As soon as we pulled into Pioneertown, I felt like I had come home. My instant attraction was most likely the result of a childhood over-identification with “Half Pint.” Like the Little House on the Prairie heroine, with her buckteeth and freckles, I too had felt the wrath of many a golden-locked Nellie Oleson. I grew up in the Bronx, and Walnut Grove might as well have been Mars. Still, I’d play “pioneer woman” for hours. I watched tons of Westerns with my Nanna when she baby-sat. Something about the sweat and leather of those tumbleweed cowboys, and the land where they made their own rules, resonated in my young heart.
And here it was — the movie set in the middle of nowhere. The place where the Cisco Kid, Gene Autry and my favorite sharpshooter, Annie Oakley, walked the dusty main street at high noon. People still live here on this set, and we quietly walked around their homes, longing for a peek inside. We sat in the jail, and swung open the doors of the ol’ saloon. Soon the scent of mesquite and the promise of a drink that burns all the way down lured us to the honky-tonk on the edge of town — Pappy and Harriet’s.
You can walk into Pappy’s in the middle of the day and it’s dark and cavernous, a great respite from the intense desert sun. Come in at night and it’s only a little darker, but there’ll be a fire burnin’ for you. Here, real cowgirls ride upon American quarter horses, moose heads as big as MINI Coopers hang on the walls, fights break out like flash floods, music is played the way it’s played at honky-tonks, and stories live on. Because of Pappy and Harriet’s, the only real life in this movie-set town, there exists a mythology as rich as that of any real place.
We popped in one afternoon, and I went straight to the bar and ordered a whiskey. Several whiskeys later, we introduced ourselves to Pappy’s newest owners, Linda Crantz and Robyn Celia. They were fellow NYC transplants, who fell in love with the desert, the people and the way of life. When the bar went up for sale, they found a way to buy it. Being the new kids in town wasn’t easy at first; regulars expected Pappy’s to stay the same.
And though Linda and Robyn didn’t intend to change much, they did want to broaden the bar’s appeal to fans of live music. One of the first shows Robyn and Linda booked was an indie-type band, which spurred a local cowgirl to walk up and spit in Robyn’s face. “This ain’t country!” she said, and stormed off. They stuck to their guns, though, and now, four or five years later, they are beloved by all (well, they still watch out for that cowgirl), and now you can see anyone from Shelby Lynne to Robert Plant at Pappy and Harriet’s on any given night.
Sitting at the bar, we met a handful of locals who were more than happy to delight us with their own legends. A bust of Pappy, a former singer, biker and cowboy, sits proudly on the bar, and pictures of him look down on you from above. There’s Pappy fishing, Pappy smiling, Pappy with his big, bushy beard and twinkling eyes. I felt like I missed him and I never even met him. The band Giant Sand dedicated their album Glum to Pappy, eulogizing him in their liner notes as “human plutonium. After only sitting by his side would you leave radiated.”
Then there’s the legend of Buzz Gamble, whose white cowboy boots sit in a sepulcher above the bar, like holy artifacts. “Buzz drank himself to death in this here bar. They found him up the road dead,” the town historian sitting next to me told me. I ran the story past Linda and Robyn, who corroborated it regretlessly. There’s a definite live-and-let-live element to the West, and here is no exception. It was Buzz’s choice, and he chose to sit in the bar in the middle of nowhere and drink out his last days. Another local told me that Buzz did a nickel in the “big house” for stealing half a dozen doughnuts. “When he accidentally fired his weapon on his way out of the shop, he got five years for discharging a firearm.”
Maybe all of us, Buzz, Pappy, Linda, Robyn and all the folks two-steppin’ to the band at the back of the bar, came here to a movie-set town to live out some kind of fantasy of the Wild West. But when you get here, you’ll find it’s not a fantasy, it’s real. It exists. And it’s waiting for you to find it.