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On our way from Arizona to the Mojave desert in California, the Element’s tire blew out and we spent a couple of hours dealing with that (a long story for another time) so we arrived in Twentynine Palms well after dark. We turned onto a sand road and passed what looked like an abandoned home and then a collapsed garage, a couple more turns without a light in sight, all we could see was sand and occasional creosote bush illuminated by our headlights. We reached our rental house, exhausted and hungry, our only focus was unloading our stuff and eating a late dinner.
In the morning I woke up to the gorgeous desert sun and went out for a walk with my camera. The entire area seemed abandoned. Shack after shack was crumbling, full of furniture and knick-knacks, but deserted. A few homes were still inhabited and I heard a dog or two, but for every inhabited home there were 10 abandoned ones.
I cooked up many stories in my head on that first walk. What would make nearly an entire town of people leave their homes and possessions and never come back? Even if these were vacation homes, it was clear no one had visited in decades. By the end of my walk I was feeling like Pearson and I may have missed the apocalypse, I hadn’t seen one other living thing over the course of seven miles. So I sat down to research the area and spent the next week exploring what I learned was Wonder Valley.
In my life I have been fortunate to do a lot of traveling and find inspiration all over America and Europe. In the past year I have been to incredible places, seen amazing sunsets and sunrises, been awestruck by the power of nature and by natural wonders. Yet, never before have I been so captivated by a place as by Wonder Valley.
Wonder Valley is a homesteading area east of Twentynine Palms, California. It’s part of the Jackrabbit Trail, made possible by the Small Tract Act of 1938 that was designed to dispose of useless federal land. U.S. citizens could lease five acres of land for a small fee and if they built on the land within three years they could purchase the land for $10-20 per acre. There was no water, no power, and few roads, but by the end of WWII people were flocking to the Mojave Desert to stake their claim.
This is by far the most interesting place I’ve ever stayed. It’s equal parts alluring and frightening. Nature here is severe, the winds whip sand across the arid landscape and when the rare rain comes it washes out roads and homes. In Wonder Valley the abandoned homes make for a whole different type of fascination and fear. The old buildings are ghostly, tattered curtains blowing in the wind, hinges creaking. It stimulates my imagination of what used to be. The area speaks to determination and to despair.
It’s the first area I’ve been to that I want to bring everyone I love to visit, because I love it here and I want the people in my life to experience this place of paradoxes. It’s a space I don’t want to leave and yet I’m scared to stay. It’s an area where you expect to see nothing but dust and creosote, but instead the landscape is dotted with small shacks and rows of power lines.
It is amazing and intriguing, the light, colors, and mountainous landscapes make it a photographer’s dream. And for a photographer obsessed with nostalgia, the abandoned shacks, many still full of relics from the 1950s-1970s, make it a paradise. There were lives led here, and threads of those stories are visible blowing in the desert wind. There is an overturned playpen and a baby shoe, newspapers and a swing set. What made these people come to the desert? What their lives were like? What made them try to tame a piece of this land? Were these winter weekend escapes? Did kids romp barefoot in the sand? What made them give it up? Was the dream of an affordable vacation home or retirement home ruined when a rainstorm came through and washed out the house? Or when the summer temperatures soared above 115 with no shade and no air conditioning?
These forgotten shacks captivate me; they are the remnants of someone’s ambition. They are more beautiful than a new house or an intact house, because at a glance you can see the past, you can see a life. It’s a piece of yesterday that is still standing against the powers of wind and dust and storms. And it speaks to the intensity of nature, because for as many of these structures that are still standing, there are more that have collapsed. Mother nature is reclaiming her land.
For me, Wonder Valley is a place of intrigue and inspiration. There is silence and space, beauty and brutality. There is comfort in the peace and in the harshness. I was here for just a week but it’s now a part of me and I will carry it with me forever. People continue to try to tame the land here and as long as they work at it they can succeed, but the moment they take a break, nature will come and undo all of their efforts.
The desert is like life, both harsh and beautiful. Maybe I love the desert because that severity is upfront, it doesn’t delude you with its soft green trees and blue lakes, it is hard and dry and barren. And to me it is amazing.
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