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Open Access Publications from the University of California

Wonder Valley

  • Author(s): Hillyard, William
  • Advisor(s): Ulin, David L
  • Winer, Andrew
  • et al.

You might have passed through here, maybe. Thought you'd stick to the blue roads, hit the casinos of Vegas by the back way. As you blew through this nowhere corner of the Mojave Desert you might have noticed the rat-trap shacks rotting into the sparse hardscrabble of greasewood scrub. And you'd have thought, "What the hell is this place?"

Wonder Valley.

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. Back in the day, thousands grabbed land out here, staked their claims under the final homestead program in the lower forty-eight states. Some folks made it, overcame the hardships and the elements, most failed. And over the decades, their old cabins sagged into disrepair. Few of the original 4,000 cabins remain.

But people have returned. Outcasts driven to this margin of society slinked in. Mental institutions resettled patients out here, and welfare offices consolidated recipients. Artists and retirees arrived for the scenic beauty, the spectacular sunsets, the limitless stars. The artists and retirees, the outcasts and mental patients live in the remains of homestead shacks, often single family favelas of scavenged cast-offs, old lumber, doors, scrap metal and weathered furniture, their cars on blocks or left for dead where they died.

Today, Wonder Valley is a community a world apart--an island, a desert Galapagos, a laboratory for the post-apocalypse at the very end of civilization. For many people out here--not everyone, mind you, not even most some would argue--but for enough of them who live there, Wonder Valley is the end of the line. It's the bottom of a vortex where those shaken loose from society roll, spiraling downward into it. People like Pizza Richard, Naomi and Dominic, Dingy and Fluffy, Tonya. Wonder Valley, however, is only one misstep away from any one of us. And once you're here, if you've no one to throw you a rope, you may never climb out. This is the true story of that place.

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