Eric Hamburg bought a house in this valley of wrinkled mountains and sugar-soft sand to escape life in Los Angeles and drink in the empty solitude only the desert can provide.
"I loved the peace and quiet. I loved the tremendous sky. I loved the heat in the summer," he enthused about his remote getaway outside Twentynine Palms. "It was like a safety valve for me."
FOR THE RECORD:
Wonder Valley: An article in the Jan. 5 Section A about tensions over off-roading in the desert community of Wonder Valley incorrectly stated the first name of resident Tom McEntire as John. —
But he quickly became aware of another way of life, one far less conducive to quiet meditation.
"You see them buzzing around all the time and they just come closer and closer," he said of the men, women and children who blast joyously through the desert on rattling dirt bikes and quad runners.
Some own homes in Wonder Valley, just as Hamburg does. But John McEntire's idea of a good time is charging about in a dune buggy exploring old mines.
"It's been a lifestyle for us," said the 73-year-old outdoorsman. "I bought the place in 1979 so my family could ride on established trails. We go out, pick a lunch spot and make sure we leave no trash behind. I enjoy the camaraderie."
As desert communities go, Wonder Valley is the real thing, an eclectic array of artists, retirees, certified desert rats and second homeowners. There are no strip malls, fast-food joints or other signs of homogenized America.
Houses are cheap and often come with five-acre lots. The dirt roads -- and they're nearly all dirt -- slice through a confusing hodgepodge of private land and Bureau of Land Management property.
Because the place attracts seekers of all kinds, there's a natural tension. But lately it's escalated into intimidation, threats and accusations of vandalism.
Things came to a head on Thanksgiving weekend when critics said marauding riders deliberately overran a historic site that they'd worked hard to restore.
"We are crestfallen because of all the efforts and energy we put into this and in a matter of two days off-roaders destroyed it," said Phil Klasky, president of Community ORV Watch, a group dedicated to curbing illegal off-roading. "It's a culture clash."
Ray Pessa, president of Friends of Giant Rock, which fights for off-roader rights, said law-abiding riders shouldn't be penalized because others flout the rules.
"I have run into these guys myself. They have cussed me out and kicked up dirt in my face," he said. "But off-roaders take in all walks of life. A lot of them just want to feel the wind in their face."
He and others in the off-road community have scoffed at Klasky's version of what happened at the Poste Homestead Natural and Historic Area. They prefer to call it the Chadwick Hog Farm after its former incarnation, and have insisted that its historical value has been inflated to restrict riding.
"I don't think there was any concerted effort to do anything, and I didn't see a lot of damage," Pessa said. "I saw a lot of tire tracks and a small amount of trash."
The 1923 homestead is a humble site, essentially two low adobe walls surrounded by a grove of tamarisk trees. That's all that remains of the home of David Poste, a former miner and justice of the peace, credited with running Twentynine Palms' first telephone exchange.
A recent visit found tire tracks crisscrossing the sand dunes. Earlier in the year, volunteers had strewn twigs to trap seeds and grow plants. Most were gone.
"They did as much damage as they could. It was deliberate," said Pat Flanagan, resource advocate for the Mojave Desert Land Trust, as she examined the dunes. "That's where the kangaroo rats are, the seed banks and lizards. As soon as you get tracks on a place, it's a long time until they are gone, sometimes years."
San Bernardino County Sheriff's Deputy Scott Andrews, who showed up to make a report, said, "We get calls for service for motorcycles and ATVs out here all the time. The people I see are either plain dumb or they don't know the law."
The Bureau of Land Management office in Barstow has seven rangers to patrol the 3.2 million acres of desert it oversees in the area.
"As long as people stay on existing trails, then it's OK," said Mickey Quillman, BLM chief of resources. "It's just the fact that they drove off road into the dunes where there are fringe-toed lizards and animal burrows. It's a limited-use area. You can drive cars and motorcycles on the roads, but you can't take vehicles into the desert -- and people ignore it pretty regularly."
Johnson Valley -- with more than 180,000 acres the country's biggest sanctioned off-roading area -- is 40 minutes away, he pointed out.
Gary Daigneault, news director and owner of KCDZ-FM (107.7) in Twentynine Palms, has closely monitored the battle between the two camps. He sees blame on both sides.
"You have the 'jerk factor' of off-road vehicle owners who have hurt their own sport," he said.
"But I also think Klasky's description of what happened at the Poste Homestead was blown way out of proportion."
Klasky, a professor of ethnic studies at San Francisco State University who spends four months a year in Wonder Valley, is public enemy No. 1 to riders here.
In 2006, his group helped push through a county ordinance aimed at off-roaders that tightened regulations on noise, dirt and trespassing and required groups of 10 or more to purchase a $155 staging permits before assembling on any property, including their own.
Klasky said he was once punched by a man on a quad runner when he tried to photograph him on his property. He said he and others who dare to stand up to off-roaders are routinely threatened.
"I have been the subject of anti-Semitic hate speech and racist remarks. Last year my property was vandalized, but I will continue to organize and speak out," he said.
His biggest critic is Dan O'Brien, a hot dog vendor who runs Mustard's Last Stand in Twentynine Palms and also operates the Cactus Thorns blog, home to his sharpest barbs.
Sometimes he calls Klasky a meddling outsider and environmental extremist. He's also used epithets and referred to him as a tinfoil hat-wearing ding-a-ling.
"These guys came to an area that is rough-and-tumble and they brought their ideas of a desert utopia with them," he said.
"But people here are saying we have a desert lifestyle that has worked for over a hundred years. It's like moving next to an airport and complaining about the jet noise."
O'Brien, 58, denies his highly charged rhetoric intimidates people.
"I walk the line. I tippy-toe on that line but I would never instigate violence," he said. He sees off-roaders as an embattled minority.
"We feel we have lost the desert and now we are being put on these little reservations," he said. "We are starting to feel like Indians."
The battle is far from over.
The San Bernardino County Board of Supervisors may remove the controversial staging permit from the off-road ordinance this month.
Klasky said he figures he can get at least 100 people to the board meeting.
Pessa, of Friends of Giant Rock, said he can beat that.
"I am going to flood that meeting with off-roaders," he vowed.