A road trip – and retreat – full of personality

By Michael Collins

Los Angeles CityBeat – September 13, 2007

Dawn in Desert WonderlandWe were roaring up Highway 62 through charred desert mountains toward the outer fringe of the Los Angeles apocalypsphere in a candy apple red 1969 Ford Fairlane Cobra fastback with a throaty 428 four-barrel engine pumping out 335 horsepower. Dawn cranked up the REO Speedwagon while shouting over it as she redid her baby blue eyeshadow and pink metallic lipstick, spilling coffee down her tank top and miniskirt as she pulled on a menthol, howling with delight.

“There!” she screamed. “That’s where we burnt down that trailer when we fucked up the last batch of crank and this meth-tard fuck flicked his cigarette in the shit, and the whole fuckin’ thing went up like a Roman candle, and we had to get the fuck outta … ”

When it’s time to flee L.A., flee it fast and head for nowhere. Dawn rides shotgun well, though any of my performance-artist girlfriend Denise’s couple of dozen characters would make a fine traveling companion. Darla, the kindly cowgirl, was a natural, but D-bot complicated getting gas or food because she’s an alien droid hybrid. Darkness, the Goth beauty with five-foot black wings, would’ve fit in well with the wildfire-ravaged mountains, but her true home is Death Valley.

We were headed to Wonder Valley, just east of Twentynine Palms between the Marine base town and the endless expanse of the Mojave. Sweat streamed down my face as Dawn and I barreled along the road toward a solitary structure surrounded by scrub, red sand, and distant mountains on a broad alluvial pan that looked more like Mars than Earth.

Desert Wonderland Retreat had no telephone or TV and was in the middle of nowhere: perfect. And the price was right, less than that of a typical motel room in the geriatric oases that dot the high desert. The photos on the website sold us.Desert Wonderland

This was no ordinary desert dwelling. Its interior had been remodeled by artist/owner Perry Hoffman, a San Francisco transplant who had escaped “The City” five years before. The website showed extraordinary tile work that was accentuated by antique furniture, beaded doorways, and well-chosen kitsch underneath a roof of exposed hardwood beams. The place had a spacious kitchen and dining room with an old timber-hewn table.

After we booked the hideaway for the weekend, Hoffman sent us detailed directions leading down dirt roads to the retreat, where we’d find a hidden set of keys. Night fell as we passed a sign that read “Next Services – 100 Miles,” giving us pause to reflect on the limitless landscape.

“Mike, this reminds me of the time I was hitchin’ back to Barstow after those fuckers fired me at Cheetahs for kicking that guy in the nuts who tried to touch me, and I didn’t have any money for gas,” Dawn said, running her fingers through my hair. “Now pull this bad boy over and let me welcome you to the desert.”

Several sandy tracks later, we arrived and let ourselves into Desert Wonderland. The photos didn’t do the place justice – it was an eclectic collection of native folk and found art amidst elaborate tile and colorful stonework. A huge swamp cooler enveloped the place in cool in a matter of minutes. The big bed was covered in a velour zodiac quilt.Dawn hitchiking

Outside, we relaxed on a burnt brick patio, gazed at the black sky spiked with stars, and drank more coffee. The Milky Way never seemed so brilliant. A waning moon slowly rose over the Sheep Hole Mountains, bathing the stilled valley in effervescent light.

Dawn looked lovely. Her golden ponytail stuck out of the back of her USA baseball cap, a rhinestone cross dangled from her neck, and that white ribbed tank top barely covered the rough-and-tumble tattoos that adorned her back, including one of an eagle and black panther in a deadly embrace. Far below her tattered jean miniskirt, she wore cheap black heels with a broken strap. She was a crackup, and her squeals of delight danced through the cool desert air.

We looked into the inky, bejeweled night. The only signs of life were the distant headlights and dim roar of pickup trucks careening to God knows where.

“So what do you do out here in the desert?” I asked.

“Ah, Mike,” she said with a laugh, “We don’t do the desert – the desert does us!”