I tapped on the flashlight app on my phone, illuminating the narrow patch of concrete sidewalk in front of a row of meticulous mid century modern houses. Palm Springs, California is known as a playground for the well to do, but its lack of street lighting and reliable sidewalks suggests it was a town built for cars and not pedestrians.
All the same, a pedestrian is what I am, and it is well past twilight. The Movie Colony neighborhood I’m traveling through is quiet, the lawns dotted with signs warning of armed security systems. Small groups of people walk down the street toward a dazzling glow of lights that encompasses nearly an entire block. We’re all headed for RoboLights.
I came across RoboLights while doing an internet search for Christmas activities near Joshua Tree National Park. I’m a full time traveler and picked the park as my holiday destination, anticipating a quiet and warm Christmas. My husband Mike and I both grew up in the northeast and call Idaho home when we’re not on the road. To me Christmas means snow and evergreen trees draped with icicles. We’re disoriented in sunny Southern California, and decide to seek a bit of festive cheer.
It’s obvious from first glance that RoboLights, an art installation in a constant state of building, isn’t the kind of festive I anticipated. Mike quickly draws parallels to the enclave of East Jesus in Slab City, California, often called the “Last Free Place in America.” The art form is similar: recycled materials pulled together to create an experience that is a commentary on (and fantastical from) modern society.
On the drive to Palm Springs I read that the town, and many of the neighbors, dislike this ostentatious display of creativity. I don’t agree, but I do see their view. For a well-ordered, well-monied town this kind of art installation can easily be seen as a blight. But as I wander the crooked pathways and laugh at the creepy rabbit riding a motorcycle attached to Santa’s sleigh, I feel only admiration for RoboLight’s creator, Kenny Irwin.
Irwin has been building RoboLights on the four acres surrounding his home for decades. The installation is permanent, but only open to the public from Thanksgiving through the first week of January each year. Starting in August Irwin begins to string over 8 million Christmas lights in order to have them illuminated in time for for opening day.
This wild wonderland of eclectic art is plenty to look at, but I find myself stealing glances as the other visitors as I wind through the property. Some smile, most look shocked, and everyone takes pictures. There’s enough to see that I could visit every day for a month and still find new places for my eyes to rest.
But for me, this one visit will have to do. It’s back to the moonlit rocks of Joshua Tree National Park, and the small strand of Christmas lights I’ve hung in my camper van.
RoboLights is open from roughly Thanksgiving until the first week of January. Check the RoboLights Facebook page for more details. RoboLights is free, but donations are welcome.
Sara Sheehy is a writer and digital nomad, traveling full time in search of the world’s wildest places. Sara writes about adventurous travel, outdoor recreation, innovative technology, and arts & culture. Follow her journey at sarasheehy.com/journal.