I was born and raised in Paramount, right in the heart of LA near Compton and Lakewood. I never liked it there. I met my husband Abel when I went to work at Bethlehem Steel.
My husband had been raised in Brawley in a desert hotter and not nearly as scenic as this.
But then it wasn't LA either.
I was 18-years-old when Abel and I got married, and I was one of the first three women to be hired at Bethlehem as a mill worker. Bethlehem Steel used to make ships and bridges and things, and it employed almost 30,000 workers.
But then Joshua Tree had for a while been piquing my family. In the early 40's when they were offering homesteaders free 5 acre parcels in exchange for building a cabin on it, my mother tried to convince my father to do it.
My father said, 'Who would ever want to live in the desert?' At the time, my grandfather had already been living here for 10 years.
When my grandfather--a former LA police officer-- came here in the 30's, there was only a dirt road from Banning on--probably going for 30 miles. He was a well-known character who made his own beer during prohibition and ran the cabins now known as Willie Boy's restaurant in Morongo Valley.
So, we'd visit my grandparents on the weekends and in the summer and, while working around noisy, hot machines at Bethlehem, I kept thinking and dreaming of hiking around the hills behind their old house.
When Bethlehem Steel closed in 1981, Abel and I started looking for a place to buy in Joshua Tree. A place we could rest ourselves into. When we looked around, we found a house on the north side that had just been finished. It was a 2 bedroom with a new water tank, a septic system, electricity--all of that. But when we came here to see this little cabin on La Contenta Road, I was sold. The real estate lady was trying to convince me to buy the other one. They were both listed at the same price: $24,500.
I told her, 'No, I want this one; we can get a toilet later.'
Lori Portillo purchased this cabin in 1981
In order to preserve the land from development, to restore the integrity of these homesteader cabins, and to upcycle discarded slabs of granite into artistic tile work, Lori Portillo started Thunderbird Lodge Retreat in 2011.
Lori lives on La Contenta Rd. (the same street on which Shell, Mountain, and Rock house reside--the Mesa house sits a street or two behind her home) so she's around should you have any questions while visiting. Though Lori lives close by, all of her cabins are private, secluded, and separate from her own home.
Land Preservation And Home Restoration
Few traditions take the earth as the kind of thing with which one can do as one pleases. Most instead invite us to take the land as an inheritance: as something to behold, to be held, and to be treated as a gift. In time, we offer the land to future others as kindly as we received it in the hope that they will do the same in turn.
To see this claim that the land be preserved is to acknowledge that the homes we build be maintained; that the resources we use be used lightly and replenished; that our soil does not erode, collecting at the bottom of the sea; that our wilds remain undeveloped but free; and that we honor the plants and animals that were here before us so that their offspring will survive long after we have gone on. It is we who come, we who change while the land and its song remain.
'Upcycling' involves taking materials that are in disuse or are deemed valueless in market terms and repurposing them for better use. A found object is one such example; another is a vintage chair or Victorian drapes. A more interesting approach would be to turn a dresser into a kitchen island or to treat seemingly useless scraps of granite, pieces of rock, and bits of tile as materials with which to lay intricate tile. The Thunderbird Lodge Retreat takes its inspiration from upcycling, believing that out of apparent scarcity can emerge the aesthetically interesting.
Like the homesteaders and their descendants, Lori Portillo, the owner of Thunderbird Lodge Retreat, has the heart of a settler and the mind of a craftsperson. She is good at working with her hands, with the land's resources, and with the materials lying around her. Playfully, Lori taught herself how to organically lay tile by using asymmetrical pieces, broken-off fragments, and scraps of granite left behind. In her cabins, her freeform mosaics run like living beings across the floors, along the counters, and up around the walls. Her work, marked above all by a sense of lightheartedness, invites the viewer to take in the rich textures, the muted color palettes, as well as the chance elements of surprise: a teddy bear in the shower, the face of a cherub, a few shimmying goldfish.