Wonder Valley is a place that probably once deserved its name. As we wended our way down into the valley, it was clearly a place that had been very beautiful… even at the bottom of the slope, it was all long views of flat countryside against a backdrop of picturesque desert mountains. In reality, it was a desert paradise… and I’m certain that’s what the real estate agents in nearby Twentynine Palms, CA will tell people.
Wonder Valley was settled rather recently. After the Small Tract Act of 1938 was passed, federal land in the west was handed out in small parcels of five acres or less, leading people to settle in the region on small homesteads. I’m certain that the homesteader mentality lives on here, but we did not get to talk to many people on our drive through. Really, Wonder Valley stands out in my mind as a silhouette of lost innocence. People moved here to escape regulation, to leave city life behind and make their own way, but in Wonder Valley, that dream hangs in tatters. Most of what we saw in the valley were dilapidated trailers and small houses… some of them abandoned, but most so run down that it became difficult to determine which were inhabited and which weren’t. There were a few ranches on the west end, with “No Trespassing” signs and no trace of animals. A Wonder Valley community center appeared closed, with a massive fake palm tree beside it that turned out to be a cell phone tower.
It was clear that life out here wasn’t easy… the places were often strewn with garbage and old tires, and most of the houses had big rusting cisterns for water standing near them on stilts. In some sections of the highway, there appeared just endless expanses of empty land, with clusters of sun-faded mailboxes on the road.
This was the American dream; the face of true liberty.
There was a diner along the highway that looked like a promising hamburger possibility… but it was closed. Beyond the fence, behind the restaurant and the massive AC unit that accompanied it, stood a guillotine.
The heat was oppressive. It was probably around a hundred degrees. I won’t say that we were used to the heat, but now we had become acquainted with it and we were more or less resigned to its presence. We sucked down water from the 2.5 gallon jug in the back of the car, which had already been refilled several times since we purchased it back in Alamo, Nevada on our first night.
We found a pair of abandoned houses, and stopped to investigate. I stood outside in case anyone was watching the property. Phil found a heap of books, all bound the same, on the floor in the larger house. He thought that they might have been encyclopedias. In the distance, I heard rifle shots, and a rooster crowed.
Further west, we came to Twentynine Palms, California. Twentynine Palms is a terrifying town full of chain stores, real estate agencies and massage parlors. It sits just south of the USMC Air Ground Combat Center, and I will tell you that I did not see a single adult male there who was not sporting a high-and-tight and a hostile glare. USMC tattoos were more usual than the lack of them. There was an air of barely controlled aggression in that town… it was a place that I’m not sure I would’ve felt safe in.
We stopped to eat at a Mexican restaurant… the food was good, but honestly I think that anything that wasn’t a granola bar or a lukewarm polish sausage would’ve tasted like manna from heaven at that point. In the booth across the aisle from us was a little boy with his parents. I caught myself looking at the kid, because he was adorable, and I looked up to see his dad glaring at me. I stared at my plate.
We couldn’t wait to get out of there. We headed still further west, through Joshua Tree, and headed south into Joshua Tree National Park. The ranger station was empty for the summer, so we put our camping fee in the little gold envelope and put it in the drop box. We set up the tents, and had some beers. After yet another ridiculously pretty sunset, the temperature dropped into the sixties and some of our good humor returned. We were out of Wonder Valley and it’s ironic mockery of libertarian ideals, and we were shed of Twentynine Palms. The air was finally cooling off here at a higher elevation and I was almost giddy at the prospect of a good sleep. The crickets and cicadas sang, and the stars rolled across the sky like a blanket.
I pointed out Ursa Major, Ursa Minor, and Cygnus, which mostly exhausted my knowledge of constellations.
“I don’t have much interest in constellations,” Phil said.
The joshua trees looked even more primordial in the deepening night. I went to bed in the cool air, so cool I was compelled to crawl into the sleeping bag at some point during the night. Even during the time spent sleepeless, I felt happy there. The coyotes sang, and the stars twirled overhead, and for just that night, everything seemed perfect.