‘Solar-powered orgasms are unbelievable’: why I went to dwell in a desert cave | California holidays

When Jesus was within the desert for 40 days, the satan tried to lure him off observe by tempting him to show stones into bread. This appears a bit tame on the satan’s half. Mendacity round in my cave within the Mojave desert, California, at three within the afternoon in 38C (100F) warmth, my meals fantasies revolve round fish and chips and roasted meat.

Different afternoon actions embrace gazing on the boulder that appears like a dinosaur with a cheeseburger for a mouth that stands reverse the doorway to my cave. And orgasms. My $99 (£70) photo voltaic panel does a terrific job at recharging my cellphone and my vibrator. Solar-powered orgasms in a prehistoric cave – as rabbits hop previous and lizards scuttle throughout rocks – are unbelievable, particularly should you’ve eaten a marijuana gummy bear beforehand.

It was creatures that bought me into the cave within the first place. Spiders to be exact. In June 2020, I visited a person referred to as Garth, who lives in a tipi, and mentioned that I’d like to maneuver into one among his caves, “as a result of I wish to conquer my worry of spiders”.

Garth’s tipi: his father purchased him 640 acres of California’s Mojave desert for $140,000 in 1980. {Photograph}: Philip Cheung/The Guardian

This was true. A couple of years in the past, I did a few “imaginative and prescient quests” within the Pyrenees – 4 days and nights immersed in nature, impressed by indigenous practices. On my second, I realised I used to be frightened of spiders, which in shamanic pondering signifies a worry of the female (the darkish, the damp, the hidden). It struck me that worry of spiders was bizarre. Why aren’t we afraid of, say, rabbits?

No matter. I had time on my fingers. It was June 2020. A UK citizen, I had lastly bought a visa to dwell within the US and based mostly myself in LA. However the Covid apocalypse began to rage and I wanted a break from my girlfriend. I used to be solely planning to be within the desert for a month. Forty days, truly. Like Jesus. I would as properly have an uncommon quarantine, I assumed.

I first found Garth’s place 10 years in the past whereas on vacation. I’d been doing Palm Springs fabulous for too lengthy, so I drove 40 miles north to an space they name the Excessive Desert. I requested an area shopkeeper if he knew of a “center of nowhere expertise”.

The Joshua Tree space of California is thought for its freethinkers. Its charms impressed the Rolling Stones and Jim Morrison to take LSD (Mick likened the vibe to Stonehenge), and close by in Landers, plane mechanic George van Tassel constructed the Integratron, a white-domed, acoustically good would-be time machine, following directions he claimed to have obtained from an alien who visited from Venus in 1953.

Garth, 77, appears as massive as one of many boulders on his 640-acre Shangri-la bubble. He places you in thoughts of Moses, Orson Welles, Grandpa Walton, the Jolly Inexperienced Big, Louis XIV and, often, the tempestuous Queen of Hearts from Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland.

Within the late Nineteen Seventies, he walked the US barefoot, wearing robes, believing within the guiding energy of “spirit”. He belonged to a distinct segment Christian organisation referred to as the Christ Household. He rode on freight trains, slept in bushes and met some fairly attention-grabbing individuals. However he was at all times being moved on. So in 1980, his father purchased him the land for $140,000. Fortunate Garth; and fortunate for us that he’s a beneficiant large who opens his backyard to all who want it.

For the previous 41 years, he has been residing in a tipi on his property, radiating the message: “Reside easy. It makes life loads simpler.”

Garth wearing a bright tie-dye T-shirt, a crown and costume jewellery, pointing at fish in a tank
Garth in his tipi: ‘He places you in thoughts of Moses.’ {Photograph}: Philip Cheung/The Guardian

The day I made my cave request, Garth was having lunch in entrance of his tipi. His big hand, laden with elaborate costume jewelry, held a fork that dug right into a plate of one thing that appeared like diarrhoea over lettuce leaves. It turned out to be boiled and pureed flank steak (a former Mormon, Garth doesn’t like something too fancy). His favorite garb is a tie-dye T-shirt, basketball shorts and a sombrero adorned with paper butterflies.

My palms began to sweat as I waited for his reply. He lastly appeared up, held me along with his inexperienced and yellow eyes, and mentioned: “I used to volunteer in a psychological hospital. Folks had horrible tooth. Puree the meat. Puree the cake. Puree every part.”

He smiled. “I assume I nonetheless am in a psychological hospital.”

“Oh?” I mentioned.

“Besides in hospitals they attempt to treatment you. This land heals you.”

I wasn’t positive what he meant. However Garth mentioned I may keep, so I wandered off, questioning what my illness could be.


The cave is made up of two massive boulders that hug one another. Inside, it’s concerning the measurement of my previous bed room in London, solely it has curves and cracks and pure arches, and is fabricated from golden granite, virtually the precise hue of rattlesnake pores and skin. Flecks of black within the white sand are literally rat crap; there’s one facet that has darkish crevasses; and on the wall behind my mattress (a wood board lodged on stones) is a messy-looking spider’s net. This time final summer season, I’d pull it down every single day, however then the subsequent day it could be up once more. I realised I knew nothing about spiders. Are there female and male spiders? How do they meet? What would I do once I ultimately noticed one? Kill it?

Stephanie Theobald sits on her bed – a board balanced on stones – in her cave.
Stephanie Theobald sits on her mattress – a board balanced on stones. {Photograph}: Philip Cheung/The Guardian

Pxl is a California artist who has lived in a spectacular cave close to mine for the previous 5 years. Generally known as “the boulder home”, it makes you consider The Flintstones meets Studio 54 through 2001: A Area Odyssey. Pxl gave me a pep speak on my first night time, saying that after a when you be taught which rustling sound is which: lizard rustle, rabbit rustle, chipmunk rustle, rat rustle. Really, at this level I’d determined to consider them as mice. Rat made me consider big James Herbert rodents that gouge your eyes out, whereas “mouse” appeared like a maternal Beatrix Potter character in a floral apron.

Pxl produced a black plastic field and informed me to maintain my meals in it so the rats didn’t eat it. When he had gone, I flashed my torch below the bottom of the board mattress. Then I talked to the cave and the creatures.

“Good day everybody,” I mentioned, with a wobbly bravado. “Thanks for letting me keep in your cave. Please be sure there’s not an excessive amount of motion tonight.”

Sleep was fitful. I awakened each hour, ready for the monsters to come back. After which, round 4am, I felt one thing on my head. I ripped the sheet again and noticed what I assumed was the shadow of a rodent. I made an “Eek!” sound like a cartoon character in an apron who will get on a chair and screams when she sees a mouse.

I doubt the nuns noticed this coming. I went to a convent faculty in Cornwall through the Nineteen Seventies and early Nineteen Eighties, and that definitely put me off faith. For my skilled profession, I moulded myself into a distinct kind of rock chick, working in way of life journalism: vogue, movie star interviews, events. In 2004, I used to be appointed society editor of Harper’s Bazaar, and flew method too near the dazzling flame. I ended up in a scandal and was known as the “infamous lesbian writer” in gossip columns. By my mid-40s I used to be burnt out and sick. What I’m doing now isn’t so completely different from my earlier life: they’re each about extremes.

Stephanie Theobald prepares a meal at the outdoor kitchen.
The outside kitchen. {Photograph}: Philip Cheung/The Guardian

The reality is that the desert is each heaven and hell. In some methods, it’s your residing nightmare. All these creatures in your scariest goals truly exist: take “stink bugs”, massive, black beetles whose superpower is squirting a foul-smelling liquid from their bottoms at their enemies. Extra appalling, although, is that even the creatures which individuals again in civilisation assume are cute are literally terrifying. Take hummingbirds. They hover proper in entrance of you, like feathered sardines with their needle beaks pointing proper at your eyes, daring you to flinch.

However the reward for getting by means of the night time is the morning. There aren’t any curtains to open or zips to undo, no “going exterior” in any respect: just like the mice and the spiders and the stink bugs, I discover myself already within the coronary heart of a world bathed within the clearest of pure mild.

I stroll out of my cave and all the way down to the Valley of the Kings, as I name it. There aren’t any homes, no individuals. Some assume the “wild west” nonetheless exists within the US, nevertheless it’s laborious to discover a place the place you may see for miles and miles with out human habitation. At Garth’s, it may very well be the 1800s, or 10 million years in the past – or 100 years into the longer term.

Stephanie standing on the rocks above her cave
‘I discover myself within the coronary heart of a world bathed within the clearest of pure mild,’ says Stephanie. {Photograph}: Philip Cheung/The Guardian

It feels as if a large walked this fashion, scattering big stone eggs as he went. It’s a unprecedented ocean of shapes and attitudes: winking eyes and gaping mouths and goofy smiles. On the backside of the sandy path is a boulder escarpment that appears like a huge organ in a cathedral with a 1,000-year-old pine tree rising from its pipes. Earlier than it’s even 6am, I would see a coyote or the again of a rabbit that makes me shout out “Bunny!” as if I’m a 10-year-old over again.

There’s no higher place to grasp the Lakota nation philosophy of mitakuye oyasin. It means “all my relations” and signifies that we’re all linked: those who fly, those who crawl, those who swim, the rocks, the timber, the vegetation, the two-legged, the four-legged. The eight-legged.

Once I informed mates I used to be going to dwell within the desert, a few of them informed me I used to be mad. They mentioned the rattlesnakes would get me. However that’s extra two-legged behaviour. Animals are a lot much less calculating. At Garth’s you be taught to dwell alongside them. Kind of.

Stephanie waters tomato plants
Stephanie waters tomato vegetation: full-time residents work two hours a day for his or her maintain. {Photograph}: Philip Cheung/The Guardian

It’s important to work out your homicide coverage within the desert. Pxl loves kangaroo mice, and he’ll watch them scamper round his cave with me as he complains concerning the quantity of sugar they’re placing in vegan gummies today. (First world California issues.) It seems that desert rats are fairly candy. Not like metropolis rats in any respect.

However then I got here in sooner or later and Pxl mentioned he’d shot a squirrel with an airgun. It died, “like a cowboy in a film”, he mentioned, doing an impersonation of a squirrel careering backwards with its paws within the air. No person within the desert appears to love squirrels. “They decide meals up and throw it away,” Pxl says. “They’re like dangerous neighbours.”

Artwork in the boulder house: a hand holding a crystal
Paintings within the boulder home. {Photograph}: Philip Cheung/The Guardian

There are about 12 full-time residents. We work two hours a day for our maintain: pruning fruit timber, constructing greenhouses, rat-proofing every part, maintaining Garth firm. Once I first got here, I realised I didn’t know something very sensible other than “righty-tighty, lefty-loosey”. Generally I felt actually misplaced.

A month after I arrived I had a showdown with one of many longtime members, who informed me I ought to be paying to remain right here. However relations have been restored once I threw myself extra into group life. Due to my gradual renown because the writer of a memoir about self-pleasure, the youthful individuals check with me as “the masturbation woman”.

Each morning, residents meet up for inexperienced juice. We’re an attention-grabbing demographic. Greg, 39, is a navy veteran who turned hooked on OxyContin. His wake-up name occurred when his finest good friend died from an overdose final 12 months. “The outside and the spirituality” have been his saving graces. Victor is in his 80s. A self-styled “metaphysician” who has been right here from the start. Loni, 61, is the bizarre scarecrow man and the precious idiot of the courtroom. Clay, 43, seems to be at first sight like a gangland boss along with his tattooed head, however has the guts of a teddy bear and a soul renewed by the research of shamanism.

Stephanie and Carey Ann play a piano together.
Stephanie and Carey Ann play the piano. {Photograph}: Philip Cheung/The Guardian

Kyle, a former vogue photographer, manages the place and is enthusiastic about uncooked consuming. There may be at all times salad to eat. I dwell on avocados, grapefruit, bananas, peanut butter and a pizza blowout as soon as every week once I drive to city. Birdman Rick, who has been right here for 20 years, takes care of the chickens and peacocks. He began bringing a rattlesnake he’d befriended, Alfredo, as much as the inexperienced juice mornings. This didn’t go down too properly with a number of the communards. There’s no HR at Garth’s, simply massive shouting matches. They have an inclination to blow over, just like the desert climate, which by no means stays the identical for lengthy.

There have been days, again once I first arrived final June, when no one appeared to love me right here, and but my mates and my mother and father on the skin would provide me a lot love, and I assumed, why the hell am I staying? I assume the reply is: the silence, the house, the sense of “Spirit”.

Ramona performs a sound bath.
Ramona performs a sound tub. {Photograph}: Philip Cheung/The Guardian

But when Garth’s is a hospital, then the desert herself is the largest affected person of all. In the summertime she’s a hot-blooded mistress, however within the winter she’s a deranged attention-seeker screaming with wind. At some point I’ll be shivering in seven layers (T-shirt, cashmere jumper, thermal prime, hoodie, rabbit-skin jacket and overcoat) and the subsequent I’m sunbathing. Within the depths of winter, I put a tent up within the cave. Issues have been confused by the truth that my menopause had kicked in, so I’d get scorching flushes and take off layers – after which Mademoiselle Desert would get the ice again in her coronary heart and I’d need to crawl again into my thermals once more.

Each time I’ve to depart the cave to go to LA, I make a beeline for the fridge. I shovel numerous dairy merchandise into my mouth. Then there’s the fun of indoor plumbing; ablutions that don’t contain a shovel and digging a gap. And air-con. And mirrors. I uncover that a few of these age spots are literally dust.

And but the place is the lizard? The place is the cheeseburger dinosaur? The place is the large’s backyard? And so I return.


I’ve been right here greater than a 12 months now, gone the quarantine I had initially supposed. A few US mates have come to go to. One did a brisk stroll spherical after which mentioned he had dinner plans in Palm Springs. The opposite ooh-ed and ahh-ed and took pictures, however then the ice ran out and she or he bought hungry and grumpy.

Carey Ann, the wildcard Palm Springs hairdresser.
Carey Ann, the wildcard Palm Springs hairdresser. {Photograph}: Philip Cheung/The Guardian

When individuals ask me once I’m leaving, I’m wondering: if I’d simply moved into an condominium, would they maintain asking? My reply is to take a look at the board you see if you enter the gates. It says “Welcome Dwelling”. And I do really feel an irresistible sense of belonging right here. My mom began out by saying issues like, “You’ll be able to’t be on vacation for ever, you recognize.” However today she’s extra considering understanding if the gopher has come again to the cave, and what a coyote seems to be like, precisely.

I often converse to mates within the UK on the cellphone. When my girlfriend and I cut up up, for example (I really like the desert; she loves LA), I spoke to one among my oldest mates in London, and it felt nice to be comforted by somebody who actually knew me. I’ve skilled unimaginable love and camaraderie from my fellow communards once we’re “in our move”, as we are saying right here, however once we’re not, it may well really feel lonely. That’s the place the lizards and the timber and the stink bugs are available in. You’ll be able to be taught loads from a stinkbug. Take it slowly. Be taught to be alone. Have a thick pores and skin.

However there’s nonetheless the query of spiders. I lastly noticed one. Within the cave. She was massive. She was white. She jogged my memory of a child rabbit. Pink pores and skin beneath, and white fur on prime. She additionally resembled a horrifying crab. “That is it. That is the second,” I stored pondering as my coronary heart pounded. And the longer I checked out her, the extra I wished to the touch her. To see if I may perceive her higher. So I did, and she or he scuttled off below the rock beneath my pillow. Principally, I’m sleeping on a spider’s nest.

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“So what did she really feel like?” Carey Ann, the wildcard hairdresser from Palm Springs requested the subsequent morning at inexperienced juice.

“She felt … ” I assumed for a bit. “Unknowable.”

She shrugged. “My mom was frightened of spiders. I used to be at all times killing them for her.” Then she paused. “Possibly you simply have to just accept that you simply’re petrified of spiders.”

I finished consuming the juice. I’d by no means considered this selection. My progress within the hospital continues.

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