Wonder Valley: The Untamed West

“You live in the middle of nowhere,” my friend Andrew said when he visited me in the Inland Empire. Yes. Sort of. When I brought Zak to visit our office in San Bernardino, there was a straw-colored tumbleweed in the parking lot, perfectly round, about two feet tall.

My knowledge of Riverside and San Bernardino counties, of the High Desert, of the mountains, is shallow. Still, I’ve learned a lot living in San Bernardino over nine months. I am fascinated by the desert, the way the sand spills out in every direction. How does life survive here? I’m not religious, but it’s said by some of those who do believe that the Garden of Eden lay alongside the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers, by the Persian Gulf, in a region better known for its blankets of dry, parched land.

The desert was what drew me out here, to write this story. But in the end, the story is not about the land or the area but about individuals, about people. Are more civilians really settling in the Twentynine Palms area? What’s the appeal of this world of rock, sand and triple-digit August heat? For these questions, I have no answers. The piece I wrote does not intend to pass judgment on any community or to make general statements about an area. It is a story that shares with you a little bit of what a few people shared with me – who they are, how they got to where they are.

Nothing more.

We read about celebrities and politicians, cops and criminals every day in the newspaper. But to me, the story of the average person living life – in the desert, in the mountains, in the city, by the sea – is the story of America. This is who we are.

The desert is lush with a million mysteries. One: What drives people away? When Ari and I made our trip out there, we found abandoned houses. They lay scattered across the desert like precious stones sleeping in sand, waiting to be discovered. Many were small square sheds dating perhaps to the homesteading era, strange, desolate symbols of the American dream. We saw one such structure, collapsed on a playground of dust, down the road from a house with a fire truck parked in the yard.

We came upon a one-story home, with wooden shingles and cerulean trim. The dwelling was a mystery, like so many out there. A screen covering the front entrance was ripped, jagged tears rising from the bottom. An open window exposed white curtains and the interior to the elements. Outside sat a wooden desk, shelves pulled out partway – perhaps by would-be thieves – and a couch that could have been fancy in another setting, a red-and-rose-colored flower motif staining its white cloth exterior. Who used to live here? Why did they leave? Beware of the dog, warned a broken sign posted outside.

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At a tulip-purple home, a couple answered the door – an English-speaking wife and her husband, who preferred Spanish. They were friendly but told us to scat at the sight of a recording device. Down the street was an old couple with plans to move to Illinois. They declined to speak to us as well, ignoring our knocks and coming outside only after we left a note at their doorstep explaining our adventure.

I will always wonder about the desert. Here, man seems more a part of nature. Even the heaps of trash fixed under the sun exude beauty and seem somehow to be a natural continuation of the sand and the sky. Near the first empty house Ari and I approached was a baby blue station wagon, crumpled, pocked with bullet holes, its lights knocked out, perched atop some rubber tires. Through its glassless windows I could see the desert, shrubs and car parts in the foreground. In the distance were mountains and electrical lines.

The desert seems somehow to speak of eternity. Everything seems to move slowly here, if at all. It seems, however false, that every moment, every object, every human being, could be preserved forever here in Wonder Valley. In purity, in perfection.

Though some residents warned us to be wary of the desert’s mean secrets – drugs, guns and other mysteries – many of the people we met were kind. Bernice Barcott gave us water and Mark Bennett provided beer. They gave us the benefit of the doubt and hours of their time. As a parting gift we left with two lanterns salvaged from their junk piles.

I originally wanted to track down the houses John Divola had photographed, but I was too cheap to buy a handheld GPS device to identify the precise structures. This story began when I saw Divola’s photographs at the Getty in late 2006 or early 2007 and wondered. I wondered who lived in those homes, where they came from, where they were headed in life. Though Ari and I never pinpointed the exact houses, I felt our work was worthwhile because we found out a bit about what the world was like for two groups of people living 150 miles East of Los Angeles.

The story of America. Here, in the middle of nowhere.

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Story written and reported in August 2007.

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