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Alison Carroll explores the creative boost that comes from deafening silence

 

It began, as so many desert stories do, with an overheated radiator.

Alison Carroll and her husband, Jay, were passing through Joshua Tree when, perhaps fortuitously, trouble struck. In most cases, the idea of breaking down in the inhospitable sands of the Mojave would be cause for grave concern. But California Highway 62, which runs through Yucca Valley, Joshua Tree, and Wonder Valley, had something else in store for the duo.

The high desert had always called to them, even as their careers (as a creative director and photographer in Jay’s case and a food buyer and California olive oil advocate in Alison’s) kept them largely in San Francisco and Los Angeles. “It was a place we would always come back to, time and again, for deep periods of sun and rest, to shake loose new ideas and brainstorms that seem to happen so naturally in this vast open landscape,” Alison recalls. “Wonder Valley became our muse.”

They saw the hiccup as a sign. Before they knew it, they’d bought an old homestead cabin situated among the boulders on the border of Joshua Tree National Park. For the past year, they’ve been meticulously restoring it and carving out a perfectly curated space to be their home and studio. “We took it back to the studs, which gave us a blank canvas to work with,” Alison says. “We’ve long admired the homes of the greats: Rudolph Schindler’s Kings Road house, the Usonian homes of Frank Lloyd Wright, the living quarters of Paolo Soleri’s Cosanti, as well as the communal work-live space and philosophy of Helen and Scott Nearing.”

They taught themselves carpentry, masonry, and plaster application, using natural materials suited for timeless architecture: Douglas fir and sugar pine, red flagstone, and unpolished brass details matched with a simple color palette. “The learning curve is steep, but we haven’t experienced anything as building our home,” Alison says.

And she knows a thing or two about building from scratch. Together with Jay, she created Wonder Valley, a beautifully curated home goods shop with California olive oil as its flagship product. “Olive oil production goes back thousands of years for our old world counterparts with deep-rooted cultures around the production,” Alison explains. “Californian growers are untethered to any such traditions, giving room for experimentation in olive varieties planted, harvest methods, embracing modern milling practices, blending of oils.”

The result is a multitude of truly exceptional and unique olive oils. Wonder Valley’s blend relies on a varietal called Ascolano—a gigantic olive that, in its native Italy, would only be brined or cured as a table olive. Yet, a handful of Californians have experimented with pressing Ascolanos and found that it yields an aromatic oil that smells of apricots and pine trees. “We harvest on the greener side,” Alison says. “So, it’s packed with polyphenols, the potent fountain-of-youth-like antioxidant that makes olive oil such an exciting and beneficial superfood and also delivers a peppery brightness to the oil.”

If such a fragrant palate comes as a shock, it’s because most American consumers are conditioned to accept aged supermarket offerings (and not in the good way). “Dealing with olive oil involves some detective work,” Alison explains. “A professional olive oil taster is trained to sniff, slurp, and taste out any potential defects in olive oil, which would disqualify from an ‘extra virgin’ grade.  The unfortunate truth is there are a lot of lousy oils on super market shelves falsely labeled as extra virgin because of lack of regulations.”

To up your olive oil game, Alison recommends keeping a sharp eye out for three things: First, the container should be dark and opaque to protect the oil from oxidizing from exposure to light and air. Second, there should be a harvest date. (Olive oil lasts about 18 months, so look for the date it was made, rather than the expiration.) Finally, check the label to see if the oil is from a single source or a particular country of origin to ensure quality.

As for the desert, its magnetic draw on the Carrolls provided the environment for a flurry of ideas. “My previous perception of the desert was always this place of great stillness, a dusty end-of-the-world type of remoteness, far removed from the problems of the rest of the world,” Alison muses. “I’ve never lived in a place so stripped from noise and distraction. But the volume to my thoughts, plans, and self-driven pace has only grown louder. There’s an insatiable desire to build, create, to simplify and to dream big—and the room to do it—that I’ve never experienced before.”

Some might say it’s the good kind of noise. 

Browse olive oil and home goods at welcometowondervalley.com.

Clothing provided by Madewell.

Madewell has always believed in borrowing freely (and frequently) from the boys. Here at the magazine, we admire the unexpected details and effortless cool of their womenswear— whether it’s a well-traveled jacket that’s been to more than a few great concerts or a fresh pair of Chelsea boots ready blaze a trail into parts unknown. 

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