You might have passed through here, maybe. Maybe you’d thought you’d avoid the interstates, stick to the blue roads, hit the casinos of Vegas by the back way.
You’d have blown through here on your third hour out of L.A, blown through this nowhere corner of the Mojave Desert at 60 miles an hour along a forgotten remnant of potholed tarmac. If you weren’t messing with your radio or fiddling with your phone, you might have even noticed the rat-trap shacks rotting into the sparse scrabble of greasewood scrub. And you’d have thought, “What the hell is this place?”
Out here, thousands of dilapidated cabins crumble into the desert, each one 12 by 20, an outhouse out back. They sit on a grid of five acre parcels like giant game pieces on a hellish gameboard. You could have had one of these parcels, back in the day, grabbed your five acre chunk of worthless federal land for the price of the application fee and the sweat to “prove up” the parcel. You’d have staked your claim under the Small Tract Homestead Act of 1938, the last homestead program in the lower forty-eight. The desert, however, is slowly taking it all back.
People have been around, however. And since Joshua Tree National Monument became a national park in the mid-nineties, more people came. Snowbirds and retirees pass winters here, and artists and writers too. If you asked them why they’re here, they’d tell you about the changing colors of the desert sunset, the wide-open skies, the limitless stars—it’s like living in a painting. This is the real purple mountains majesty, they’d say, just look at these mountains!
Wonder Valley is also home to another, and, in some ways more intriguing element. They are an accretion of outcasts, driven by society to the edge of town after town until the towns ran out and all that was left is Wonder Valley. Welfare offices encouraged recipients to relocate here. Convicts were bussed here on early release. Drifters and desert rats just found themselves welcome in Wonder Valley. If you drove out here, off the main road and on to the washboard tracks you’d know right away where those people live, you’d know by their shacks, the single family favelas of scavenged cast-offs, the old lumber and doors, scrap metal and weathered furniture, the cars on blocks, or left for dead where they stopped. These are the feral families, in the words of a Wonder Valley film maker.
These days, maybe a thousand people, the snowbirds and retirees, the artists and writers, the drifters and squatters, live in the ninety square miles of Wonder Valley, each on the vestige of a homestead. They coexist in Wonder valley like separate competing species living isolated on a island. Most Wonder Valley residents are single. Most live alone. They are, on average, over fifty years old and live well below the poverty line. There is no running water. Well water is alkaline and undrinkable–and in parts of the valley it comes out of the ground at 140 degrees. Many live with no electricity; outhouses are still common.
The summer temperatures are perpetually above 100 degrees, frequently as high as 120. It is below freezing in winter. Winds blowing under blue skies can reach hurricane force. Dust devils the strength of tornadoes rip roofs from cabins, snap telephone poles. It receives virtually no rain. Wonder Valley is not a place conducive to human habitation. What the hell is this place? Joan Didion once said, “A place belongs forever to whoever claims it hardest, remembers it most obsessively, wrenches it from itself, shapes it, renders it, loves it so radically that he remakes it in his own image.” Wonder Valley, then, forcefully claimed, and wrenched and shaped and rendered so radically by those that live there, belongs wholly and separately to each of them. What the hell is Wonder Valley? It is a thousand places. One per person.