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Joshua Tree midcentury home becomes writer's refuge

An old homesteader cabin in the desert offers a sanctuary—and an opportunity to live slower

Catie Nienaber was talking to a friend when she had an epiphany. “We were chatting about what we wanted to accomplish in the next 15 years,” she said. “I suddenly realized that I didn’t want to be 50 years old and still sleeping in a closet.”

Catie Nienaber poses in front of a rug-like wallhanging that depicts a desert landscape.
Homeowner Catie Nienaber in front of a wallhanging she purchased at a local thrift store.

Nienaber is referring to her 430-square-foot San Francisco apartment, which we featured in 2015. She turned the studio into what she calls “the world’s smallest one bedroom” by making the walk-in closet a sleeping area.

Even back then, she had posted the goal “buy a home” on her refrigerator. And after this exchange with a friend, she was determined to make the statement more than an index card taped up in the kitchen.

“I felt a huge need to own a home of my own; it’s something I value,” she says. “A lot of people wait to become a couple or a two-income family before buying a house. But I didn’t want to wait for that—it might never happen. I decided to do it myself.”

In the Golden State, famous for its breathtakingly expensive homes, that’s a goal that can be easier to set than to manifest. “I’m a realistic person. I knew San Francisco was not the place where it was going to happen,” she says. “But I wanted to stay in California. And, if possible, I wanted to be closer to my mom and sister in San Diego.”

The house sits in a desert landscape complete with cacti and Joshua trees; the living room has polished concrete floors and 1970s-era wallhangings; a round brass-framed mirror reflects the living room.
Clockwise from top left: The house started life as a cement block homesteader cabin. Today, Nienaber says it has “vaguely midcentury lines;” the windows frame a dramatic desert landscape; Nienaber removed carpets and polished the concrete floor and painted many of the walls and ceilings are white; the round mirror from CB2 reflects the living room.

A visit to Joshua Tree National Park in Southern California provided the answer. The rugged desert landscape is dotted with massive red-rock formations, cacti, and the spiky trees that give the area its name. “The area spoke to me in a direct way. It’s totally different than San Francisco—it’s quiet and there are far less people,” she says. “But there is nature all around you and it feels like a space where you can do your own thing.”

Another key difference: The homes in the small towns that ring the park are much less expensive. “Starting back in the 1930s, the government began selling five acre plots of high desert land to citizens. Back then, it was seen as practically worthless, and they sold the land for very little. There was no infrastructure, no plumbing, no electricity,” Nienaber says. “But little homesteader cabins started to pop up all over the landscape.”

The living room has a concrete floor with several colorful, patterned rugs.
Nienabar covered the floor with a lot of patterned rugs to make the place “feel cozy and warm.” The Suspend media console is from CB2, the rugs are from Pink Rug Company.
Liz Kuball

The land sale continued into the 1950s, and the home Nienaber found and purchased in Yucca Valley was built in 1953. “It started as a one-room cinder-block cabin,” she says. “Over time, many people owned it and added onto it—giving it a kitchen, a bathroom, a bedroom, and a covered back porch.”

Nienaber went from being a renter to a landowner with the computer click that put her electronic signature on the papers. “It was a big thing for me, and by far the largest purchase I’ve ever made,” she says. “I don’t even own a car.” (Nienaber maintains her apartment in SF, where she is a senior writer at Touch of Modern and runs the online store Dronning Vintage, and tries to visit her new home once a month.)

Now, she found herself in possession of 2.5 acres of dry terrain and a 700-square-foot home that, after life in her San Francisco apartment, feels “huge” to her. To some, taking on a project like this might be daunting. To Nienaber, it was pure joy.

The bedroom is painted a dark-gray color
Left and right: Nienaber painted the bedroom a dark gray shade from Behr, to create a den-like feeling. The Mid-Century bed is from West Elm.

“Even though there have been some weird and anxious moments, owning this home has been a total miracle for me,” she says. “The first time I went after purchasing it, it was the first time I’d ever walked into a residence that I own. It’s such a strange feeling, to walk through it and think ‘this is mine and it doesn’t belong to anyone else but me.’”

Not everyone saw it that way. “I get a whole range of reactions when I tell people about it—everything from ‘may I come visit’ to ‘do you own a gun,’” says Nienaber. “My family initially questioned why I was doing this. But it’s my money and my choice, and I knew they’d come around.”

Nienaber stands under a Joshua Tree on her property.
Nienaber stands near a Joshua Tree on her property. “The landscape allows me to see an uninterrupted sunrise,” she says.

With this particular goal, achieving it was just the beginning. “It was a funny little Frankenstein home, and I had to make it my own,” Nienaber explains.

She started by ripping out the carpet, which was laid directly on the home’s concrete slab. She then had the cracks in the concrete filled and polished it. Nienaber painted the living room walls white. “That really opened things up,” she says.

The kitchen is painted the palest of pinks. A black chalkboard holds a log of animals she’s seen on the land.
Clockwise from top left: Nienaber painted her kitchen a pale pink color from Behr; a chalkboard log records the animals she’s seen on the land: jack rabbits, cottontail rabbits, road runners, chipmunks, quail, and coyotes. “I have never seen a snake on my property,” she says.

The walls in the bedroom are painted charcoal-gray, and the kitchen walls are covered with the palest of pinks. “I was a tomboy growing up, and I never wore pink. Only this past year have I embraced it,” Nienaber says.

In the bedroom, the color was chosen to make the room dark and ideal for sleeping.

Nienaber describes the house as having a “whiff of midcentury style,” and the furnishings follow that lead. Many of the vintage textiles and wallhangings come from local thrift stores. And, though the house may not be in an urban center, she’s found that most companies will deliver. “The truck that brought my sofa did get stuck in the mud,” she says. “I felt bad about that.”

A pink letter board reads: “I’m just an animal looking for a home and share the same space for a minute or two.” The words are from a Talking Heads song Nienaber used in a playlist she made for the house.
The pink letter board comes from Three Potato Four and contains a verse from the Talking Heads’ song “This Must be the Place.” Nienaber explains: “When I was looking for a home, I made a playlist. I vowed I would listen to it in my own place one day, and now I do. This comes from one of the songs on the list.”

The more remote location has forced Nienaber to be more selective when it comes to furniture. “In San Francisco, I can be more quick with my decisions. After all, if it doesn’t work out, I can sell it on Craigslist,” she says. “Out here, I don’t have that option. I’ve put a lot of thought into every item I’ve purchased, so I won’t regret it later. I’ve furnished it little by little, and I’m not done yet.”

As she said, there have been moments of stress—and lessons learned. “I had to learn about things like septic systems and propane tanks,” Nienaber says. “I’ve lived in urban areas my entire life and I never thought I’d have to know the properties of propane gas.”

On another occasion, during a night she describes as blacker than black, she heard scratching noises in the ceiling above her head. The exterminators she called found mice. Later, when she had just entered the home and was about to throw herself on the bed, she spotted a dead mouse on the coverlet.

“I screamed bloody murder, and then I felt really silly,” she says. “I threw it outside and I saw a roadrunner pick it up and scoot away, so it was a circle of life kind of thing. I don’t get grossed out by things like that now, but it wasn’t what I signed up for at first.”

A shot of a Nienaber’s long, dirt driveway that stretches out to a mountain view.
Nienaber says: “The landscape spoke to me in a very direct way.”

That said, the amount of happiness the home gives her more than outweighs the occasional mouse sighting.

“The year before I bought this place, I went to see my mother at Christmas time. I love my mother, and I’m so grateful for her hospitality, but she had laid out a sleeping bag with a Hello Kitty pillow for me. I vowed that I was never doing that again, and I was determined to have my family over for the holidays in my own, grown-up home,” Nienaber says.

“Last year we did it, and my whole family opened presents as we listened to John Denver’s Christmas album on the record player.”

The beauty of the landscape is a continual source of pleasure. “There are the most perfect sunrises here, they are pink and purple. I love to get up and make myself a cup of tea and watch the sun come up,” Nienaber says. “I cry almost every time I visit.”

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