You might have passed through here, maybe. Out for a drive with time on your hands you might have noticed the abandoned homestead shacks crumbling along a grid of dirt tracks scraped into this corner of the Mojave Desert.
WONDER VALLEY. It’s a place peopled by a menagerie of misfits and miscreants, artists and retirees, methheads and the otherwise marginalized. They live in the derelict cabins, fixing them up, some, or just making do in others. And while most landed here because it’s cheap—the cheapest real estate in all of California–that’s not what they’d tell you. They’d tell you they came looking for a freedom elsewhere unavailable or to escape the conformist pressures of mainstream America. They’d say they came for the changing colors of the desert sunsets or some sense of authenticity, bedrock, the real deal, life and death and heat and grit.
I myself came to Wonder Valley to investigate the death of Ricka McGuire, on assignment, ostensibly, with a magazine distributed on the streets of Denver by the homeless. Really, though, I felt drawn to this place. My life was falling apart—I’d lost a fortune in the Great Recession, my marriage was inexplicably unbearable, and my own sense of self had become vacuous, empty. I felt an outcast in my own skin. In Wonder Valley, though, I sensed a kinship with those I met. They walked the edge of an abyss out there, an abyss I felt drawn to, one I needed to peer down into.
Ricka McGuire’s story had struck me as wildly outlandish at first. She’d lived in a broken-down school bus, no electricity or running water. Aged and destitute, she succumbed to the heat. That someone could die so easily here in America, in California of all places, shocked me. How could anyone let this happen?
From that first encounter, though, Wonder Valley had a hold on me. I found it haunting and otherworldly, almost unbelievable in its strangeness. It was like a lost island, a desert Galapagos in a sea of sand. I appointed myself its Darwin. In its isolation a people had evolved, a breed apart from mainstream society, many of them living like Ricka, on this edge, walking that dangerous precipice between life and death.
I spent years in Wonder Valley immersed in and documenting the resilience and humanity of these people in the face of mental illness, alcoholism, poverty, and neglect, until the line between my reporting on and becoming one of them blurred. As a microcosm of society, Wonder Valley suffered the economic tides flowing across the country most acutely. The people’s tenuous existence there coupled with the pervading media and political rhetoric exacerbated the deep, unending unease washing over America. Like the rest of us, the people out there had all seen the bottom drop out of the economy and a great uncertainty fill the void. Those who had anything at all worried about losing it, their incomes, their homes, their health. Many became mired in the sense that should they fall, they may never get back up. As a reaction, the artists and retirees and society’s forgotten each bunkered into separate communities, members limiting themselves to those of their own, avoiding and even disparaging as illegitimate the lives of the others, leading to the most extreme of ecoomic outcomes: Survival on the backs of the weak.
WELCOME TO WONDER VALLEY is now available on Amazon.com. In the vein of Hillbilly Elegy and the work of Michael Perry and writers like William Vollman, Ted Conover, and William Finnegan, the book explores a darker side of the American dream, a side so pervasive, yet so largely unacknowledged by major media. Interwoven with the memoir of my own fall and recovery from financial and personal crises, the book looks at life in a place where the safety net barely exists and falling through the cracks is too often fatal.