At the Margins: Life on America’s Desert Frontier


Wonder Valley | Charlotte Hsu

WONDER VALLEY, Calif. — Down a dirt lane south of Amboy Road, squatters and thieves have made the desert a dump. Torn mattresses, beer bottles, foam, pieces of old fencing, scraps of plastic and a trash barrel sprawl in a junk pile 10 meters long.

Punished by the wind, bleached by the sun.

It is here that Bernice Barcott will grow sunflowers one day, she says. And figs and pomegranates beneath an endless sky. For the last six months, she and her husband have carried rubbish from one heap to another, separating wood from metal and garbage from salvage as they clean a 15-acre property a friend acquired some time ago. The high today was 106.

The drudgery is fruitful, Barcott says, because one day this chaos will be her Eden – a two-bedroom home with a bathroom and deck, and a studio where she can cut glass into art. A house in the desert that, like others, will stand stag on a stretch of sand and shrub.

Mysterious, arresting, wondrous.

FROM SANTA MONICA, Interstate 10 reels East away from the ocean. The highway rolls past the L.A. skyline, leaving the city for the suburbs of Rosemead and Baldwin Park. The road swoops down into the gold-toned Pomona Valley, flies past the tract homes and big-box chain stores of Ontario, Riverside and San Bernardino. Follow the freeway further and clues of civilization become secondary, footnotes on a backdrop of sand and ochre hills. Past Yucaipa, past Banning, past the casino at Morongo, at the windmills, turn North onto Highway 62. Past Yucca Valley, past Joshua Tree.

Here, the desert careens outward in every direction. This is Twentynine Palms. Beside the city (population 14,764, according to the 2000 U.S. Census) is the remote community of Wonder Valley. The next Census-designated place beyond is Big River, which flirts with the Arizona border 110 miles to the East.

In the desert | Charlotte Hsu

It is this landscape that photographer and UC Riverside professor John Divola captured in his Isolated Houses series, shot between 1995 and 1998. The images are haunting, of lone structures poised on nature’s stage. At times the single-story boxes seem to blend into the surroundings, welded to the sunset or an indigo sky. The houses attest to man’s longing to be outside of society, away from culture, following the theme of desire that flows through Divola’s work. In a recent interview, Divola said he believes that some people who populate this secluded world, for financial or psychological reasons, can’t or don’t want to function in regular society.

“I’m just interested in this absolute edge and what exists there at that edge,” Divola says.

Divola grew up in Southern California, around Venice and in the San Fernando Valley, and first ventured into the desert in the 1970s. In a project titled “Four Landscapes” that he completed in the early 1990s, Divola documented California’s cityscape, desert, mountains and ocean. Each urban shot includes a stray dog. Other photographs show houses in the desert; people wandering through Yosemite; distant boats at sea.

Seduced by the desert structures’ “Home-Depot palette,” Divola set out afterward to create the Isolated Houses series. He turned his camera on the dwellings, creating hundreds of images, and he occasionally prints another photograph when he finds a negative he likes. His desert fixation lived on through “Dogs chasing my car in the desert,” a later project. He is now photographing collapsed sheds and other structures in the Twentynine Palms area.

People today often see nature as something controlled, enveloped by culture, Divola says. City streets circle parks. In the High Desert, each structure is an outpost of civilization. The irony, he says, is this: “As you build your house out at the edge of culture, you’ve just changed nature into culture.”

Reviews of Divola’s work reflect the same fascination with man and earth. A description of Divola by the Getty, which earlier this year displayed some pictures from the Isolated Houses series, states that his images blur fiction and reality, the natural and artificial.

“Does the house conquer the wilderness, or does the desert swallow the house?” a New York Magazine critic wondered.

Ken Johnson of the New York Times wrote that while Divola’s pictures possess a “travel-magazine style beauty,” their titles – latitude and longitude notations – rouse the viewer to think beyond aesthetics. The art presents the exterior, but the observer ponders the interior.

“Who lives in these curiously diminutive buildings?” Johnson asks. “What’s it like inside?”

“But since the photographs do little to answer such questions,” he continues, “their effect is ultimately more poetic than journalistic. Exuding a dry, windswept loneliness, each seems to have its own story of failure and survival to tell. The houses become poignant metaphors of the Romantic self, withdrawn from the comforts of society, nakedly exposed to nature and the cosmos.”

THE PHOTOGRAPHS don’t tell us who lives in the desert, in homes strewn across the sand. But what if we could find out?

On a Saturday afternoon in July, an 11-year-old boy stands outside his home near Amboy Road in Wonder Valley. A 2 ½-year-old German Shepherd-Labrador-Rottweiler mix clambers over a short rock wall to greet strangers. From inside comes a woman, 50, the boy’s mother, and her husband, in his 50s. They refused to give their names.

For them, the desert was a destination.

The man says he spent life wandering the 11 Western states, though he names only 10: Arizona, California, Colorado, Idaho, Montana, New Mexico, Nevada, Oregon, Utah and Washington. His dad helped place bets at horse-racing tracks, and he did whatever his father told him to do. Later, the man worked at ski resorts and dabbled in cattle ranching. Lured by the dirtbike scene, he moved to the High Desert in the 1970s, accepting a job renovating the Twentynine Palms Inn. Today he makes his money in construction.

His wife says she’s a Chicago native who remembers ditching school to attend the Cubs’ opening day. She swapped the ice-kissed Midwest for California in 1984, coming with her mother who inherited property here.

More than 20 years later, standing on her shaded front porch, smoking, barefoot, wearing two turquoise beaded anklets, she talks about her desert home, which is special because “It was mine. It was the first house that I ever said was mine. I bought it.” She has torn out the walls in the front room. The kitchen will be next. She wants to remove the front windows – except a strip of faded stained glass – and enclose the adjacent porch, adding shade screens. She wants somewhere to enjoy her morning coffee, to look out at the world.

September and October, when the desert begins cooling, are the year’s most beautiful months, she says. The sunsets inspire awe. On nights when the full moon smiles down from space, illuminating the terrestrial, “You can just sit out in the yard and you can see everything for miles,” she says.

At the Marine Corps Air Ground Combat Center to the north, soldiers conduct live-fire training and practice dropping bombs. The claps, cracks and booms travel south, lurching through Wonder Valley where the earth shudders in reply. The desert’s pageantry can be savage. A few days before, a road crew found a dismembered body and other human remains alongside Amboy Road, the Los Angeles Times reported. The body had been there at least a week.

It’s not safe to go knocking on doors here, the male resident says. His wife says when she first moved into their home, she discovered the last occupant was a drug dealer. She would leave the house carrying a loaded gun and still keeps weapons within reach: Magnum, rifle, pistol. The family doesn’t visit The Palms, a bar other locals frequent.

“I don’t trust too many people,” the wife says. “I don’t have too many friends.”

The community has changed over time, becoming “knee-jerk Democratic,” the man says, disdainful. (The state assemblymembers and senator who represent Twentynine Palms are Republican. Individuals citing the neighborhood zip code, 92277, give money to a medley of causes, Democratic, Republican or other, according to the Federal Election Commission.)

In life, satisfaction comes from family, the woman says. Her boy, entering sixth grade, earns straight A’s and played third base and outfield for teams that ranked first in a desert Little League this year and last. She says she tried to go to every game, but that she skipped a couple to care for her mother who died recently.

The boy shows off his sports trophies and, asked how he likes living here, makes a noise: “Eh.” Then, with his parents present, he corrects himself. He likes it, he says, because the dogs can roam free. When the temperature falls, he practices throwing or batting a baseball. A few friends live nearby. The rest live “in town,” at the heart of Twentynine Palms. His older sister, 30, has two children, aged 10 and 12. A former addict, she has been clean for 18 months, her mother says. A second daughter, 17, left to live with her father in Delaware, where she is hopefully finishing high school.

The mother says she hopes her son will go to college. He likes working with animals. In the past, he has aspired to become a police officer or a firefighter.

“I want him to do something where he can use his brain and not have to do manual labor,” says his mother, who helps maintain pools and spas. She calls herself a “jack of all trades,” a one-time bookkeeper and waitress. She met her husband 10 years ago while bartending at the Rancho San Jose, a joint she says used to sit catty-corner from the airport. “I have done manual labor all my life.”

Young people today want things handed to them: “Daddy give me this, give me that,” she says.

“We have to work for what we get, pretty much scrape for it, find it, get it, work for it,” her husband says.

Here in a land of scant opportunity, both have made a living. The boy does chores. In leisure the family leaves Twentynine Palms to camp in Big Bear. But ultimately, forget the mountains. The desert is home. “I like the fact that nobody comes up to my front door and bothers me,” says the father, who calls his wife a motor-mouth and hints to her to be quiet. “We all like our privacy.”

WHEN THE OLD LADY who used to own this property died, floaters and larcenists crashed at and pilfered from the place. Who knows what they made off with. The woman, when she was alive, owned a thrift shop, and she brought her clutter here when she closed the store, says Scott Downen, 55, a friend helping Barcott with the cleanup.


Scott Downen, cleaning the property, looks out toward Mark Bennett, a builder and friend who has dropped by for a visit on this Saturday afternoon. | Charlotte Hsu

“We didn’t even make a dent,” he laments, surveying the hodgepodge of trash and trinkets still littered across the sand. There are plans for a bulldozer.

“We’re trying to separate it right now so that we can give what we can give to the Salvation Army or something for people that need it,” Barcott says. I’ve already given clothes and stuff to the thrift shop. Stuff like that. A lot of this now is basically wood.”

Unlike Barcott, Downen considers himself a temporary desert dweller. He grew up on the coast, moving from La Jolla to Santa Barbara. A painter (houses and fine art), he slowly made his way East, stopping in Palm Springs and Morongo before arriving in Wonder Valley. He says when he used to drive through the desert, he would see tiny squat square buildings and think,“What’s with all these cabins?”

“I’m going back to civilization at some point,” Downen says.

Like Barcott, Downen knows the property’s owner. He says the desert looked like a bomb zone when he first got here. He’s engaging in the man-versus-junk struggle – about 1/8 complete, he estimates – as a favor. He says his goal, while he’s here, is to “eat and be happy.” Downen says sometimes the residents prepare meals in a small pine-walled kitchen he theorizes was part of the property’s first structure. Other times they’ll eat fast food.

Mark Bennett, 57, has stopped by this Saturday afternoon to visit Barcott and Downen. He emerges from his silver pickup truck carrying an open can of beer. He has more chilled Natural Ice in a cooler in the truck bed and offers it up. Bennett says he lives with his wife halfway between Twentynine Palms and the town of Amboy. He came to the desert more than eight years ago after leaving Virginia, his childhood home, and working in Reno and other locales. Here, away from the city haze, the stars shine, clear. He used to look up at sky with a telescope at night, exploring lunar craters. “The solitude, that’s the good thing about it,” he says. “If I want to I can walk out my back door, butt-naked if I wanted to.”

Like many other nearby residents, Bennett draws water from a 250-foot-deep well on his land. The desert’s torrid exterior cloaks a fluid heart. Bennett makes his money building houses from the ground up. Property is cheaper here than further West. Retirees like the area, as do weekend- and vacation-home seekers including growing numbers of people in their 20s and 30s, Bennett says.

“Everybody wants to get out of the city and get a little more in the country, so there’s a lot of building going on now,” he says.

“They’re tired of the rat race, all the traffic and the go, go, go all the time. They want something that’s a little more laid back. It certainly isn’t because they want the heat.”

He downs a couple beers while talking, tossing the crushed cans into the back of his truck. He says the property on which Barcott and Downen are toiling is cleaner than some others nearby. Some owners keep yachts and other oddities in their yards.

In a room beside the kitchen, jars large and small line wooden shelves, holding pieces of glass sorted by color – violet, coral, cream, a deep blue – that Barcott uses for art projects. After graduating from high school in Cardiff by the Sea, she too became a traveler. She fished salmon and crab from the waters of Alaska and the Pacific Northwest and worked with the merchant marine on oil tankers before moving to Las Vegas, where she and her husband lived the last 11 years.

“I’m sick of people,” she says. Tired of murders, other violence.

“The world is falling apart and I don’t want to be a part of it.”

So when a friend of two decades, sick with a tumor in his intenstinal tract, asked for help clearing his land, the Barcotts came, leaving the world behind.

Today the desert seems endless. Perhaps in years to come, drivers passing through Wonder Valley will scan the arid landscape, their gazes coming to rest, in curiosity, on Barcott’s home. Here, in the desert, whispers of eternity drift, seraphic, beneath a huge, blue sky. Coyotes, thieves and rattlesnakes wander. The wind blows insatiably, throwing manmade objects like tumbleweed across the sand. It is here that Barcott hopes to coax fruits and flowers from the earth one day. And it’s here that she wants to die.


All quiet | Charlotte Hsu

Story written and reported in August 2007.

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