The Wonder Valley Experimental Living Cabin
At the Bail Bonds, I make a right and head up a long bumpy dirt road. My head vibrates and teeth chatter as I speed over the ridges at 28mph. Feeling jostled, I become slightly carsick. I haven’t quite figured out the balance between keeping pace with the desert cadence and adjusting my speed to the optimum level to avoid the dizzying affect of hitting the bumps too hard.
I spot corners of black geometric structures nestled into the hill and feel a moment of relief that I am going the right way. The road curves and I am confronted with a bright white sign with bold black lettering, “TURN AROUND NOW, PRIVATE PROPERTY, DO NOT ENTER WITHOUT EXPLICIT PERMISSION” and then 20 feet later, another identical sign. In fine print on the bottom of the second sign I see an email address for azwest and take a breath.
After the signs, I turn left at the fork and pass a little covered carport with two 4WD vehicles in it, and then another on the left with a few more jeeps and trucks. I feel intensely aware that people will see my shiny blue Audi before they see me, and wish I could just blend in. Out here you don’t really see luxury cars or brightly colored paint jobs, just neutral desert palettes and trucks that show signs of years of navigating rough roads and dust storms. These sandy vehicles seem to symbolize not only readiness for the untamed terrain, but also a sense of self-reliance and freedom. The shovel in my trunk that a local suggested I have in case I get stuck is doing little to reassure me about my car’s readiness for what’s coming.
Proceeding with caution, I pull over to text Elena, my contact here and she tells me to keep going up the hill until I reach the studio. On my way, I catch a glimpse of a perfect-looking one story white building with a purple cactus on its steps, which I later learn is Andrea’s home. At 3:43pm, I pull in. Our meeting time and intended exit to get out to the cabin is 4:00pm. The cabin is 40 minutes beyond this main studio in Joshua Tree, and has no electricity, plumbing or running water, so arriving before dark is essential.
Elena’s sparkly smile and artist vibes are a welcome greeting and immediately calm my nerves. She is a hip young warm-spirited artist who graduated from UCLA two years earlier and moved to Joshua Tree to work for Andrea. She’s wearing coral shorts and a striped tee-shirt, has hairy legs, and a tattoo on the inside of her arm where I will get my father’s signature tattooed when he dies. She tells me that Lauren, the work resident who will be staying in the other cabin, is on her way. I feel a wash of disappointment as I had no idea there was another cabin or person, and had been emotionally preparing for total seclusion.
I refocus on the present moment and continue taking in this amazing place. In the past three months I have been working with a business consultant whose been encouraging me to think about, meditate on, and illustrate in detail my dream studio and life. I’ve felt completely blocked and resistant to this exercise. Maybe it’s because I am too steeped in my current reality, or because envisioning something idyllic and potentially vastly different from what I’ve been building since RISD, is hard. Almost instantaneously upon arriving, I feel that I have landed squarely in my dream. The stubborn, calloused quality of my steadfast connection to my current life plan softens like working hands in warm wax. Standing there, consumed with a sense of wonder, I gaze at this inspiring place Andrea dreamt up and built, and my own dream begins unfolding.
My studio would also be a large glass building sitting on a concrete pad that spills beyond the footprint of the structure. This layout creates a permeable barrier between the inside and outside work areas and surrounding nature. That easy access to the outdoors elicits a feeling of freedom I remember from childhood when running outside barefoot with my notebook to sketch the trees around my parent’s house. It also speaks to my ongoing investigation of home structures as vessels, and of the intersection between nature-made vs. manmade materials and forms. For the first time ever, I admit to myself that I want a workspace that mirrors these parts of my practice and philosophy.
Breaking me out of my reverie, Elena asks if I want a tour of the studio. The building is flanked with floor to ceiling windows that are picking up a beautiful partial reflection of the endless desert beyond. I notice the soft blue of the sky first, although it’s the least dominant feature in my view. Maybe there is something human about finding the sky (and water) when looking at expansive landscapes? Once inside, I spot 3 Stefanie Victor’esque watercolors of skies and think about painting in that room. The other half of the room is an office space with open shelving units, big work tables, and New Yorky looking art ladies glued to their computer screens. It’s the perfect office. There are three distinct workspaces beyond that first ‘clean’ room: a ceramics studio, woodshop, and weaving studio. An eclectic team of creative collaborators, friends of the studio, fabricators and helpers are working away in every room. Handsome woodworkers in old white tee shirts and paint-covered Carhartts glance at me while sawing wood on sawhorses outside. My eyes move from them back to the panoramic view of cactus covered high desert land. Rhianna’s familiar sound, although incongruous with the wild west setting, is playing softly in the ceramic studio where a young pale woman with a wispy strawberry blond pixie cut is working on press molded bowls for a show at the Hammer Museum.
In the weaving room, I see Andrea. She’s pretty and has a kind grin full of white teeth and prominent gums. She’s wearing all black and fingers black yarn on her loom. Star-struck, I say something awkward about having loved her work since college, barely make eye-contact, consider namedropping Jim Drain or Sam Bittman who are famous weavers friends of mine, decide that might make it worse, and walk out.
I return to the ceramics studio where I find, and fall in love with, a few crystals and press molded nesting ceramic bowls with shiny black centers and matte black exteriors. The coolest ones also have rope patterns pressed into them. Unfortunately all of the ones I want are slated for the Museum show and can’t be purchased until then. I ask Elena, ‘who buys these?’ and without hesitation she says, ‘people like you’. I feel weird, like my desert adventure has just been re-contextualized within Andrea’s masterfully curated commercial empire, which is undeniable impressive. I grapple with that feeling for a moment, let it go, select the best second I can find, and hope it makes it back to my kitchen in the Bay safely.
At 4:17pm, Lauren rolls up in her rented gold Hyundai, profusely apologetic and slightly overdressed. Consumed with anxiety about the time and the unknown experience I’m about to embark on, I show her little compassion or engagement. Instead I scan her white blouse with little green cacti on it, her styled and blown out wavy red hair, her fully made up face and gold earrings with unfairly harsh criticism. ‘Where does she think we are going?’ I muse nastily, ‘on a date?’ Something about how pretty and put together she is feels fundamentally at odds with my vision of going off the grid and releasing fully from society. Simultaneously, I am intrigued by her, wonder what her story is and decide I want to be her friend. Embarrassed by the divisive, adolescent mean girl behavior that my stress seems to have excavated, I hope she will forgive me later for my inability to muster more kindness and connection in this first meeting.
Elena fills several 5-gallon clear glass vessels with water from the hose and puts corks in them. They contain all the water that Lauren and I will use for drinking, cooking and washing in the coming week. I am struck by how gorgeous they are glistening in the afternoon sun. The carefully curated detail of transporting water in these artful objects suggests that we are in for a beautifully curated experience unlike what I am imagining. In my nightmarish fantasy, I’m going to an uncomfortably sparse shack deep in the desert that will test my emotional and physical limits while potentially serving as a nighttime refuge for scorpions, rattlesnakes, and meth-heads. This is could not be more different from what I found out there. We load the jugs into Elena’s truck and are off.
I am the middle of the caravan. Grateful for Elena’s conservative lead driving, we hover just above the speed limit as we make our way down Twenty Nine Palms Highway. We arrive at the next town, 29 Palms, quicker than I expected which is a relief because it’s the closest town to where I’m staying (15 miles away). Until that point, 40 minutes deeper into the desert than AZWest, felt like an abstract reference that did nothing to quell my uncertainty. I think we make a left and a right turn before cruising down the last paved road on the journey to the cabin. We pass the famous Palms Restaurant, another emotional safe haven and potential help point if something happens while out there. We turn off the small desert highway onto a wide dirt road. I have no idea how long we’ve been going when we turn off and am confident I won’t be able to retrace my steps later. I’ve never been great at paying attention when I’m following someone, especially in an emotionally strained state. The road, surrounding land, and aesthetic details of the truck in front of me are imprinted in my mind while the route is fleeting. We make what seems like the first possible right turn-off onto a softer, smaller, unmarked dirt road. Low desert bushes whap the doors and partially open windows of my car as we make our way towards the circular turn-around in front of my cabin. Although the turnaround shows some signs of earlier visitors, the tire tracks are only subtly different from the raised, brittle, untouched dirt center.
The three of us step out of our vehicles. Elena unlocks the front door to the cabin, leaves it open, and walks in with her dusty doc marten’s on. I tense up as I never wear shoes in my house, and have learned in my year of nomadic living to treat every place I stay, even for a night, like its my home. I also remember in detail the stern warning in the AZWest Protocol about tracking fine desert dirt into the cabin and onto the planar configurations. I mention this to Elena who casually acknowledges my reminder and pulls off her boots. The open door is also stressing me out. Having grown up camping in the tropics in mosquito and spider rich environments, I’m trained never to leave my tent unzipped. Given that I don’t yet understand the climate or critters in the desert I apply the same logic here and feel strongly that we should keep the door closed. Not wanting to expose the intensity of my neuroses I leave it alone and go back to the other tasks at hand. Since we left late, we need to be efficient in moving through the intro to my space so there is still enough daylight for Lauren to get settled in.
As we remove the custom-made canvas covers from all the windows and the two glass doors, I notice the shiny silver grommets perfectly aligning with the small matching hooks they are hanging from. I am keenly aware of the precision required to get each hook and hole to line up and picture someone meticulously measuring them out. I catch my first glimpse of the breathtaking view of the desert and mountains through the windows and my emotional terrain begins to smooth.
Mild panic returns when Elena points out the typed and laminated directions to the cabin and tells me to read those to the dispatcher in the case of an emergency. Really? The Dispatcher? After that, the gravity of this situation really starts to sink in when Elena points out the fire extinguisher while explaining that the fire department is something like 35 minutes away so it will be up to me to save the structure and everything in it if there is fire. Fuck.
She then shows me a massive supply of camping stove fuel in medium-sized forest green canisters that are lined up in one of four black plastic crates in the ‘kitchen’ shelving unit. The other crates contain solar lanterns, oil lamp fuel, two rolls of toilet paper, and other odds and ends. She demos how to change the camping stove fuel, I try, line up the threads but don’t get it all the way tight. Encouragingly, says I had it right but just needed to go further. She also demos the incorrect position by flipping the canister upside-down, which I find silly and illogical. We move onto how to refill the oil lanterns that I am sure, with all these fire warnings, I am not going to use. Given that I am a professional fire worker, I am surprised with myself for being spooked by the stories and warnings about fires in the cabin she’s sharing. We finish the tour with the outdoor benches, composting toilet and pump shower. I get Lauren’s number just in case and they leave.
I walk around the cabin and take in my first 360 degree view. The golden, peachy, rose glow of the sunset is kissing the mountains and every tiny elevation of dirt, rocks, and bushes in its view. The quiet energy of being alone on this expansive, untouched piece of land is unlike anything I’ve ever experienced. Gratitude for finding my way to this remote, incredibly beautiful and very special place floods in. I cannot believe I am here. Awe-struck I go inside to settle in.