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Midnight at the Oasis

Hours of staring at Palm Springs Web sites, consulting out-of-date AAA tour books and pumping friends for leads had paid off -- my wife, Sandra, and I were booked into one of those old motels that had become New Economy resorts after 1950s-retro makeovers. All we‘d wanted was an in-room “spa” (just a tub with jets) and a gentlemen’s agreement that there would be no kids within earshot. Friends told us the place we picked in Desert Hot Springs didn‘t have the tubs with jets, but assured us of plenty of quiet.

Yet soon something began gnawing at me. Was it the resort’s Web site, with its dangling-cigarette cool? Perhaps it was the tone of the woman on the other end of the line, who sounded as though I was asking her to jump a dead car battery rather than take our $150 per night? Or the fact that retro was now outro?

It was the Web site. Specifically, its photographs, which seemed to telegraph what the place didn‘t offer as much as what it did. There were coy close-ups of deck chairs, wide-angles of the sky and portraits of palms. Subject headings appeared, like smoke rings, one word at a time on the screen: ROOMS . . . POOL . . . MOOD . . .

Filtered of their irony, the pictures really said: NO TV . . . NO PHONE . . . COLD FLOORS . . . It was retro all right -- in the middle of the desert someone had reconstructed my childhood home, circa 1958. I shuddered. A follow-up call confirmed everything: No, of course there was no TV or phone in the room. I imagined the concierge, her mouth buckling into a bitter smile as she crossed our names off the reservation list. Friends later tried to comfort us by equating relaxation with a kind of expensive, self-conscious asceticism. (“And for an extra $100 we’ll cut the power to your room!”) As far as we were concerned, there‘s a place for such sensory deprivation -- it’s called camping.

Days later, Sandra and I found what we wanted. In addition to its standard motel rooms, the Oasis of Eden, astride Yucca Valley‘s Route 62, offers 14 theme suites ranging in fantasy tastes from the “Cave” (ultradark decor, stalactites dangling above the sensuous spelunker) to the “Plantation” (a neocolonialantebellum acid trip) to the “Esther Williams.” Not only do these suites come with TV and phone, but each has a CDcassette player and VCR. (The Oasis’ compact video library is thoughtfully divided between “family and adult titles.”)

Checking in, we noticed a display of photos that were quite in contrast to those on the Web site advertising our Desert Hot Springs yurt. These showed quartets of well-fed 30-somethings sitting in the rooms‘ oversize whirlpools, eyes glazed, their hands straining with enormous tankards of wine. Forget Eden -- we had, I decided, arrived in heaven.

Our Persian Suite was a good compromise between anthropology and kitsch, and seemed to have been artfully designed by a Hollywood set decorator, with arched alcoves, recessed and backlit statuary, and more or less authentic-looking Middle Eastern gimcracks. (N.b.: Theme rooms drop to $125 per night, midweek, if you mention the Internet.)

Activities in Yucca Valley are limited to eating and drinking. Wolfgang’s is a good spot for California cuisine, while the Route 62 Old Timer Diner, which is part of the huge Hutchins Harley-Davidson dealership and leather shop, features the tallest hamburgers you are ever likely to encounter. At C&S Coffee Shop, you‘ll be served generous portions of bacon and eggs by a grandmotherly waitress sporting a spiked red crew cut, green nails and French-fry earrings as the Foo Fighters whir over the sound system.

South of Y.V. is Joshua Tree National Park, while the UFO-crazed town of Landers lies to the north. We preferred Pioneertown, a former Western movie set whose fronts were turned into habitable homes after Roy Rogers and Gene Autry decamped in the 1950s. Pioneertown is anchored by the storied Pappy and Harriet’s Pioneertown Palace, where Gram Parsons used to drink; the post office, on Mane Street near Roy Rogers Road, advertises itself as the most photographed in the United States. Nearby is the “OK Corral,” which looks more authentic (less tourist-whored) than the real one in Tombstone.

I‘ve been to Pioneertown several times, and once spent the night with a group of friends in its spartan motel. All I remember about that visit was that the day began with much bonhomie, only to be followed at night by a lot of arguing at Pappy and Harriet’s bar, then a drive with some pals into Y.V. and a misunderstanding with the town police.

This midweek, however, under the afternoon sun, the town had a flagpole-chain-banging-in-the-wind emptiness about it. Sandra and I wandered into the unlocked Pioneertown Bowl, only to be told by a young woman mopping the floor that it was closed -- “unless you want a beer or something.” Suddenly the town didn‘t seem so empty.