We had a tragedy here last week. It's hard to write about, but I want to remember and honor Mike McLaughlin, our Desert Handyguy, who died in a solo rollover accident the day before Thanksgiving. He was driving home to Joshua Tree after work and fell asleep. He was 32 and we had known him only five months, but he was our friend.
We first found Mike through the internet, when he came out to dig up our broken water pipe. He fixed the break by the well, I turned on the water in the kitchen sink (dry for over three months), it ran, we cheered, and then the water slowed to a trickle. Another break. Then Mike gamely RAN across the five acres from the house to the well (it was July, so about 105), looking for the wet spot. Over two days he fixed five breaks. This sealed the deal, the guy was a champ.
Besides his tremendous physical energy, Mike was a talker. When you told him something crazy, he'd say, "No way!" Sometimes you had to stop him because he could chat on and on, jumping from one subject to another. He told us all about his life with his chickens, horses, pig, and dog Pixie (who had cancer and later disappeared; Mike held on to hope that she'd been stolen, he just couldn't admit that she was gone). He was a surfer from OC, but had moved to the desert and loved life out here. He told us about his garden--planted too many trees resulting in $400 water bill--and fighting the pests, about his girlfriend and his crazy neighbors who were always up to no good (there's the rural poverty thing again). At one point he had to stop to take care of his dad who had heart surgery. Mike was a rescuer, even if he wasn't always careful about choosing his friends. He'd gotten into trouble earlier in life and was paying restitution now. He needed the money badly, so worked a lot. Too much.
He fixed a gray water situation for us, then organized crews to pick up trash by hand (the bull dozer we used earlier broke the water pipes). He earned our trust so we gave him the keys, and had him start on the bathroom, which was basically non-functional: rusted pipes, leaking cast iron tub, trip-over-toilet-tiny. He powered through the hottest months of August and September. The shower became a work of art. I laid out the tile samples and let him go. He incorporated rocks from the yard, creating clever visual compositions within the larger stall.
I love these text messages from Mike, they show his dry sense of humor and his kindness:
Mike was a photographer (he took the photo of the owl in our oasis) and a physical daredevil. He told us about hidden canyons and crazy trails. His Instagram is filled with surfing, his dog, and the outdoors. He was constantly helping people stranded in the desert, pulling vehicles out of ditches. He loved his truck and every time we paid him, poured money into it. He sometimes showed up looking like he'd been up all night working on it, with grease on his hands and face. He rarely ate. We worried about him, getting so thin. I left him and his buddies pizza in the freezer, and one day I made a plate of roast beef and broccoli, which he didn't touch.
We have many texts from him and he always said, "Thank you for everything." He was our guy and we told him to arrange everything and every one, and I think he liked the responsibility. He asked me about my painting, said he wanted to be an artist. His life wasn't easy but he lived fully. One of his last Instagrams says, "Use your health, even to the point of wearing it out. That is what it is for. Spend all you have before you die. Do not outlive yourself."
Thank you, Mike. And no way.
We are throwing our first big party--Thanksgiving on a Saturday--and friends and family are driving out to stay. It's a test to see how the property works with lots of people on it, and also a deadline to get projects done.
Here's the list of our major accomplishments over the seven months we've owned the property:
6 or so (lost count) large bigs of trash collected and removed
barn roof started (not finished yet)
well rebuilt, water restored to property
electric panel updated
front and side yards detrashed, enough to be raked
house roof patched
sunroom ceiling and insulation redone after leak
most rooms painted
bad RV removed, useful one set up
I’m starting to work minutely on the core of the farmhouse: a room we call the office, and the hallway. As I clean, scrape and paint, I uncover clues to the past residents—who they were and how they lived.
What we call our Desert Dairy was built in 1930 and 1932: two buildings recorded by San Bernadino County, a barn and a house. There are remnants of outbuildings that also served the dairy: an outhouse, a shed with a refrigerated room (with a wood door over 12” thick), and a secondary milking barn. There was water and the area must have been lush. I imagine a couple from the mid-west (Utah because we are off Utah Trail), pre-Dust Bowl, and pre-Homestead Act of 1938 (in which you could get 5 acres of land and build a 400 square foot Jackrabbit Homestead)—I think our acreage was originally larger to support a dairy farm.
Our original house was probably less than 600 square feet, and had neither bathroom nor electricity (explains why we have almost no light switches). A large porch wrapped around the eastern and southern sides, which was quickly enclosed. In fact, the original owners enlarged the house by 9’ on every side (like a donut), adding a bathroom and formal kitchen, and pushing the fireplace to the interior of the house, along with exterior windows and door openings. The basement, or root cellar, is dug out below the original house, and the trapdoor (a la Wizard of Oz), once on the exterior of the house, is now in the laundry room floor. And yes, it’s a bit scary.
The original farmhouse was painted green, and the trim was bright aqua and orange (super cool that we chose green and orange as our colors, without knowing this!). We are hoping to hold on to our beautiful fireplace, and saving as many details of the original building as we can.
Here are my imaginings on the past owners…
From 1930 to 1960 our property functioned as a dairy farm. With young children, they lived the rural life (the population of Twentynine Palms in 1970 was only about 5000), and then sold the farm because the water ran out and the children moved to LA. We found evidence of blacksmithing, canning, old milk crates… but this family remains in shadow for me.
The next family that moved in was the one that sold the property to us. The owner was four years old when she moved to the property, and she sold it to us in her late 60s. Her father and brother were miners, which explain the abundance of exotic rocks all around the house. Her father was also an artist, and made plaster and concrete casts.
Today I scrubbed the narrow hallway which includes the original closets with wallpapered cabinets: up high they were blackened with cigarette smoke, and low they were covered with splashes of coffee and dirt. I imagine all the encounters that occurred in that hallway: early morning bumping and late night drunken brawling. You can’t pass without rubbing shoulders. But I’m grateful to have the original panels, which I love.
All the original doors are still in the house, including pocket doors that separate the living room from the kitchen. Solid paneled doors are pocked and gashed with living that sometimes looks violent. As the second family sunk into poverty, life became hard. There is evidence of culture--we found encyclopedias and sets of china in the yard--but we saw fear, too—the master bedroom had multiple bolt locks on the door, as if the owner barricaded herself in.
This is not a luxurious house, by a long shot. It’s a hard-working, tough-living house that is dusty and beyond worn, but still functional. Drama and pain happened here, you can feel it. But people also loved the simple life—they sat around bonfires, they dreamed of finding gold, they raised children whose names are still on paint cans in the shed. In the end, they sold their property as a trash dump and rented space to drug addicts in order to survive.
We’re going to do better.
the office, with hand painted floor inspired by hallway panels.
The hallway, patched and cleaned up.
As you have all read, when we got this place there was about 40,000 pounds of trash on it. We needed 8 large dumpsters to get most of the big stuff off the property and we still have a pile of tires and many broken TV sets, but the place does look better and you can for the first time get an actual view of the property. But, once the big trash was gone that left the small trash. Small broken piece of glass and plastic, decomposing books and catalogs, wires from old electronics and whatever else you can think of that can breakdown or degrade into small pieces. The property is a microcosm of the ocean. Small pieces of plastic everywhere and when you try to grab them they breaks into even smaller pieces.
Anna loves this rehab process but I will admit this whole desert exercise stresses me out to no end, but I do enjoy just raking the sandy soil to try to clean up all the small stuff that is hiding there. It is a very zen-ish process for me. I also feel as if I am becoming some sort of archeologist. Ted Meyer - Desert Archaeologist. I start by raking the top layer if sand and then I go deeper and rake down a few more inches where I find an entirely different layer of remnants. If I revisit the same patch of soil 2 weeks later after the wind has blown I could re-rake the exact same place and find totally new layer of artifacts.
Today I spent about 4 hours raking dirt..
Here is a selections of some of my favorite things that were hiding in plane site.
Ted and I both love vintage things and shop at thrift and second-hand shops. So it makes sense that at the Desert Dairy we resolve not to buy new, but reuse, recycle and up-cycle--intensified by the guilt we feel about the amount of trash we are sending to the landfill from this property.
It just so happens that the desert is famous for its second hand shops, both down below and here. Today I took Ted to a shop I've been in once before in 29 run by a lady from Maine (who hates the desert), her husband (who loves it) and their dog. Since we're prepping for a big Tday feast, I found several platters, some pie tins, and other baking essentials. We also bought sweaters because it's getting chilly!
Sadly, a few days ago our worker's small dog got attacked by a coyote on our property. She was bitten several times in the neck but managed to escape. Hopefully she'll recover, but I have to stop allowing my dog free reign outside, even during daylight.
We've been waiting and waiting for it to be cold enough to start a fire. Finally. This fire pit was actually laid by the previous owners, under a pile of trash. The tamarisk are coming back and actually start to look romantic. We spent the day picking up trash (what else), and planted two new trees: a mesquite and a palo verde. Slowly, slowly.
I went to the Hwy 62 Open Studios tours the Sunday after the big floods. I stayed in the far east, visiting the 29 Palms Gallery to see my friend Ben Allenoff's show (wonderful sculptor working with rust stains), a gallery in an old car mechanic shop, a kids' school in an old motel, and two homesteads out in Wonder Valley. The photos show the homesteads, a lovely place filled with antiques from the 40s, and a crazy mosaic house. I also visited Cybele Rowe's giant outdoor ceramics in Yucca.
Basically my abbreviated tour confirmed what I've already begun to suspect: the artists working out in the desert are the real deal: authentic, devoted, friendly, and unaffected by the market. I can't wait to be a part of it!
Anna does most of the writing. Ted does most of the photos. But sometimes we switch. We are repairing a distressed property in 29 Palms, California, and eventually hope to run an artist residency there.