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Thao Nguyen on turning Joshua Tree into a home
Photos: Chieko Kato
Travel Diaries

I turned my vacation spot into my full-time home


It's not as crazy as it sounds.

by The Glassy | 07.31.2018

Welcome to This Trip Changed My Life, where we spotlight the ways (good, bad, and everything in between) that travel has impacted the people we’re most inspired by.

My partner Anthony and I came to Joshua Tree together for the first time a few years ago, probably 2011 or 2012—we were visiting Palm Springs and the areas around it, and it was just really beautiful and enchanting. It was winter, too, and I think we were intrigued about a way to survive out in the landscape.

How do we build our lives around something we feel incredibly passionate about and inspired by?

The slowness of things reminded me of being back at art school again, where people were into being outside in nature and appreciating the things that made you feel inspired. That connection was important to us, and we wanted to bring it back into our own lives because at that point we were living on the East Coast and just working at our jobs and not doing enough for ourselves and our creative passions.

So when we left Joshua Tree that first trip [we thought], how do we build our lives around something we feel incredibly passionate about and inspired by? How do we work for ourselves, too? We weren’t thinking about moving here, but we just felt this place was special and that there was an energy here we really liked.

Thao Nguyen on moving to Joshua Tree

We started looking into living in LA—I had lived there before, and the whole Southern California area is special to us, so we thought our work could grow from being out west. But we were conscious of the whole formula of how you make money, and to us, living in LA and hustling to pay bills was what we were already doing with our lives; we wanted to be able to do something more with our time, and living in Joshua Tree seemed that much more attractive. So we started looking into buying a house in Joshua Tree.

Around 2014 we bought a five-acre property with an original homestead cabin thinking we could split our time, so I moved to LA to live and work while Anthony was splitting his time between Philly and Joshua Tree. We did that for a year, but we just felt like we were more drawn to the desert and the pace of it; we wanted to be able to focus on the things we were super passionate about and the projects that got us super excited, which was designing our furniture.

It is a pretty harsh landscape, and I think it does take some grit—or what I call “desert realness.”

So we just made it happen. It was a transition from working full-time with a job I had and doing this on the weekends and evenings. We collaborated with friends on another project they had, an Airbnb property called The Joshua Tree House, where we designed a kitchen for them. That led to other projects, and meeting people who are designers and artists out her—connecting with the community here was really valuable. We love the type of people Joshua Tree attracts. We didn’t know that many people and it was hard to meet people—and I still feel like we’re meeting people—so to us, community has been important.

Thao Nguyen on moving to Joshua Tree

It is a pretty harsh landscape, and I think it does take some grit—or what I call “desert realness.” I just love having conversations with the locals, and they can range from what’s the produce selection at the Vons (because it can feel like a food desert out here) or who to contact if you need to get a snake removed from your property, or someone’s trailer has gone missing and they want to know if you’ve seen it….

And to wake up each morning and see the sunrise outside of our window? It feels like a gift sometimes. I know that sounds cheesy, but I never grew up with that so it’s so nice to be able to do. The owls you hear and coyotes howling in the morning, those things are so special. Being out here has made me refocus my energy, and it’s changed my priorities for living healthier. We used to go out and hang out with our friends in bars a lot more, or go to eat at great spots, but now the things we find enjoyable are the simple things, like cooking at home, taking showers outdoors, or soaking in the cowboy tub during the summer. And the things I used to take for granted I appreciate much more, like sitting by the fire. The firewood is all from trees we chopped down on our property! Anthony has really been enjoying chopping wood [laughs].

When we were designing our furniture collection, I was collecting inspiration for our lounge chair and looking through old interior design books from the ’50s and suddenly felt drawn to tell more of a full picture around what it is our furniture could be about—the environment it sits in, the other stuff we’re excited about, the other types of materials out in the world. It just felt like it was really calling me to open my own store. So that’s when the spark happened, and I felt good about it and knew that I could reasonably do that out here.

Now the things we find enjoyable are the simple things, like cooking at home, taking showers outdoors, or soaking in the cowboy tub during the summer.

The community here has really grown since we first moved—even this little pocket we live in called Flamingo Heights has changed: La Copine opened, Moon Wind Trading Co. opened, there’s a coffee shop next door to them that’s going to open too. And because we also do client work, we have clients up here that we do projects for. It used to be that people just bought vacation properties, but now it’s Twentynine Palms, Morongo Valley, Flamingo Heights, Landers…it’s just spreading. Wonder Valley too! There’s always been a creative, full-time community, but I feel that it’s expanded recently.

I love Noah Purifoy as an example of how you can come out here and just carve your own path: He bought land and built these site-specific sculptures using found materials, and ended up creating this beautiful destination in the middle of nowhere. We saw that opportunity to just go for it.

Thao Nguyen on moving to Joshua Tree

In some ways, if you want to be an entrepreneur you have to just go for it—my decision-making process changes the more I realize something’s difficult. Whether the move you’re making is somewhere that’s a vacation destination or just taking a career risk, with both you just have to go into it with a lot of passion. Go for it—don’t question it too much!

Your plans may change along the way too—hopefully for the better—so give yourself room to be mobile and flexible.

And know that your plans may change along the way too—hopefully for the better—so give yourself room to be mobile and flexible. Take every challenge as an opportunity. I don’t think that there’s one clear path for doing things; there are a lot of different paths for going about doing things with whatever resources you have. To us, our most valuable resources are our talent and our ability to make what our dreams are a physical reality, whether it’s building something or making things happen in our lives in a way where we feel like we’re living more of what it is that makes us healthier, happier human beings.

—as told to The Glassy

Thao Nguyen is the co-founder and designer at Fire on the Mesa and Shop on the Mesa in Yucca Valley, CA.

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