Jacob Sowers: Wonder Valley: Place and Paradox

NO ONE IS QUITE SURE when the vast arid landscape east of Twentynine Palms, California first became known as Wonder Valley, or even exactly why it was named such. Interviews and textual evidence suggest that the origins of the community’s name perhaps lie with Mr. Schooler, a retired Marine and one of the first residents of the area. It is said by some that his description for the area in the late 1950s of “what a wonder of a valley” gained popularity and over time was shortened to “wonder valley”. During this time the area experienced rapid population growth, and residents began to think of themselves as living in a defined place, a community enclave, within desert space. Somehow, this internal cohesiveness and a feeling of being separate from neighboring Twentynine Palms in association with Schooler’s aphorism led some anonymous individuals in the early 1960s to place a sign, “Welcome to Wonder Valley,” on Adobe Road at the eastern city limits of Twentynine Palms.

Although the exact etymology of Wonder Valley and the specific beginnings of community consciousness are unclear, it is certain that Wonder Valley and countless other western desert communities came into existence because of the Small Tract Act (STA) of 1938. The STA allowed for the disposal of two-and-a-half to five-acre allotments of federal land in the American West. The greatest concentration of these tracts were released to the public just east of Twentynine Palms in what is now Wonder Valley, and it is only in this area that an extensive “jackrabbit homestead” landscape and a distinct sense of community still exists.

I first became aware of Wonder Valley as a teenager when I traveled from my home in Illinois to my grandparent’s newly restored winter home during Christmas vacation in 1994.  Because my grandparents picked me up at the Palm Springs airport well after dusk had fallen I was unable to view any of the surroundings during the late night ride along Highway 62 to their cabin in Wonder Valley. The following morning, however, I opened the shades of my bedroom window and squinted eastward into the rising sun’s nearly blinding glare.  I instantly realized I was in the middle of a landscape that was completely foreign to me.  It was during this moment that I first felt the paradoxical power of this place. There was just something about it that both comforted and frightened me, drew me towards it but also pushed me away, it was strange and yet beautiful.  During this first visit, as with many of the other current residents of Wonder Valley, I became completely obsessed with the place.  On subsequent visits my curiosity about the place reached such a vexing crescendo that I decided to become a geographer and make studying places my profession. Through this focus I could perhaps unravel the mysterious essence of Wonder Valley and other intriguing places.

Over the next decade as I traveled to other communities both foreign and domestic for both study and pleasure, I came to realize that Wonder Valley’s place identity had yet to be duplicated.  At first glance, Wonder Valley’s landscape looked disarrayed and chaotic but many times I have found that at first glance our eyes deceive us. Although the Wonder Valley was indeed unusual, over time I began to recognize that this supposedly chaotic place did have an unexplained order. This place is unusual not because of its disorder, which can be expected in a rural desert landscape. Rather, Wonder Valley is unusual and thus a place of interest because it presents some type of order where one would more likely expect chaos—the desert is the ultimate manifestation of empty space, and thus many times portrayed as the antithesis of place and dwelling. Max Scheler stated; “To find one’s place in the world, the world must be a cosmos.  In chaos there is no place.”  So, paradoxically Wonder Valley is out of place by simply being a place, by existing! I realized that the story of this unusual community and the accounts of those who call it home needed to be explored and better understood. Only recently, however, has my pre-academic curiosity of Wonder Valley transformed itself into a multiyear formal academic study focused on the interpretation and identification of Wonder Valley’s unusual place identity.

Gabriel Marcel has stated that an individual is not distinct from his place; he is that place. If Marcel was correct in noting the strong tie between a person’s identity and place identity, which I believe he was, and Wonder Valley was to be more thoroughly understood, I needed a language whereby I could begin to identify place identities and discuss particular place experiences of the residents.  Geographer Edward Relph provides this in his much-lauded book Place and Placelessness. In this work he described the holistic nature of place as the combination of the identity of place (a place’s character) and identity with place (intensity of a person or group’s lived relationship with place).

By the identity of a place, Relph refers to its “persistent sameness and unit, which allows it to be differentiated from others.” Relph describes this persistent identity in terms of three components: (1) the place’s physical setting; (2) its activities, situations, and events; and (3) the individual and group meanings generated through people’s experiences and intentions in regard to that place. Identity with place is our fundamental relationship with the world around us. There are varying modes of connection we have to the places of our world, some are comforting where we find ourselves at home and develop a feeling of insideness, others are frightening and we experience them as outsiders, and yet other times we may not attend to the place in a meaningful way and a sense of placelessness and apathy overtakes our experience. Relph developed an insideness/outsideness continuum to describe the everyday relationships people have with place. Relph argued that the relationship between insideness and its opposite, outsideness, is a fundamental part of human experience. Through different degrees of insideness and outsideness, different places take on different meanings for different individuals and groups.

Based on Relph’s of and with place conceptual framework, my study would first focus on describing the varying identities of Wonder Valley, and through these come to a better understanding of residents’ identity with Wonder Valley and thus approach the soul of Wonder Valley—the Wonder Valleyness of Wonder Valley.  In other words, through the study of its parts and their interrelationships I will shed light on Wonder Valley’s essence. When I first encountered Wonder Valley, I felt that it was on the edge of civilization. After participating in everyday life and speaking to numerous residents, however, I have found that Wonder Valley is actually an overlap of conflicting types of place identity held in a complex tension. These identities—the homesteader, the dystopic, and the utopic are briefly described.

The homesteader identity group partly derives its name from the residents themselves. These individuals were the first to settle Wonder Valley, and they and their direct descendants refer to themselves as homesteaders, or more precisely, ‘jackrabbit homesteaders’. This homestead group, however, has more in common than just being the first families to settle Wonder Valley. Rather, these residents came to a landscape that they saw as neither good nor bad, but full of potential. By working the land—‘pushing back nature’ and establishing human-made structures—the potential of the environment was turned into an actual and pleasing place. Many homesteaders were/are Midwestern retirees who saw/see the land as a blank slate that demanded hard work to give rise to a part-time or full-time retreat from cold weather, congested land use, and societal and legal restrictions. After reviewing the sixteen interviews of individuals within this category, I gradually realized that there were two sub-groups of homesteaders—first, those who originally bought land in the 1940s and 1950s and their families; and second, a more recent group who has moved to Wonder Valley in the past ten years to restore older structures but who still embody the same homesteader attitude.

The dystopic identity of Wonder Valley refers tothose individuals who came to Wonder Valley as a last resort or sought it out for nefarious ends. In either case, the individual is in some way pushed to the community, views Wonder Valley as a necessary evil, does not usually engage in neighboring, and shapes his or her living/operating area as a relative disamenity zone. After reviewing seven interviews of individuals within this category and other supporting material, I determined that this Wonder Valley identity is comprised of three subgroups: First, there are those who can no longer afford to live ‘down below’ (a local term for the Los Angeles basin) because of rapidly rising housing prices but who still wish to live in Southern California; second, there are the homeless and mentally unstable, who have been relocated to the area through government resettlement programs in the late 1980s and early 1990s; and third, there is a criminal element drawn to the area because abandoned cabins provide cover to produce illegal drugs—Wonder Valley also provides easy access to the nearby Los Angeles and Las Vegas drug markets. It is said that nature abhors a void, but it also seems that abhorrence naturally seeks the void.

I was only able to interview seven individuals representing this identity, mainly because two of the three subgroups were difficult or dangerous to approach. To resolve this relative lack of representation, I interviewed others (e.g. law enforcement officers, reporters, and other residents) who have had experiences with these individuals or have knowledge of their motivation for being in Wonder Valley and the resulting effects on the community.

The utopic identity group of Wonder Valley is comprised of individuals who perceive Wonder Valley to be inherently special, fragile, and thus in need of protection from destructive uses. These residents are mostly from Southern California and San Francisco. They came to the area in large numbers in the 1990s and their numbers continue to grow. During this period, there has been a rebirth of interest in California’s desert landscape as a beautiful place, especially following the designation of Joshua Tree National Monument as a National Park and the creation of the nearby Mojave Preserve. After reviewing textual materials and the thirteen interviews of residents within this category, I realized that this group can be divided into three general sub-groups: First, artists who find inspiration in the landscape and can cater to a substantial number of potential buyers; second, nature enthusiasts who enjoy living in the midst of exotic flora and fauna; and third, real estate opportunists who purchase and restore dilapidated houses and then resell or rent them as comfortable dwellings within a ‘desert paradise’. The customers who buy or rent these renovated properties are also considered to be representative of this third group.

American essayist Joan Didion wrote that, “a place belongs forever to whoever claims it hardest, remembers it most obsessively, wrenches it from itself, shapes it, renders it, loves it so radically that he remakes it in his own image.” But in this community there is an overlap of three identities that struggle in claiming it for themselves.  Many communities have various groups battling for power, but Wonder Valley is special because its essence is the struggle. The identity of Wonder Valley is what I have termed an existential ecotone—a community based on the overlapping and competing identities held in a precarious tension. Much like a natural ecotone (like the beach or the gradient between a meadow and a forest), an existential ecotone is home to a great diversity and is quite delicate. One Wonder Valley resident described this delicate balance by stating “The place has not yet become what it is not.”
The nature of this human ecotone is that of a paradox demonstrating an intensity and delicateness, isolation and accessibility, diversity and ambiguity.  Wonder Valley is paradoxical, yet Wonder Valley is also a home, a place, a cosmos amidst the chaos. The history of Wonder Valley is interesting, its present circumstance intriguing, and its future held in a delicate tension. The residential relationship of the people with Wonder Valley can be described as paradoxical insideness—finding at-homeness in the midst of tension. In these closing stages of my research I not only agree with Mr. Schooler that this indeed is a wonder of a valley, but also a wonder of geography.

Jacob Sowers is an assistant professor at Missouri State University's Geography, Geology, and Planning program.