Sunday, September 06, 2020

110 Degrees in the Shade

What started out as a photo excursion to Joshua Tree National Park in the heart of the Mojave Desert turned out to be the discovery and exploration of a scattering of decaying houses strewn across the Morongo Basin. These unlikely habitations are the detritus of a blighted land giveaway that was perpetrated from 1938 through the post-war years. The contrast of J-Tree, a veritable oasis, to the desiccated patch of scrub that is called Wonder Valley is as stark as the conditions the homesteaders confronted when they set foot on their piece of paradise. The winds howl, the sand sifts through porous walls and the scorching sun beat relentlessly on these latter-day pioneers.

In 1938 the Federal government established the Small Tract Act, an extension of 1862’s Homestead Act that opened huge swathes of the American West to homesteading or acquiring land for a nominal cost. This, it was believed, would encourage the development of a dubious expanse of "disposable" land.

In the case of the original Homestead Act of 1862 any adult citizen who had never borne arms against the U.S. government could claim 160 acres of surveyed government land in return for “improving” the land by building a dwelling and cultivating the land. The Small Tract Act had more modest goals. The government sought to dispose of land it deemed worthless, some of it in the parched Morongo Basin between Palm Springs and 29 Palms, California and eastward from 29 Palms on Highway 62. The Small Tract Act authorized the lease of up to 5 acres for full time or recreational use. If a small dwelling were built on the parcel, the land could then be purchased for $10 to $20 an acre. The house had to be under 400 square feet. There were abundant takers but after several years of living in the harsh Mojave Desert where temperatures routinely reach 115 degrees and without water or electricity, many homesteaders soon abandoned their dreams and left their tiny abodes to return to the earth. More than 2,000 of these rudimentary dwellings dot the forbidding landscape today.

We stood in the rubble beneath a half missing roof and listened to the wind whistle through cracks in the plywood and tarpaper walls. We walked silently through the three rooms of the 250 square foot shack where a family once lived and dreamed. I say family because there were clothes still hanging in the closet, there were a child’s doodles on the kitchen wall and a baby doll lay on the concrete slab in front of the entry. By the looks of the clothing in the closet and the age of the appliances we deduced the dwelling had been inhabited within the last five years. Who were these people? What compelled them to give up their dreams? And why didn’t they take their possessions with them? 

Houses like this one came to be known as Jackrabbit Homesteads, so named for the rabbits that found shade in the shadows cast by their walls. Much of the fraught development of these homesteads occurred in the post war years when Los Angelinos sought paradise in the bleak desert and recently discharged soldiers, sailors and Marines were drawn to the hope of home ownership on the cheap. Retired military personnel were given preferential treatment, and many rolled the dice. An significant number of women signed up for the program.

The 1944 issue of Desert Magazine referred these latter-day pioneers as “Folks with the blood of pioneers—or of poets—running strong in their veins, will regard the task as a grand adventure. I know of Los Angeles people who spent most of their weekends building a stone cabin on their claim.” I like the word ‘claim’ in the context of this land rush. The term recalls the Forty Niners of the mid-19th century.

Along California State Highway 62 and beyond the banal sprawl of Yucca Valley, the bleak Mojave spreads before you. The empty desert is punctuated by the shapes of small houses left to decay. Most of these curious dwellings that fleck the flat expanse of nothingness east of 29 Palms are situated in so-called Wonder Valley, hyperbole by any measure. The residue of the small-scale land rush is the hundreds of mysterious homesteads, mostly derelict but occasionally occupied.

Off late there has been a surge of interest in the homesteads. And the life the homesteads promised in the forties and fifties is attracting a new kind of seeker, many of them artists and other creatives craving tranquility and revival.

Exploring these abandoned dwellings is like visiting a cemetery. You find yourself communing with the spirits of those who once called this home. Some are completely empty and were left to the elements decades ago. Some of these pioneers left behind all their worldly possessions, furniture, appliances, even clothes on hangers in the closet. It’s otherworldly. Vestiges of lives lived populate these odd buildings: a chair, a sofa, a stuffed animal, and a baby doll. You wonder why someone would leave everything behind. The wind speaks through glassless windows, missing roofs and cracks in the walls. Visiting these sad monuments is faintly voyeuristic. There is quiet discomfort standing in the silence of dashed dreams.

It's eerie standing in the skeleton of something that was lived in; where meals were shared, and love was made. Resignation erased hope in this very spot. Then the laughter and anger that happened within these walls disappeared into the creeping sand of the unforgiving Mojave.

For a special few the desolation and emptiness spell freedom. That which is ugly to most imparts the worn beauty of loss and abandonment to others. The new seekers fill the gaping void.  

One struggles to understand the dreams, the failure, and the loss. It’s sobering yet oddly freeing. You imagine a simplified existence with aloneness as your partner. There’s a raw history that permeates Wonder Valley. These skeletal remains continue to be reclaimed by an intrepid few.

The abandoned Jackrabbit Homesteads are forbidding on some level. There’s low-level fear and a palpable creep factor. What if this wreck isn’t empty?

Not everybody appreciates the unfinished stories of the Jackrabbit Homesteads. To some the abandoned relics sully the landscape. To these residents the ramshackle hulks are a blight that needs to be erased. There’s a grassroots effort to demolish the fallow cabins. The program has already raised $500,000 through a government grant to raze the empty homesteads. Already the owners of 113 of the 145 targeted shacks have agreed to tear them down on their own. The goal is to remove all the empty cabins within 18 months. The objective according to one of the organizers of the effort is “to give the impression that the place is clean.”

And so, like all things, the photographic inspiration provided by the Jackrabbit Homesteads may have vanished by the time you read this story. The silent message is that when you see a subject worth photographing and a story worth telling, do it then. It may not be there the next time you visit. Time waits for absolutely nobody.

This is a lightly edited version of my next article in Shadow and Light magazine.

1 comment:

Blacks Crossing said...

All that has transpired in your life recently - injury, physical therapy, and ultimate repair - have honed your writing into an utterly sublime art. How fortunate for us, as your blog readers, and the readers of Shadow and Light Magazine, that you are sharing your words. It is truly amazing that there are some 2,000 Jackrabbit homes on small plots of land in the Mojave, and that "The silent message is that when you see a subject worth photographing and a story worth telling, do it then. It may not be there the next time you visit. Time waits for absolutely nobody." And it is unfortunately the story of our times that some, seeking adventure or simply a roof over their heads, were residing there within the last five years. As you said, "the new seekers fill the gaping void". I also suspect that during the days of test pilots and military personnel post World War II at Twenty Nine Palms, these deserted homes of memories were places of wild behavior, suitable to the environment in which they are located. The photograph of the two chairs, one with the baby doll, were sitting nicely outside the house, as if the occupants had just left yesterday. Well done, Steve!