Walking down the long row of trailers, I wonder how I will recognize the one that belongs to Daniel Wallace and Judith May. They all look the same. As I near it, though, the ownership of the mobile home is made obvious by a preponderance of what their makers refer to as wobblies, wooden creatures, each with a name and a story. I should have known there would be something.
May greets me at the door of the trailer. She is standing next to a wooden pig painted to resemble Uncle Sam, with a sign on its chest that reads “Make Love, Not Bacon”. May is tiny with a large toothy smile, and is wearing an apron. Her comfortable grandmotherly persona belies a penchant for Harley-Davidson motorcycles and the men who ride them – most notably the man in her life, Daniel Wallace.
Wallace himself is waiting inside at the kitchen, an album in front of him. The album contains pictures of and clippings about his various projects. He is looking at the pictures in the album as though they were photos of his grandchildren. The trailer around him is huge, almost the size of my house. On the wall above the drivers seat I notice an assembled 600-piece puzzle, a picture of a house in a snowstorm, which has been laminated and framed.
Wallace resembles May in his grandparental nature, short and grey and all smiles. May describes him as “like a little elf”, and there is something about the two of them that does remind me of the old cartoon, ‘David the Gnome’. I find myself in a reverie in which I imagine Wallace in a pointy cap riding on a fox named Swift.
It might seem like I fell off track, but with Wallace and May, magical creatures and fairylands are just par for the course. This is, after all, the couple that created a place they call Wonder-full-land together, a fairyland garden in their former yard on Ebers St, between Niagara and Newport. May began the project with the garden, and Wallace was inspired to create his first wooden arch, an egg-shaped portal called the Entwining Arch. “It totally changed the dimension of the garden,” said May, looking fondly at the picture of the arch and stroking it with a finger, “I created a garden that was like Alice in Wonderland, and he created the arch as sort of a ‘Through the Looking Glass’, and sort of, well, changed everything.”
Wallace nods, looking down modestly at the glassy pictures of the arches that lay on the table, a testament to roughly the last fifteen years of his life. May is sitting next to him, still wearing her apron, and looking at him encouragingly. Her admiration is unabashed and really nice to see. She turns away and pulls a piece of paper out of the album to hand to Wallace, asking if he’d shown it to me yet. He shakes his head no, and she turns to me excitedly and brings up the topic we’re all here to discuss, the Ocean Beach Wishing Arch, over the gate of their former home. “See, the Wishing Arch was an entrance to a different world. Wonder-full-land. Daniel wrote a song about it, actually,” May says, “Daniel, do you want to sing it?” Wallace smiles, pleased and slightly pink, and begins to sing, just slightly off key but without hesitation,
Have you seen the wishing arch? It’s in the land of OB. And if you hear the call of the twine, you can make a wish and it won’t cost a dime,” he sings the first verse of a song that is very similar to a children’s nursery rhyme.
‘The call of the twine’ refers to the bowl of twine next to the Wishing Arch, kept full by the good grace of OB Hardware and a sneaky septuagenarian named Gloria (Gloria used to steal the twine and braid it – Wallace caught up with her before he moved and asked for her to take charge of filling the bowl, since she was coming by every day anyway. Miraculously, this worked, and now Gloria is the official Keeper of the Twine). Each piece of twine is a wish. Since its creation in 2003, Ocean Beach locals and visitors have been tying twine on the arch and making wishes. Located at the gate of their former home on Ebers (between Niagara and Newport), the wishing arch looks from a distance like a shaggy beast, maybe a cross between Cousin It and a water buffalo. Close up, it proves to be an arch, with a long side extension, completely covered with tied pieces of twine. Thousands and thousands of pieces of twine.
This shaggy beast is a creation of wishes, an inspirer of dreams. “Throughout the years, I’ve had people call me and thank me,” Wallace says, “the people who make wishes for things you can’t buy, you know, happiness, mending a relationship, finding a relationship, whatever, they get their wishes.” Wallace tells the story of a woman whose mother had been very sick. The doctors were trying everything they could think of and nothing was working. The woman started making wishes that her mother get well, and sure enough, she did. Another story is of a man whose erstwhile surfing buddy had stolen his truck, surfboard, and all the cash in the house after a night of drinking. The man complained to his son, and, for lack of any better leads, his son took him to the arch and they made some wishes. Nine days later, they got a phone call from Mexico – the truck had been spotted! The man ended up getting the truck, board, and most of his cash back, sort of an unprecedented stroke of good luck. “Good things come about when you wish,” says Wallace simply.
The Entwining Arch and the Wishing Arch were among the first of Wallace’s arch projects. He has also had arches commissioned by private entities as well as one project at the San Diego Children’s Museum. People wanted arches for all sorts of reason, Wallace explains, turning the album pages and pointing out the different arches. Many were created simply as a special place of peace in a garden. Others had more complex meanings, to honor a spouse or partner, or as a tribute to a deceased child. Wallace rarely accepts money in exchange for his arches. As he points to various arches, May looks on and reminds him where this one is, why this one was built, who asked for this one. “You donated this one,” she says, pointing at a picture of an arch covered in twining leaves and shading a bench, “this one too.” Wallace remembers the arch that she is pointing at, an arch he created for a woman who had lost a son in 9/11, and he launches off into a brief rant against the government for not allocating enough resources to the surviving family of 9/11 victims. “They wouldn’t give her any money toward her garden,” he says, shaking his head, “No money for the emotional, just taking care of the physical.”
May smiles at her ‘little elf’, intimating to me that the donation is a not uncommon gesture for Wallace. When the couple first met, at a Harley-Davidson party in LA, Wallace approached May with a fishing pole and a bucket of treats, asking her to go fish. She’s been watching him give, and helping him create things to give, ever since. Besides the arches, Wallace and May have also created dozens of little wooden creatures called wobblies. The patriotic pig outside the house was one of the few wobblies to stay with Wallace and May when they moved out of Ocean Beach house and into a home they could travel in. May walks me back out to be formerly introduced to the wooden pig, whose name is Porky, and his pals, Sheila the cat, Fetch the sheep-dog, and two creatures that May calls ‘OB Surf Pods’.
The wobblies were, at one time, an integral part of Wonder-full-land. Besides the few that now live at the trailer, they have all been given away or sold at a yard sale. They seem almost like pets, and I wonder aloud whether Wallace and May miss them, along with Wonder-full-land. “It was hard to leave,” Wallace agrees, looking at May for confirmation, “but we pleased so many people.” The yard sale, he explains, was held right after a spate of fires. Some of the people attending had had their homes burned out. There was one woman, Wallace says, who bought almost all of the tall wobblies to give to people, just so they could have something in their yard. May nods. She has been with Wallace since around 1993, after her divorce (neither can recall the exact year they got together – their whole concept of time seems a little hazy, actually. Wallace makes a joke about being seniors), but the two seem like high-school sweethearts, like those couples that look like two fruits plucked from the same tree. They finish each other’s thoughts, and they each get teary-eyed at separate parts of the interview, talking about their life together. A relationship cynic might think twice after meeting them. Together, they seem to be living proof of Wallace’s claim that he has no wishes but to see others’ wishes granted – that everything he’s ever wanted has come to him.
The conversation begins to wrap up, and we return to the topic of the Wishing Arch. Wallace can’t think of any real motive for building the arch, no burning desire for anything in particular, just something to do with the recycled wood he was picking up on the side of the road and at dumpsters. He tries to think of what drove him to build it, and his answer comes slowly but confidently: “It’s something that I just thought was right, and it felt good. There was no, like, give me money and you can have this. It was unearthly. In most cases, you don’t find somebody helping thousands of people without asking for something for it. And that made me feel good. There’s a strength and a power, there’s an energy here.” We say goodbye and part ways. I get on my scooter for the ride back down to OB, the home of Wonder-full-land, the Wishing Arch, and the ghosts of the wobblies. I don’t have a piece of twine, or an arch, but I do have a ‘wish stick’, a painted piece of wood left over from the building of an arch, a gift from Wallace. So I make a wish.
ED: Thanks to Daniel and Judith for sending the photos!