The Guardian, a UK newspaper, featured a travel article highlighting the wonder of the Mojave Desert:
From The Guardian
A murder is about to happen. Fifteen metres away from us, beside a bullet-ridden oil can, a coyote sniffs the air. My daughters stop the Indian Runner jog they have recently developed across the acres of unfenced Mojave desert, and watch. The victim-to-be, a clueless jackrabbit, sits between us and the coyote, among a family of quail, who are scrabbling for insects under a scrubby creosote bush.
"Stay still," I murmur, grappling in my pocket. I pull out my Swiss Army knife, and open it up. I know that coyotes rarely attack but best to be prepared.
"That's the corkscrew bit, Mum," my seven-year-old, Ruby, says.
"It's the only one I can do with my nails," I whisper.
Luckily for me, the wild dog decides none of us, not even the jackrabbit, is worth bothering about and trots off towards the San Gorgonio mountains 60 miles to the west, an image straight out of a Cormac McCarthy novel.
Eyes bright with the drama of the encounter, the girls run off, whooping. "Watch out for rattlesnakes," I shout, enjoying the novelty of saying the phrase as much as they do hearing it.
With hazards like these, I had to think long and hard before taking up a friend's offer to stay in her three-roomed cabin in this remote area of the southern Californian desert. "What if the kids get bitten by a scorpion/snake/spider?" our friends with children asked. "What on earth is there for them to do out there, anyway?"
It's not that I didn't consider all this – and indeed, add serial killers to the list. I had just reached a point where I couldn't take one more holiday where my husband and I had to shout at our pent-up city kids to stop disturbing the gîte owners next door, or queue for an hour to feed a lamb, or drive six hours to a rural Devon campsite to find the group next to us erecting a 15ft pirate flag and unloading a sound system. Remoteness, nature and relaxation were what we craved. The kind of American wilderness holiday we took before kids, that let us wind down properly. A place where they could let off steam without prompting someone to ask, as our elderly neighbour did recently, if we had "thought about getting Supernanny in".
Now, as I watch the girls running ahead, their hair thick with desert dust, I realise something miraculous has happened. Not only is this turning out to be the most relaxing holiday we've ever had, the girls, who a week ago screamed if they saw a spider in the bath, are currently hunting for tarantulas.
For a place with a name so evocative of images of Americana, Wonder Valley is largely undiscovered. Those who live here cherish its remoteness: the artists, Hollywood stars, retirees, LA city weekenders – and rumoured crystal meth runners – who hide out in cabins along its 830 miles of dirt roads. Not that Wonder Valley is concealed geographically; 1.4 million visitors stop just a few miles away each year to hike and climb in Joshua Tree national park, yet few explore an area that, from the highway, simply looks like a flat, arid expanse.
Come nightfall, however, and the secretive community reveals itself, the black desert strung with the soft glow of cabin lights. To the north, a marine base with 25,000 inhabitants shines like a space ship. "At least the marines will keep the serial killers away," my husband teases on our first night, as I nervously stick in earplugs to drown out the oddly overwhelming sound of complete silence.
As usual, we have arrived armed with a list of ways to entertain the kids. There is a children's museum in Palm Springs, an hour's drive away; hotels where we can swim; perhaps some horse riding. Then, on the first morning, we open the cabin door.
Sunshine explodes in. It takes a minute for our eyes to adjust to what we are seeing. Nothing. Outside, there is absolutely nothing. Between us and the Sheephole mountains, 20 miles off to the east, there are no houses, no trees, just sand dotted with creosote bushes and the odd homestead cabin, most of them derelict.
"Wow. Can we play out there?" my six-year-old, Eve, asks.
Can she? I try to hold my nerve. There's no point bringing them out here, I reason, if I apply my city-mother neurosis about dangerous-looking dogs and fast traffic. So I let them go, with warnings about not poking in the woodpile or under rocks, and idly start a 1,000-piece jigsaw I find in a cupboard, anxiously popping my head out the door every five minutes.
"Stop shouting!" I call at one point when they run past playing a game called "pretend to find a rattlesnake".
"Why – who's going to hear them?" my husband asks, opening a book.
Fair point. Our nearest neighbour is three miles away. Out here no one can hear them scream.
It turns out it is an illusion that there is nothing in the desert. We keep meaning to leave the cabin, we really do. But after three days, the car is still where we parked it the first night, I have finished my jigsaw, my husband has read his book. And the kids are still outside.
Freed from the restrictions of city living, they have undergone a strange transformation. They have taken to wearing Little-House-on-the-Prairie-meets-disco outfits that incorporate snow boots (in case of scorpions/snakes/spiders, they inform us wisely), long skirts, neon sunglasses and shiny cardigans. They have also transmogrified into two elderly American ladies called Lucinda and Amy, who live out the back in a newly constructed "clubhouse" made from rusted sun chairs, the bullet-ridden oil can and "cakes" made from the white quartz we find scattered everywhere.
"Hey, honeybunch," comes a call. It's "Lucinda", waving as she limps past on a stick.
The desert reveals itself to be a gold mine for their den. Each day we hike across the unfenced homesteads, donated in the 1930s to families prepared to work the land, but now mostly derelict. Old clothes, rusty cans and broken appliances litter their fronts. A forgotten plastic Christmas tree makes the girls' day. They drag it back to their den between them. We stop on the way when "Amy" spots coyote prints in the sand, and follows them. It wouldn't surprise me if she were skinning rabbits in a week's time.
Occasionally, we see another human: a lone jogger, or some desert riders on quad bikes. But it quickly becomes apparent that Wonder Valley residents respect each other's desire for isolation. The drivers of the pick-up trucks that pass down our dirt road once an hour keep their gazes steadily ahead, behind baseball hats and shades.
Although the days are relaxing, I wonder how the girls will feel about the dark, silent evenings out here. Back home, our terraced house is a fairyland of night-lights, the girls' bedroom doors wedged to very specific angles, fears of burglars regularly used as an excuse for not going to sleep. But it appears that facing real dangers has eliminated imagined ones. As each day ends, they lie on the porch doing feverish paintings of the sunsets that break above our heads in great scarlet and purple streaks. They take my iPhone outside and dance to Primal Scream, and search a starry sky for the plough. Their normal bedtime DVDs lie abandoned. Instead, they play dominoes by the fire before collapsing in black bedrooms where they sleep till late the next morning.
When the food starts to run out, we force ourselves to finally leave the cabin. The nearest town is Twentynine Palms, so we head there, stopping off to meet Jeff Hafler along the way. Jeff and his partner, artist Mikal Winn, own Moon Way Lodge, a two-bedroom B&B on a 10-acre patch hidden up another dirt road, as well as the on-site Beauty Bubble Hair Salon and Museum, which features 2,000 retro hairstyling objects.
"Welcome to the desert!" Jeff exclaims cheerfully. Their five-year-old son, Cash, whips the girls off in his electric car through mesquite and jojoba bushes to see his rabbits, while Jeff shows us round.
Although Moon Way Lodge wasn't built solely for families – indeed, its cool thrift-shop chic interiors are as likely to appear in style magazines and be used by movie stars on location – it gives parents the opportunity to enjoy the luxury of a solar-heated swimming pool, neighbours, complimentary breakfast and a loan of Cash's swings and slide. "I always say it's like sitting at the ocean," Jeff says, as we gawp at the guests' fire pit, which overlooks a 50-mile flat empty expanse of desert. "Cash lives here," the girls say astonished, running up to us. "He really lives here."
Inspired by Jeff and Mikal's decor, we spend the afternoon thrift-store shopping in Twentynine Palms. Unlike UK charity shops, these are sprawling yards of clothes, furniture, ornaments and household items, and keep the girls engrossed for an hour. They snap up Mexican lace dresses for a dollar and toys for a few cents. I buy presents to take home: a 50s cook's prayer wall hanging, and a plate covered in cacti and roadrunners.
We have to think twice about taking our wild desert children into a restaurant after days without human contact, but after vigorous hairbrushing, they are decent enough to avoid ejection from the 29 Palms Inn, which sits under shaggy fan palms in a natural oasis. It's the rumoured weekend hideaway of many an A-list rock star and actor. We're here for the food, however, much of which is grown in the inn's own garden.
The girls eat burgers while we tuck in to shrimp tacos with fresh salsa, all for $30, then browse the walls which display work by the town's numerous artists. I've already salivated over a diamanté jackrabbit by Mikal, that we passed in the 29 Palms Creative Center & Gallery earlier, so my willpower is low. Our lunch bill jumps significantly when I add a Home Sweet Home sign made by Christy Anderson from cut-up US state licence plates.
Back in the glorious quiet of the cabin, we make no effort to leave till almost the end of the week. Under a spidery ocotillo cactus, the girls build a fairy garden from pebbles painted with glittery nail varnish; they act out a wedding in their Mexican dresses; and stage complex musical productions that mix Bollywood, High School Musical and their school nativity play. Finally, we persuade them out to Joshua Tree national park to view the yucca palms almost unique to the high desert here, named by Mormon settlers after the biblical Joshua, arms raised in prayer to God to stop the sun setting.
Wistfully, my husband and I recall previous national park trips, when we headed off into the wilderness with our tent. A one-mile trail packed with tourist groups seems a shoddy replacement. The girls do us proud, though. They scramble up the over-large boulders with exciting names like "Skull Rock" and run amok among cacti.
It is sunset when I notice something strange. "Lucinda" is standing stock still, watching the beseeching arms of a thousand Joshua Trees turn black against a reddening sky. I wonder what she is thinking. Later, before bed, I finally attempt to wash a week's worth of stubborn desert dust out of her hair. Bracing myself for the usual screaming about shampoo, I realise she is standing quietly in the shower, her lips tightly held shut.
"What are you doing?" I ask.
"I've decided I'm not going to make a fuss about silly things any more," she says. "I'm going to grow up."
We lock the gate reluctantly behind us the next morning, and head off, each of us taking a little piece of desert calm with us, Supernanny apparently no longer required.
Netflights has flights from London to Los Angeles from around £390 rtn inc taxes. Twentynine Palms is about three hours' drive from LA. Alamo offers car hire from LA airport from around £10 a day.
Where to stay
A number of companies rent cabins in Wonder Valley, from basic two-room restored homesteads to artists' hideaways and larger houses with swimming pools. Joshua Desert Retreats (+1 310 558 5544) has properties near Twentynine Palms, from $900 a week or $500 for three nights (sleeping from three to 14; prices vary little irrespective of size). Moon Way Lodge (+1 760 835 9369) doubles from $120 B&B.