Invitation at Desert’s Edge

AZ West

Written by Forde Visser
Photographed by Laure Joliet

With the descriptor “experimental,” Andrea Zittel inserts a question into one’s visit to the Wonder Valley Experimental Living Cabins. 

Although far off the beaten track, and also completely off the grid, staying in a one-room cabin at the edge of the Mojave Desert in California is not a retreat, not a weekend get-away.  Instead it is an opportunity to reconsider assumptions about how to live—with what resources, relationships, responsibilities.

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The 3-hour drive from Los Angeles provides a transitional space, albeit fast-forward; even at 5:00 am, the route is throbbing with traffic. Six eastbound lanes of Interstate 10 become a metaphor for what ties me here—the energetic mesh of family, the routine of work; at 70 mph, there is an almost visceral sense of those connections stretching and then relaxing.

Two hours into the trip, I turn onto the Morongo Valley Highway; the change of direction is also a change of orientation, announced by a ranging crease of wind turbines standing like the Gates of Argonath in Lord of the Rings. The highway settles into a valley and then passes ruler-straight into the broad expanse of desert, intervaled by desert towns. In Joshua Tree, I stop for breakfast at the Crossroads Café (Al Stewart is singing “Year of the Cat”) and for provisions at the local health food store (which is actually a health foods store and not an Amazon Whole Foods).

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Located a 40-minute drive east of A-Z West, at the edge of the Mojave Desert, the two Wonder Valley Experimental Living Cabins are in sight-line, and (perhaps) ear-shot of each other, but not of much else.

They were originally built as part of the Small Tract Homestead Act of 1938; Zittel has remade them both for her own use and “to allow others to experience my works in their original context –something that is generally impossible in ordinary museum or gallery settings.” A-Z West staff member Elena has driven with me out here, orients me to off-grid protocols and leaves me with water, linens, cooler, gas lamps, camp stove and sawdust for the composting toilet.

Read the whole article in issue no.11

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