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Reclaiming the Desert : New Breed of Homesteaders (With Their Cappuchino) Tries to Settle in the Mojave--but Not All Stay

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

There’s a signpost up ahead: 40th and Plumb.

It is surrounded by miles of empty desert--no shade, no trees, not a structure in sight. It sums up its own location, 40 miles from nowhere, plumb in the sticks.

Marty Pendleton, a 52-year-old vegetarian and former Angeleno in an Adidas running suit, and his wife, Jeannette, a petite blond with an interest in interior design, live down this dirt road that seems to stretch straight into the distant foothills.

They are part of a second generation to settle remote areas of the California desert. They have bought their cappuccino machines and CD collections and picked up where most of the original homesteaders gave up. They have added a new element to regions that have a reputation for being the prime stomping grounds of hermits, survivalists and wannabe drug lords.

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Tiny homesteader shacks, looking like houses in children’s crayon drawings--square boxes with a roof, usually painted improbable sherbet colors--still dot the Mojave Desert. They are remnants of people who tried to “prove up"--to build the minimum structure and live on the land the five years required to win a deed from the government, either under the original homesteading laws or the Small Tract Leasing Act, which ended in 1976.

Mostly, they didn’t stay.

“Conditions were just too harsh,” said Julia Dugan, the region’s Bureau of Land Management manager. “Some of those people thought it was just a matter of time until urban Southern California was at their doorstep, but that didn’t happen. And there they were in the middle of the desert.”

The homesteaders left their shacks vacant, abandoning them as prime property for drug labs and chop shops far from prying eyes. But then people who think the middle of the desert is the most beautiful place on earth started moving in.

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“Now, 25 years after the lands were first parceled, they’re being used as they were intended--as home sites,” Dugan said.

The Pendletons’ house--20 miles from the small town of Yucca, where real estate agents point to a new stoplight as a sign of growth, and 10 miles past the remote hamlet of Landers, known for its frequent UFO sightings and earthquake aftershocks--is one of the original homesteads

In 1976, reeling from a divorce and frustrated with his life as an insurance executive in Los Angeles, Pendleton bought the house and surrounding five acres from the original homesteader for $4,250.

There was no septic tank, no water lines, but for Pendleton there was serenity in the unpopulated plains outside his front door.

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The house is Charles Manson ranch on the outside, Martha Stewart inside. A broken screen door leads into a small, three-room house of well-designed furniture, Spanish tile and matching toss pillows. The outhouse has given way to modern plumbing, but water--even to flush the toilet--is delivered.

“It’s like Sparkletts, only they pull up in a 2,000-gallon truck,” Marty Pendleton said.

They drive 1 1/2 hours to jobs waiting tables in the Palm Springs resort area.

“People always say we’re crazy,” Jeanette Pendleton said. “But we have no rent, no mortgage and we have this view, while they pay $800 a month for an apartment. Who’s crazier?”

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In the less remote but similarly rural area of Sky Valley north of Palm Springs, Eddie Bates lives in a white gabled house he built with his wife and two young sons while they camped out for more than a year.

“I had a good business in Arizona that fell with the crunch in the ‘80s,” he said. “We moved to California knowing you could always get a good job here. But it wasn’t true.”

Bates liquidated and bought a homestead shack and five acres 30 minutes from Palm Springs for $28,000. The torn-up shack had water and power lines but no roof.

“It was great. The outhouse was functional and we didn’t owe the bank,” he said. “We figured we just had to dig in and rebuild.”

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Bates remembers the days when he would drive his family through this area on their way to vacations in lusher California destinations.

“We’d come flying through that Banning-to-Blythe stretch and say, “Who in their right mind would live in this dust bowl? But I love it.”

It’s hard to explain, he says, but the desert grows on you.

“It looks barren but it sustains life. It sustains our life,” Bates said.

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The vastness of the desert seems to absorb the few homes. There’s a stillness uninterrupted either by traffic or a breeze in the trees. There are no trees.

The quiet is what lured Todd King. A year ago King, an event planner and floral designer, bought a stripped, abandoned house scarred with graffiti and awash in discarded drug paraphernalia, remnants of a methamphetamine lab. He transformed it into a home filled with artwork and headquarters for his business.

“I own another house in the middle of nowhere in Montana, but there’s squirrels and birds and lots of noise,” he said. “The desert is the only place that’s dead, still quiet,” he said. “Sometimes it’s so quiet that it stops you. You’d swear time itself stopped.”

Many desert residents do want to stop time, or at least, slow the march of urbanization. They fight against paved roads and improved water service.

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“You don’t want it to be a place for everyone,” Pendleton said. “I really do have this recurring nightmare where they build a Holiday Inn next door.”


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