Feature: Falling to Heaven

Published April 2010 Vol. 14 Issue 4

by William Hillyard

photo by Preston Drake-Hillyard

In this THIRD installation of his series on Wonder Valley, William Hillyard explores two men’s lives as they intersect in the arid isolation of the Mojave Desert.

Night in Wonder Valley is vast and limitless; out there, no lights distract the stars. Looking up, you see infinity. The heavens shroud the earth with the dust of the Milky Way, the ancient pulse of countless stars in that eternity of darkness. Out there, the sky appears torn from the earth along the jagged silhouette of the mountains—those mountains, along with the dilapidated homestead shacks and the empty sand and scrub of the Wonder Valley floor, sink into a featureless black void. Late, in the calm of the deep night, you can find yourself out there in an ear-crackling silence, in a darkness without form. All you are is your breath rasping in your chest, your heart lub-dubbing in your ears. Life, the entirety of your existence, collapses to a mere spark, the briefest blush of daylight in an endless night.

Out there, with the cosmic canopy hanging heavy above, Tom Whitefeather sits in an old rocking chair staring out the open door of Raub McCartney’s rock-walled cabin into the night. Raub’s dusty, half-drunk jug of wine sits at his feet. The rock-walled cabin sits anchored to the flank of an island, a scab of weathered boulders, part of that inky nighttime silhouette rising from the barren basin of the valley. Whitefeather will make his bed on Raub’s antique settee behind the old rocking chair, wrapped in a blanket against the cold darkness of the rock-walled room. He never goes into Raub’s room; it sits just the way they left it, with the boxes overturned, the bed covered with clothes and photos. They left it with the closet door sprung open, the contents spilling out onto the floor. They left it with the box fan on the floor and the bullet hole in the wall.

Tom Whitefeather stands outside Raub Mc Cartney’s rock walled cabin in the mojave desert.

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Feature: Where is 'Away'?

Published November 2009 Vol. 13 Issue 10

by William Hillyard

photos by Guillermo Arias

Tanker truck delivers water in Tijuana neighborhood

At low tide, you could walk to Mexico, around the crusty palisade of the border fence, without even getting your shoes wet.  The thinnest can slip between the stakes, as kids do, dashing into America—‘look at me, mom!’—and slipping back again over the line.  The Pacific’s relentless waves and salt spray have long ago eaten the fence’s metallic flesh, leaving a disheveled skeleton of rusty spikes, 12 feet tall, like the broken and bent teeth of a giant scaly comb.  Dogs wander back and forth, around the pickets of steel—sections of railroad track actually, driven endwise into the sand—and sniff the cluttered beach, crossing the invisible line, the abstraction of the international border.  

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Personal Profile: Laying Tracks with Jack McConaha

Published October 2009 Vol. 13 Issue 9

by William Hillyard

Jack McConaha answered my knock in a white t-shirt.  “Come on in; have a seat,” he said.  “Say hello to the kids.”  

His ‘kids,’ two toy poodles, yipped at me from the side of the king-size bed that practically fills the windowless living room of his sprawling Wonder Valley cabin.  The dogs’ bed and food and water bowls sat in the rumpled covers.  The whoosh of the swamp coolers covered the room with a blanket of white noise, reducing the TV at the foot of the bed to a murmur.  

Jack disappeared to finish dressing.  “Must have picked up a nail,” he shouted from deep within the warren of the house.  “I checked the air in my tires this morning and one was a little low.”  It seemed he was continuing a conversation that had begun before I arrived.   “Don’t matter,” he went on, “it’s just down a couple of pounds.”  

Chatting constantly, he told me he doesn’t like the Firestone tires that came on his new patrol Jeep.  He’s going to replace them, he said; get BF Goodriches—they self-seal if you get a puncture.

Jack reentered the room dressed for his desert patrol; summer weight camouflaged fatigues—Marine Corp issue—draped from his short, stout frame, a 40-caliber Smith and Wesson on his hip.  The tin badge on his breast designated him “Captain of Security.”

Jack’s hand, resting on the grip of his pistol, showed the faint scars of the welding accident that earned him his lifetime of disability checks, the money he has lived on for his nearly 40 years in Wonder Valley.  

He came to this hardscrabble desert enclave when it was still largely peopled by pioneering “jackrabbit homesteaders” brought to this area by the Small Tract Homestead Act of 1938, which carved Wonder Valley into five acre parcels free for the taking.  All you had to do was to “prove up” your parcel: clear the land, build a cabin.  When Jack arrived here in the early 1970s, some four thousand cabins flecked this remote patch of desert.  These days only a thousand or so still stand—and half of those sit vacant.  The remaining few house the snowbirds and retirees, artists and writers, drifters and squatters that live out here along Wonder Valley’s nearly 400 miles of washboard roads.

Jack volunteered as a fireman when he first arrived; even did a stint as chief of the area’s small all-volunteer brigade.  Now he’s the one-man security force patrolling the valley’s lonely roads.  Some people come to these abandoned cabins and empty desert from “down below,” from L.A. and that mess down there by the coast, to cook up drugs or dump a dead body or just wander out into the saltbush scrub and blow their own brains out.  Jack told me about the Wonder Valley man he came upon, standing in the sandy lane, bashing his wife’s head with a rock. He told me about the meth labs he busted, the all night stakeouts, the search and rescues.  He told me about the people he’s helped, how they tell him how much they appreciate what he does.  He talked of the commendations he’d been awarded, citations, newspaper clippings, the luminaries he met in the line of duty as the self-appointed guardian of this remote corner of the Mojave Desert.  

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Feature: Wonder Valley

Published July 2009 Vol. 13 Issue 6

by William Hillyard
photos by Preston Drake-Hillyard

You might have passed through here, maybe.  Out for a drive with time on your hands, you might have taken the long-cut to the casinos of Laughlin, Nevada from the soulless sprawl of Los Angeles.

You’d have driven way beyond the outer reaches of suburbia, beyond its neglected fringe of citrus groves, past the outlet malls and the Indian casino, past remote Joshua Tree National Park and the Twentynine Palms Desert Combat Center, past the Next Services 100 Miles sign and any reason anybody really drives out this way.  You’d have blown through here at 60 miles an hour, probably, along a forgotten remnant of the old Route 66, its potholed and corrugated tarmac the only asphalt for miles.  If you were messing with your radio, fiddling with your phone, you might not have even noticed the grid of washboard tracks scraped from the sparse hardscrabble of greasewood shrubs in this nowhere corner of the Mojave Desert.  

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