Gems of the Desert
By Jamie Solis
Exploring the deserts that lie on the outskirts of San Bernardino County, you will certainly run into some odd findings. Whether it’s the Wigwam Motel, where a teepee can serve as your next comfy slumber or the once thriving city of Zzyzx, which has a name alone that perplexes passersby heading out to Las Vegas, the desert has always produced quirky and obscure structures for us to gaze at. If you’ve ever traveled to the Morongo Basin east of Twenty-nine Palms, near Joshua Tree National Park, then you may have run into an entire cultivation of abandoned homes that litter the desert in a scattered about and chaotic kind of way. Welcome to Wonder Valley, California.
Kim Stringfellow is a visionary who felt inspired by the culture and history behind these small structures. She has presented a dedication of works, all under the name Jackrabbit Homestead: Tracing the Small Tract Act in the Southern California Landscape. Over the last six years since its artistic conception, Jackrabbit Homestead has graced the likes of numerous galleries around California, from Joshua Tree to Berkeley, now finding its way to IE’s very own UCR ARTSblock’s Culver Center of the Arts in Riverside. This installment is composed of an exhibition of photography, a published book and an online multimedia project, which includes an interactive audio car tour—giving you the chance to learn the importance of these homesteads first-hand from historians, local artists and residents.
Wonder Valley brings a whole new meaning to the term humble abode. Many small buildings that once served as someone’s home sweet home are now four walls cluttered with decaying pieces of drywall. Other structures have nothing left but a skeleton of their decomposing wooden framework. Some homes have fallen over completely—ultimately crumbled into the ground after enduring decades of abuse from nature’s elements. Often these places appear to be stuck in time, where old broken down electronics line ruins of once-thriving households. Classic broken down trucks, dated appliances, tangled mattress springs and even turned over boats are among the past’s prized possessions that now only serve as trash of the desert.
Looking at some of these rotted out places, you can’t help but wonder who used to belong to these American Dreams? Who was willing to invest their hard earned dollars towards a piece of dry and desolate land? Life’s pressures often include a feeling that owning property is a necessity, and to completely abandon these homes was forgoing a once living dream.
The Small Tract Act of 1938 was the last time the U.S. government offered up an inexpensive way for families to buy property. These lots of land were up to five-acres and available for purchase to those willing to do something with the land and in this case the most viable option was to erect a small homestead. These little shacks were pop-up-homes in a sense, often taking only one day to complete their construction throughout the ‘40s to‘60s. Many people who decided to come out to Wonder Valley were veterans of World War I. Veterans came back from the war seeking a cure to heal their lungs and doctors recommended the warm and dry air. Building a little homestead in the middle of San Bernardino County seemed like a great opportunity at the time, despite the harsh climate.
Those settling in this new area were not in for easy living. To this day, water is still not readily available to the settlers of this region. Coyotes and scorpions crawl across the hot desert grounds in search for their next meal, and the weather is known to be either blazing hot or freezing cold. While these deserted homes prove that the majority couldn’t stand the elements, there are still a handful of people that inhabit these homesteads, whether it is for their daily living or having a breathtaking art studio to call their own. Today, many still see something appealing in this area that cannot be found somewhere else, whether it’s the virtually unlimited space or the absolute freedom from urban sprawl.
Standing inside an old shack, the open windows frame the beautiful and desolate view of this wasteland. These roofless buildings serve as an open canvas to budding artists and individuals looking for an opportunity to absorb the charm of nature. In the end, beauty really is in the eye of the beholder, so check out these forgotten gems of the Morongo Basin.
Jackrabbit Homestead: Tracing the Small Tract Act in the Southern California Landscape at Culver Center of the Arts, UCR ARTSblock, 3824 Main St., Riverside, (909) 827-4787; artsblock.ucr.edu. Thru Sept. 28. $3.