There’s a highway that stretches through the desert, out past Twentynine Palms. It winds through the mountains, cuts a dark scar through the salt flats at Amboy, and hooks a sharp right. Before all that, though, before the exit to the freeway leading to Vegas and Laughlin, before the Shoe Tree with boughs bent from the weight of sneakers and time, there is Wonder Valley.
It’s the last bastion of civilization before hitting the open desert. Or the first coming back, depending on how you look at things. There aren’t any gas stations, or restaurants. Just one white clapboard church, with a rickety looking steeple and a wooden bill that proclaims Sunday service starts at 10 A.M. There’s only one sign with the town’s name on it, and it’s faded past the point of being legible from a car doing 60 miles per hour on its way somewhere else.
Wonder Valley isn’t a place where people live. There aren’t any proper houses there, at least none you can see from the highway; and you can see a very long way from the highway.
What is in Wonder Valley are the bunkers. I’m sure they’re not actually called that, but the moniker fits. Perfectly spaced cinder-block structures, one per every five acres of land. Each one is altogether square, ten feet per wall and a boxy roof, consisting of a single room. They all have a space for exactly one door, and two windows, but most of them aren’t in possession of the amenities that coincide with habitation. Many are boarded over, and nearly all of them sport at least one piece of graffiti.
Someone once told me that the bunkers of Wonder Valley were built as homesteads during the Depression, for families escaping the Dust Bowl. I wonder how bad the Dust Bowl must have been for the perfectly white and smooth sand around each bunker to seem a good place to try again.
It’s easy to fall in love with Wonder Valley, though. Each of the evenly spaced compact buildings is as individual as a person, if you can unfocus your eyes enough to be able to see the details. This one has been burnt out, that one is intact enough to still have a lock on the door, the one further down seems to have been used by squatters.
Sometimes I long to exit the car and spend an hour at the one with graffiti proclaiming it an artist sanctuary, or the one whose only occupant seems to be an old broom propped just inside the door, to learn a piece of what has happened there. But I am never the one driving, and we never stop to explore the decayed remnants of a community that was.
So, I conduct a love affair with Wonder Valley at 60 miles per hour through air conditioned windows, on my way somewhere else.
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