It’s 11:30 a.m. on a Saturday, and a classic rock cover band is serenading a small, mostly middle-aged crowd lazing around a pool at the Shadow Hills RV Resort in Indio, California. They’re belting out Van Morrison’s “Wild Night,” which seems like an odd choice for this hour — or maybe it’s the perfect choice, since everyone here is recovering from a wild night of Bob Dylan and The Rolling Stones, and is preparing for another wild night of Neil Young and Paul McCartney.
The four-piece band, Crimson Crow, is working hard, sweating as the desert temperature already approaches the 90-degree mark. They shift gears into the Stones’ “Beast of Burden” and a shirtless resort guest named Simon Hatch (“like Simon says,” he tells everyone he meets) raises up his Coors Light can approvingly. “Can you imagine if they had played this last night, dude?” he says. “Place woulda gone nuts. The Stones, man. Mick's what, 72? I hope to God I’m still just walking at 72.”
Simon is one of several new friends I’ve made in my first two days at Shadow Hills, which I’m staying at because it’s way cheaper than any hotel or Airbnb within 50 miles of Goldenvoice’s baby boomer wet dream of lineup (it ends Sunday night with The Who and Pink Floyd’s Roger Waters). Back in Palm Springs, the empty nesters are driving the price of a hotel room up to $1,000 or more per night. But here at Shadow Hills, just 8 miles from the festival, it’s $600 for the whole weekend — and that includes breakfast each morning, complimentary massages and classic rock cover bands. All you have to do is bring your own tent and/or home on wheels.
But it turns out that Shadow Hills isn’t just cheap — it’s awesome. Much of the crowd hanging by the pool here for Desert Trip may be grayer around the temples than all the sexy young things flaunting their Coachella ensembles at the Ace Hotel in Palm Springs, but they’re friendly, salt-of-the-earth types who know how to have a good time.
My group arrives late Friday in a whirlwind of amateur-hour RV setup (it takes me 10 minutes to find our electrical hookup, which I eventually discover hidden behind a panel labeled “shore line”) and apocalyptic traffic jams, so I don’t really get to start meeting the neighbors until Saturday morning. I make my first new friend in the shared bathrooms, where a biker named Freddy Cisneros greets me on the way out of the showers as I’m making my way in.
“What’d you think of that show last night, bro? Bad, right?” Freddy is one of those guys for whom "bad" means "good." He’s already put his clothes back on: a black sleeveless Guess Who T-shirt, faded jeans. A long tangle of black and gray hair runs down his back. At 55, he looks a little like Danny Trejo’s slimmer kid brother. He’s wiping his feet dry with paper towels and carefully shoving them back into his brown cowboy boots. We talk about the Stones, who he’s seen “six times now. No, seven. Every time they’re great.”
Freddy is from Cheyenne, Wyoming, where he's an independent contractor specializing in "all angles of concrete," as his business card proclaims. He recently paid off his house, so now he can spend most of the fall and winter months riding his Harley all over the country. In the past three months he's been to the biker rally in Sturgis, South Dakota, the Harley Museum in Milwaukee, the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in Cleveland, and the site of the original Woodstock, where there’s also a museum.
"Anything that revolves around music, rock & roll, I'm there," he says, showing me one of his many tattoos, a pinup girl around whom are written the words "Live for the music." He's also a drummer, but not in any bands. "I got friends that I play with. I'm just too busy to do a band."
On our way to breakfast, a blond guy in wraparound shades saunters casually out to the pool and whips out a cordless microphone. “Good morning, Shadow Hills Campers!” he proclaims, his voice booming out from speaker stacks in front of the makeshift band stage. “It’s a beautiful day at Shadow Hills RV Resort. Did you guys have fun last night? That was quite a party, huh?”
This, I later learn, is Big John Miller, a DJ and promoter who books the bands for all of Shadow Hills’ big weekends: Coachella, Stagecoach and now Desert Trip. He’s a former software engineer who sold his business at 40 and got into DJing “by mistake,” when he filled in for the regular DJ at one of his wife’s line dancing events. “I thought, you know what? This is a lot of fun! So I bought a ton of equipment and did that for a couple years.”
Big John still DJs, but now his business, C&D Events, mostly consists of booking bands and putting together parties and events. He describes his biggest one at Shadow Hills as “the largest offsite party” for Stagecoach, which he’s done for the past four years. "We're in a coma right now compared to that," he says of today's relatively sedate, sparsely attended pool party.
At the Shadow Hills Stagecoach parties, “we go all wireless," the 52-year-old says, smoking a Marlboro next to his massive red pickup truck. "I have bands running across the roof, getting the crowds all pumped up. We do a laser light show. The crowds [at Stagecoach], they’re all in their 20s and 30s, so they’re a lot wilder.”
Simon Hatch can attest to this. A 36-year-old pool construction contractor from Menifee, California, he says when he stayed at Shadow Hills for Stagecoach earlier this year, he met people who had come from as far away as Louisiana “just to party at this place. I kid you not.” He clarifies that by “this place,” he means the RV park, not the festival. “They didn’t go [to Stagecoach]! They just came here to party.”
He agrees that Desert Trip has been mellower, but he’s doing his part to keep the party going. “I cracked my first beer at 6:30,” he says, flashing a slightly yellow-toothed grin. “Living the dream.”
Simon takes me into his camp and introduces me to his mom, his aunt and his buddy Josh, who has taken the lanyard from his Desert Trip pass and attached it to a beer cozy, so he can wear his can of Coors Light around his neck. “This guy's from the FBI!” he tells everyone.
“You’re gonna have an amazing time," he assures me. "We get to get drunk as hell, and then they give you a shuttle pass for 30 bucks. You don’t have to worry about a DUI. This is the best thing since sliced bread. Are you serious?”
Back at breakfast, conversations mostly consist of assessments of last night’s sets (the consensus: the Stones were awesome, Dylan sucked) and the festival’s already dire T-shirt shortage. Apparently they were unprepared for how much merch 75,000 mostly middle-aged concertgoers with tons of disposible income will hoover up at the concert event of the century. “If I don’t come back with a Stones shirt, my wife’s not letting me back in the house,” one man laments.
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A blond woman in a Shadow Hills T-shirt, straw hat and leopard-print sunglasses sits down at our table and introduces herself as the owner. Paula Turner and her husband bought Shadow Hills 12 years ago. “Our first Coachella, we had 10 [guests] here,” she says. “And now we have over a thousand.” She admits that attendance for Desert Trip is “lower than expected,” but anticipates the number will grow if Goldenvoice brings the event back next year. (That’s the other popular breakfast conversation: fantasy Oldchella 2017 lineups. Led Zeppelin, Bruce Springsteen, Tom Petty and Fleetwood Mac seem to be getting the most votes.)
“Most RV resorts are very commercialized. We just try to give that extra-special treatment,” Turner says. “We’re family owned and we treat everybody like family. We put our hearts into it. I hope you can see that.”
Later, as Crimson Crow begin their second set, about a dozen “tenters,” as Paula calls her guests, splash around in the pool, bouncing a giant beach ball off their beer bellies. A couple of guys from Canada offer us beers and barbecued chicken legs. The band mixes up their classic-rock set list with “Smooth Criminal” and something by Gin Blossoms. The staff squeezes our group into the last available massage slots. And yes, it really does feel like everyone here is family.