Wonder Valley

Tobacco Road Boomtown

People sometimes call Wonder Valley 
a last resort, so how did the middle of nowhere become the newest hipster destination?

Maggie Downs Real Estate

Wonder Valley

‘The desk clerk said stay away 
from Wonder Valley,
They sell the methamphetamine 
behind the alley.’

Those lyrics are ripped from “Wonder Valley Fight Song” by the Los Angeles-based country rock band, I See Hawks in L.A. Sing it to anyone in Wonder Valley, and they just laugh.
Because Wonder Valley doesn’t have two buildings close enough to form an alley.
To describe Wonder Valley another way, here’s a true story …

In 1978, Navy jets ran practice drills over the area. They missed their target at a bombing range near the Twentynine Palms Marine Corps Air Ground Combat Center and accidentally dropped 32 live bombs — 500 pounds each — on Wonder Valley.

BOOM! Bombs exploded all over the place. Yet no buildings were hit, and nobody was injured.
That’s how sparse this unincorporated area is — and resilient, too. Wonder Valley is a place unshaken by earthquakes, drought, recession. You can literally bomb it, and folks will just go about their business.

Maybe that’s why some people say Wonder Valley is a last resort. When everything else ends, this could be the last place standing.

Talk about Wonder 
Valley, and most everyone asks the same question: Where is it?
From Highway 62, head into the high desert, about 50 miles east of Palm Springs. Drive past the Combat Barber shop in Twentynine Palms. Keep going, past the doughnut shops and massage parlors with neon lights that blink late into the night.

Out here, small businesses fall away until there’s only golden sand and featureless land like a blank slate. The spaces are wide, and the sky seems bigger than Montana and New Mexico combined.
Head east toward Amboy, the bite-sized town that sold for $425,000 on eBay, and keep driving on a two-lane road that shoots through the pale landscape like a slick arrow. You might recognize this as the back way to Las Vegas. But in Wonder Valley, back roads are the only roads.

Wonder Valley

Dotting the desert are small jackrabbit homesteads and creosote bushes that hunker low, as if they’re trying to hide in their own shade. Keep going, right by the hand-painted wooden marker for Bagdad Highway.

Wonder Valley is only 14 miles past Twentynine Palms, but as anyone who has driven in the desert can tell you, some miles are longer than others. When your mind starts to wander — right about the time you wonder how long you’ll survive if your car breaks down — you’re almost there. Hit the curve on Amboy Road, and you’ve missed your destination.

How do you know when you’re there?

You just do.

No, there’s no sign. People keep stealing it.

A better question might be why is anyone here? Who are these people who see endless dirt, scrub, and thorns, and decide to call it home?

Wonder Valley

A repurposed refrigerator deters scofflaws who might deface and defile the new owner’s future paradise.

The first inhabitants of this area were Native Americans, who set up camps by the life-sustaining waters at the Oasis of Mara, now part of Joshua Tree National Park. Prospectors and cattlemen followed in the late 1800s, seeking their fortune among the rocks and low-slung mountains. Then World War I happened.

Dr. James B. Luckie of Pasadena attended to many ailing veterans suffering from mustard gas inhalation, asthma, and tuberculosis. Rather than send them off to the veterans hospital in Santa Monica, where the heavy coastal air was damp and cold, Luckie prescribed the dry climate and elevation of Twentynine Palms. Many of the veterans who came to the desert stayed. They filed homestead claims, creating a permanent community that trickled into the surrounding area.

World War I troops were also the first to be diagnosed with “shell shock,” psychological distress attributed to exploding shells during combat. We now call it post-traumatic stress disorder.

“They wanted peace and quiet,” says Teresa Sitz, a Wonder Valley community leader. “It was true then, and it’s true of the people who come here now. People are here for peace and quiet.”

Wonder Valley
Wonder Valley
Wonder Valley
Wonder Valley

A quartet of Wonder folk.
Clockwise from top left: The Palms owner James Sibley; James’ wife
and band member, Laura; 
Jill Reinig; and Teresa Sitz.

In 1938, Congress passed the Small-Tract Act, making 5-acre parcels of federal land available to the public for a nominal fee. The greatest concentration of these parcels was located east of Twentynine Palms, the area that became Wonder Valley.
In order to receive a patent to the land, the government’s version of a deed, the homesteaders were required to pay a small lease fee of $10 to $20 per acre and construct a habitable dwelling. Tiny settlements, 400 square feet in size, seemed to pop up overnight.

There was a certain romanticism at play here, with countless dreamers escaping cities to chase the notion of the Wild West. They were idealists, seeking health, opportunity, open space, and starry skies. They set eyes upon this land, which is often harsh and intimidating, and they literally claimed it as their own.

“These residents came to a landscape that they saw as neither good nor bad, but full of potential,” says Jacob Sowers, a geographer who wrote his dissertation on Wonder Valley.
For a long time the place operated without a name, until one finally emerged from a joke.

Some owners used to name their properties and hang signs to show off their monikers. So there was a “Calloused Palms” and “Jackass Junction,” things like that. One of the most prominent homesteads along the highway was “Wonder Valley.”

“The name stuck,” says Pat Rimmington, a historian with the Twentynine Palms Historical Society. “It’s not, as some will tell you, that they wonder why people live there.”

Wonder Valley
Wonder Valley

Top: Jill Reinig skims a Jacuzzi whose views of the 
night sky must be breathtaking. 
Bottom: For a low monthly payment, all this could be yours.

I head out to Wonder Valley from Joshua Tree, taking the washboard dirt roads that threaten to rattle the teeth out of my head.

Forty-five minutes later I have a $2 bloody mary in my hand at The Palms, a restaurant on Amboy Road that looks more like someone conjured it than constructed it. The drink is stiff and served in an old jelly jar, with crushed red pepper along the rim.

The Palms is the place to be in Wonder Valley. And by that, I mean it’s really the only place to be. There’s the Wonder Valley Community Center, but it’s open only on Mondays. The thrift store operates Tuesdays, Thursdays, and Saturdays. There’s a playground, but nobody is playing outside when it’s 108 degrees. So, The Palms it is.

“This is downtown,” explains Mary Sibley, who owns the place. She yanks her thumb west. “That way is uptown. There’s not a lot to it. What you see in Wonder Valley is what you get.”

The restaurant is tidy and colorful, with work from local artists hanging on the wall. Two fauxhemians sit at the bar, a dude with a bushy, black beard, and a woman with Crayola-colored tattoo sleeves. A few guys slouch in the booths along the wall, tipping back beers at 10 a.m. There is a constant flow of customers. The bar stools never grow lonely.

There’s no pretense. Roll up on your motorcycle or in a sports car. Come in pajamas or your finest duds. It’s not so much a lack of judgment as the fact that nobody cares.

“We’re just trying to maintain civilization and keep the peace,” Sibley says.
People come here for a little bit of anything and everything: food, drink, live music, community. In the corner, there’s a rack of clothes for sale — shirts are $1, pants are $2. A full bookcase and a tub of VHS tapes sit near the bar, all for sale.

There’s also a stack of CDs from siblings Laura and James Sibley, proprietors at The Palms, who perform in a rock trio with bassist Thom Merrick. Their band is called The Sibleys, and their spare, straightforward music can be heard on the Showtime program Weeds — or during every music festival at The Palms.

Wonder Valley
Wonder Valley

Top: Neither this basketball court nor the church in front of it looks as if they get much action. 
Bottom: An abandoned shack wears a hard-won patina.

The food here is solid, served in generous portions. A breakfast platter will set you back $2.50; the Saturday night special of barbecue chicken, baked beans, and slaw is $3.50.

This is a huge part of what makes Wonder Valley so appealing. It’s possible to make a good life here without a lot of money in the bank.

“We needed to make a living, and this was cheap,” Mary Sibley says of how her family came to own a business in Wonder Valley. “It beats a lot of other things.”

Speaking of money, I’ve forgotten my wallet back at the cabin. Darlene Parris, a woman I didn’t meet more than 10 minutes earlier, pays for my meal. She’s quick with a grin and possibly the friendliest person I’ve ever met.

After profuse apologies, I help her carry two six-packs of Bud, an order of biscuits and gravy, and several T-shirts out the door. A skinny Marine with a raspy voice leaps to help. He tips his head politely, and says “ma’am” as we pass.

Then we get to talking. Parris’ family started coming to the desert in the 1970s, about the time other folks were abandoning their homesteads. There was a spark that lured her parents to the desert — the opportunity for reinvention, the promise of individualism, the openness of it all.

“The people who settled here were independent, but everyone came together to help,” she says. “There was a real spirit of adventure.”

Even though Parris left for a bit, the threads that tied her to Wonder Valley pulled her back. Now she and her sister Karen Meyers write the Wonder Valley column for a local publication. Over the years, they’ve seen it all.

“For a while, it was like time came to a halt here,” Parris says. “The settlers were dying, kids were scarce, and people stopped coming. Things came to a slow stop.”

Desert life can be a hard life and Wonder Valley lacks some of the infrastructure necessary to maintain a thriving community. Some of the original homesteaders left the area, leaving behind several cabins. In 2000, the Los Angeles Times reported that roughly 2,000 dilapidated remnants of the homesteading law were left behind.

Back then, locals tried to tear the shacks down. A good number of homes were unoccupied but not abandoned — there’s a difference — so residents tracked down the property owners and received permission to demolish a few dozen.

Nowadays, there’s new interest in the old homesteads. They can be snapped up for decent prices at the tax auction and converted into weekend getaways or rented out on Airbnb. The properties are desirable, despite the fact that some still don’t have electricity.

“There are still some folks who just use lanterns,” Parris says. “But they’re coming around and using LEDs now.”

After many years as a “real dead area,” Parris tells me she sees that spark again with the influx of artists, creatives, and young entrepreneurs in Wonder Valley.

“The people coming here now, they’re like the new pioneers,” she says. “You can still feel the respect for the desert and our history, but now you see the future in them too.”

With people, however, come problems.

I’m chatting with Darlene in the parking lot at The Palms when she says Wonder Valley residents have started locking their doors. So many tourists and outsiders pass through, people get nervous. There have been break-ins at some of the vacation rentals.

“Even I lock my doors. Except …,” she motions to her car. “I didn’t lock my car today, but I know everyone who’s here.

“I wouldn’t leave my keys in it anymore, though.”

Wonder Valley
Wonder Valley

Top: Rocket builder Kip Fjeld amid his collection of cars. Bottom: The Glass Outhouse Art Gallery 
with the glass outhouse in the foreground.

Lately Wonder Valley has received a decent amount of buzz from mainstream media, which is nice but a little uncomfortable for the inhabitants.

“An oasis of cool,” proclaimed Afar travel magazine, while The New York Times said Wonder Valley’s “an unadulterated nowhere of boundless skies and tumbleweeds.” At one point, a reality TV series was in the works.

A company called Wonder Valley has been lauded for its boutique olive oil — made from olives grown hundreds of miles from Wonder Valley — and for harnessing the desert’s simplicity in its lifestyle brand.

Throughout it all, the artists, musicians, and writers who have drawn inspiration from Wonder Valley have brought an international spotlight to the community. The High Desert Test Sites — a sprawling, conceptual project of immersive art experiences — is ambitious and noteworthy, receiving acclaim from arts publications all over the world.

This is what happens when the outcast is transformed into a thing of desire. Think of movies from the 1980s, when the weird high school kid suddenly becomes homecoming queen. The attention is unnerving. Intentions are no longer clear. People become guarded. It fosters a naturally contentious relationship.

“I suppose we’re all partially responsible for it,” says Perry Hoffman, an artist who moved from San Francisco to Wonder Valley in 2000. “We want to share the beauty with people, but now the cat’s out of the bag.”

Hoffman likens it to the exponential growth of the annual Burning Man festival in the Black Rock Desert in Nevada.

“It went from 100 people to 1,000 and now it’s 70,000. And it’s not the same experience anymore,” Hoffman says. “The more attention we draw, the more that magic will be altered. That’s my biggest fear. I came here for the magic.”
Spend any time in Wonder Valley and the magic becomes clear. Wonder Valley is affordable, interesting, a little bizarre. There’s plenty of space to create and silence to think. It’s a kaleidoscope of quirk.

“A lot of people come out here because it’s just plain loud in L.A.,” says artist Kip Fjeld. He lives in North Joshua Tree, but he helps out at The Palms most every weekend. “Visual artists especially appreciate the lack of noise and the ability to think clearly. There’s inspiration for the taking.”

That’s the story for Hoffman too. Although he indulges in ceramics and paint, Hoffman primarily works with mosaic. It’s a natural medium for the desert, as broken parts are reconfigured to create a larger whole. The splintered pieces catch the light and reflect the sky, becoming a full, multidimensional work. So Hoffman covered his homestead cabin in tile, glass, and grout, and dubbed it The Tile House.

“The place was a concrete block. A blank canvas, basically,” he says. “It was begging to become art. The desert inspired it.”

This is precisely why Wonder Valley residents are so protective of what they’ve found. In some folks, the open desert ignites something you won’t find elsewhere.

One internationally known artist I happen to run into at The Palms one afternoon related how, socially, Wonder Valley is “a very fragile ecosystem,” she said, preferring not to be identified. “And it would be very easy to tip everything off balance.”

Tobacco Road Boomtown was last modified: December 1st, 2016 by Maggie Downs