The first time I wound up in the Mojave Desert I was immediately struck by the various ways people managed to live off the grid, tangentially connected to society, playing by whatever rules appealed to them and then making up their own. It’s a wild and untamable landscape, a place where it is trivial to disappear. Depending on your outlook, the desert can appear both mystical and spiritual, filled with energy or power. Or perhaps it is just simply strange, remote, confusing, distracting, and possessed of a gritty beauty, a place where it is possible to be deluded into beliefs that are not your own.
For decades (maybe even a century) Southern California has been home to fringe religions from those grounded in New Age traditions to the strange breed of occultism which L. Ron Hubbard practiced in buttoned-down Pasadena before going on to found his own batshit cult—Scientology. And the desert seemed to me the perfect incubator for this sort of thought.
I’d visited a commune, or perhaps it was a cult—I will not weigh in—that a friend had grown up in way off the grid in a distant county that I’m not going to name. My friend’s father was the leader, a guru of sorts. And I was intrigued as to why so many lovely, talented, and seemingly “normal” people had chosen to follow him, to hold his beliefs as their own, and to do his bidding. And I was stuck by how easy it was to abuse this trust and manipulate those who adhere. I didn’t question or challenge the followers. But I wanted to understand them and still do. I guess part of me envies the stability and confidence of that sort of belief and trust.
I had no intention of ever writing about the experience of visiting that place. However, when I rented a cabin in the desert to isolate myself and write, my visit to the commune (or cult) kept coming back to me and eventually found its way into my story. Wonder Valley is a novel about redemption, about people seeking to overcome the mistakes of their pasts. And it soon became clear to me that a commune or a cult would be a terrific place for some of these stories to start—a place where a lost soul who has done something bad might turn up or where an innocent person, growing up in the naïve safety of supposedly nurturing environment, might accidentally go astray. In other words—a perfect place to examine the root of crime.
Ivy Pochoda is the author of Wonder Valley, published by The Indigo Press on 20th September. She is speaking at Festival America in London on 25th September. For tickets: http://festivalamerica.co.uk/