scarecrow appeared in the form of anecdotes told by local Hollywood relic Jim Thompson, the ’70s stunt man for Tom Selleck in Magnum PI who’d dropped by for the afternoon. Thompson regaled his audience with tales of attending Liza Minnelli’s wedding to the son of the Tin Man, Jack Haley Jr., and how he once bumped into the Scarecrow, Ray Bolger, in a Beverly Hills department store while he was between jobs selling insurance.
It could be the ’70s at Garth’s. Or the ’60s. Or One Million Years BC. Or the future. “Wow,” said Chas, a visiting musician. “This place is like a reverb chamber. I’ve never been somewhere so peaceful in my life. I need to leave the city.”
Hundreds of people have sat on these couches over the years and declared they wanted to leave the city. But then the sun goes down and it gets cold and the rocks start to feel scary and Garth’s motto of “Live simple” suddenly sounds shakier.
Night falls and the 200 SoCal Psyche Out revelers, now “seeders,” departed, taking something intangible with them that will hopefully make the “other world” a better place. There was no mess, no hard drugs. The locals need not have worried. Gayler, the festival promoter, believes that the energy of the ancient stones works better than the police: “Everyone here can feel the energy emanating from this sacred place. We all feel honored to be here.”
The sound of rocks being instagrammed (“A bit higher... no, a bit lower... no, try that angle...”) was soon replaced by the ghostly sound of wind whistling through conifer trees. Don hobbled back to his trailer. He never did get his $5 pizza but he wasn’t fazed. Worse things have happened.
“One time I caught this jackrabbit. Slit him open and darn me if there weren’t a big old worm curled around his back bone. Don’t eat jackrabbit no more. That’s the desert for you. Always teaching you lessons.”