Unlocking the Secrets of the Desert
From the moment I enter the front door, I’m immersed in the laidback, easygoing mystery of the ranch. A record player already playing music welcomes in my friends and I as we peer at the quirky art on the wall, making guesses at what might be a puzzle and what might be just decoration. As my group made a pact to only play the puzzles together the next day, we spend our first night enjoying the amenities of the place -- excitingly themed rooms, a top notch board game collection, and a hot tub under the desert night sky. We drift off to sleep, dreaming of what might lie beyond the locked doors in the cabins and courtyard.
Waking up as bright and early as a group of young adults vacationing at an Airbnb can, we gather in the main room to begin our journey. Through puzzles that carried us across the house and in a scavenger hunt across the desert, we learned more about the ranch and its former occupants, physically and narratively unlocking its secrets. Our journey at times felt cinematic, with unlocked crates and chests having musical cues that kept us invigorated. The puzzles themselves rarely stumped us, but we had a fun time solving them and following the stories of the character and the ranch through engaging with them.
The specifics of the puzzle and production design fully committed to the theme and the story of the experience. The use of the desert felt unique to an Airbnb, and I loved how every single thing in the cabin felt in line with the 1950s alien conspiracy theme. As mentioned before, the sound cues within the puzzles were a nice touch, and we loved the record players and custom playlist -- I’m still listening to their choice of tracks to unwind. The locked, themed rooms of the characters also made excellent use of lighting, space, and props, and were just plain fun to hang out in. Coming off of unlocking two of these rooms, we had a slight let-down when one locked room was in fact just that: a locked storage room separate from the experience. Since it was themed as a character’s, we wanted to learn more about her! But this small complaint is also a testament to the fun we were having engaging with the space and its story.
In all of these ways, I found the experience used the spatial elements of an immersive Airbnb experience beautifully, though I was left curious about the untapped possibilities of using the time differently. Ever excited to solve the mystery and complete the puzzles, my group only spent an afternoon interacting with the lore, narrative, and puzzle elements before we felt we had exhausted these aspects of the experience. I was left wanting to learn more about the stories of the people at the place. Most of the characters in the central family had one main way to learn about them, whether that was a journal, a scrapbook, or a secret room. In a way, I was reminded of finding journals and unlocking family secrets in a Meow Wolf experience. In those experiences I’ve often found myself wanting more time to just sit down and spend the afternoon solving a cipher, reading a book, or doing any number of time-sensitive activities that feel difficult in a time-constrained space full of other people and stimulating distractions. Given the relaxed nature of Wild Heart Ranch and the potential depth to its story, I would have spent a week here just reading narrative documents and solving intricate puzzles if they were presented here.
I don’t think this is actually a fault of Wild Heart Ranch in not providing this depth of experience and engaging with time more fully, since their experience caters well to an audience that’s vacationing at their Airbnb to not just do puzzles (a confusing concept, I know). While I could have stayed on the ranch for days without leaving, one of the reasons people go to Airbnbs is also to travel and visit places outside of the one they rented to sleep in. In designing for people that may potentially want to unlock spaces without spending too much time away from their travel destination, Wild Heart Ranch feels very thoughtful. There are multiple places to start puzzles, and all of the spaces within the fences of the Airbnb can be unlocked without a trek into the desert, for those wanting to stay closer to the cabins while still solving puzzles. In having multiple, linear tracks instead of a single, long track, the experience allows people to start with what interests them and unlock what they’re initially drawn to. Additionally, each track mentions or directs to another track, allowing people to freely interact with whatever lead intrigues them first and still complete everything. While we didn’t interact with our hosts for hints, given the enthusiasm we got from them in our communications, I suspect they would have been very happy to aid however we needed.
On the whole, Wild Heart Ranch left me feeling fully immersed in a piece of spatial storytelling. It’s wonderfully designed for people looking for a fun, themed Airbnb near Joshua Tree with an immersive, puzzle experience as part of the trip. Given the way that the theme fully affects the space of the Airbnb, I’d also still recommend it to those who are in it just for the immersive entertainment angle, with the caveat that the experience itself can be completed quickly.
-Sabrina Sonner, Literary Lead
Editor’s Note: This review was written in regards to our experience from September 2022, where myself, Last Call Board Members Ashley and Jacob, and our collaborators Haven, Riley, and Kale visited Wild Heart Ranch. The experience is still running, and more information including booking can be found on their website: https://www.wildheartranchjt.com/.