In January 2019, artist and Atlas Obscura hero, Bob Carr died at the age of 80. For 15 years, Bob, his wife Elizabeth, and their daughter Zena welcomed visitors to the Sky Village Swap Meet in Yucca Valley, California, just outside Joshua Tree. Bob was most well known over the last years of his life for the mysterious, delightful structure at the heart of the seven-acre flea market.
Known as the Crystal Cave, it was a hand-built cavern made of chicken wire, 1,500 cans of spray foam, paint, and countless baubles and curiosities. It was small—about the size of a walk-in closet—but entering it felt like stepping into an alternate universe of kaleidoscopic colors, miniature trees, and geological formations. A running stream, glimmering crystals, and mossy ledges filled the interior.
I first met Bob in spring of 2018, when I took my then three-year-old son to visit the Crystal Cave. The cave left an impression on us—and so did Bob. The tiny running waterfall, koi fish, and humid interior seemed to hypnotize my son. He never wanted to leave. Bob hadn’t made the cave for kids, exactly, but he hoped that it would instill a childlike experience of wonder in all of us. Bob himself had that effect, too. On nearly any given day, he was there to greet visitors, guide them into the cave (only two at a time), and provide a bit of mystic wisdom. When asked who built the cave, Bob found great mirth in saying, “You did!” followed by a huge grin and a cackle. He swore that his artistic inspiration came from the visitors themselves. “From you, through me, to you,” was his motto.
One of Bob Carr’s defining features was his sly sense of humor. After they saw the cave, Bob asked the visitors if they had seen the “website.” Through confused looks, he gently guided them behind a velvet curtain next to the cave. Inside was a dark room filled with incense smoke, smooth jazz, and giant foam spiders hanging on huge handmade webs. That was his website.
With his cowboy shirt, long white beard, and single visible tooth, Bob had the perfect look of a Old West prospector. But in conversation, he was a jolly philosopher, a desert mystic, and a riddling sphinx. It wasn’t just me entranced by Bob, everyone who met him came away with a smile and some degree of profundity. As visitor Christian Camargo wrote on Instagram, “the bodhisattva of the high desert will be greatly missed.”
The details of Bob’s life are hard to pin down—he was more of a big question than small answer guys—but it had been a hard road, and he was always determined to break that cycles of abuse and alcohol that had defined his family, he said. So he dedicated his life to finding and spreading happiness. At the Sky Village Swap Meet, he was like a father and a guide to many, and though it is a commercial enterprise, it was also a kind of extended family. He welcomed every slack-jawed visitor—me and my son included—into it.
As I finally convinced my son it was time to go, Bob leaned in and said, “You’ve been given this unbelievable gift. Don’t you know?” At that moment, we knew.
There is a jewel at the heart of the Sky Village Swap Meet. May it shine on forever.
In summer 2018, I was lucky enough to spend a couple of days with Bob for a radio series on National Public Radio’s All Things Considered. We worked with All Things Considered again on another radio story to mark his passing.