If you find yourself heading east out of Twentynine Palms on California Route 62, you'll quickly leave the "city," such as it is - scrappy, dusty, and a bit forlorn (with some hidden gems waiting for you to discover) - behind. You'll pass the Twentynine Palms Airport, where on days with good thermals you might catch a glider club in action, getting towed skyward and released to soar above the desert floor. You'll pass dozens of collapsing tiny houses - the jackrabbit homestead cabins of the mid-20th century, some still inhabited, as you roll through Wonder Valley.
You'll see remnants of the mining glory days of Old and New Dale to the south, where dirt tracks lead off into the mountains to old mines. And when you see the brilliant white of the dry lake bed to the north side of the highway, you can look for the sign for Ironage Road. The road transects the highway running north and south. If you pull off to the south, you can look for Erin's Garden, a simple memorial that breaks my heart every time I visit.
If you look southwest from the top of Erin's Garden, about six miles distant lies the mine shaft where her body was found. Her memorial lies in a spot of both incredible natural beauty, and careless human trashing of the desert. My latest visit discovered over a thousand butane canisters dumped in a small wash nearby by some drug operation (butane is used in processing hash oil to obtain a high THC content). But every visit I find new additions to her memorial and it's consoling in a small way to know that those who loved her in this life, lover her still.
Here is a story I had written in 2017 for my newspaper, The Joshua Tree Tortoise Telegraph
Even Wildflowers Can't Mask the Sorrow... of Erin's Garden
The Joshua Tree Tortoise Telegraph March 14, 2017
If you’re out east of Wonder Valley searching for wildflowers and the elusive Desert Lily, and you happen to wander just south of Route 62 near Ironage Road, you may stumble upon a modest memorial that is both beautiful, and sad. A small concrete bench proclaims you have arrived at Erin’s Garden, on the top of a lonely hi-desert hillock, with a rock circle laid out to the south.
For those of us who lived here during the desperate search to find missing 19 year-old, Erin Corwin, we don’t need a reminder as to why this place is sacred. Erin was young – far too young – to have met the fate she was dealt, alone, out here east of Twentynine Palms. The wife of a Marine stationed at the Air Ground Combat Center Twentynine Palms, Erin was reportedly having an affair with another Marine, Corporal (former) Christopher Lee, and became pregnant, possibly with his child.
In 2014, Lee murdered Erin by strangling her, then he threw her body down a 140-foot vertical mine shaft out in the hills near here. He probably thought that was that.
It took about two months of extremely dedicated searching before she was found. Groups such as the Desert Dog Troglodytes, the Desert Dog Stomp Club, the Southern California Grotto, and The San Diego Grotto, who explore caverns and mines (very carefully – something you should probably not consider), and a host of search and rescue crews, all participated in the search for Erin (and our thanks to all who selflessly took to the back roads to find this young woman). Later, they helped establish this memorial.
The search for Erin covered 300 square miles, including more than 100 mine shafts in the hi-desert. Around 5,000 volunteer hours were spent searching for her. Mine shafts were of interest reportedly due to Lee’s Internet search history. He was arrested in Anchorage, Alaska, and found guilty of murder in November, 2016.
“Though we were praying for a different outcome, we are relieved to have this part of the investigation behind us and to be able to begin mourning the loss of our sweet girl. Please continue to pray for our family and that justice will be found for Erin.”
– a family post from the Locate Erin Facebook page
A 2013 profile photo of Erin Corwin from her Facebook page.
As you travel this lonely but beautiful stretch of Route 62, take a moment to look to the south as you pass Ironage Road, and say a prayer for Erin Corwin. And if you have time, stop here and look for this touching garden, where even wildflowers can’t mask the sorrow that inspired its creation.
A small wood plaque with an engraved horse lies under the bench, partially protected from the sun. It says, “And with your final heartbeat, kiss the world goodbye. Then go in peace and laugh on Glory’s side.”
Wherever you may be, Erin Corwin, we hope you’re laughing. It’s still difficult on this side of Glory, here in this world.