Running the Mojave Road in a VW Van


We love the desert.  We’re especially partial to the Mojave, with its dramatic changes of terrain, elevation, vegetation, its amazing geology and complex and frequently appalling human history.  For twenty years we’ve been poking around in that triangle between I-15 and I-40 with Barstow at the west and Needles at the east.  We’ve visited it when it was named the East Mojave Scenic Area, loosely managed by the BLM.  Since 1994 it has become the Mojave National Preserve, now managed by the Park Service but with many of its historic features (dispersed camping, hunting, private holdings, even some ranching and mining) still reminiscent of the old BLM regime.  The Preserve is huge, more than a million acres. Bighorn sheep live in the mountains, deer in the juniper/pinyon forests, particularly venomous rattlesnakes in the brush.  The historic Mojave Road, originally a native trail to the coast, then a wagon trail and now a four-wheel-drive road, runs for 140 miles through the middle.  Historians have compiled a wealth of settler history at the Mojave Desert Historical and Cultural Association in reconstructed buildings surrounded by historical artifacts including two working stamp mills.

There are so many Mojave stories: the cinder cones and lava flows; the petroglyphs; the mine shafts and mountains of tailings; the barbed wire fences around the holdings of homesteaders. 

And the Road, the iconic alluring Mojave Road.  We have always looked for the out of the way camping spots, the fire rings off the dirt roads, the hunter’s sites at old tumbledown cabins.  A few years ago we were browsing the books in the Preserve’s Kelso Visitor Center and came across Dennis Casebier’s Mojave Road Guide.  The ranger assured us we couldn’t drive it in our VW Vanagon, and we of course determined that we would.  I say “we” loosely, since my idea of good driving is changing lanes smoothly on the freeway, but Scott grew up driving on ice and snow and was apparently permanently marked. I say he never saw a stretch of bad road he didn’t like.

We had driven over Soda Lake years before without quite realizing we were having an adventure. And we drove some of the middle parts, including some pretty deep sand.  We had to get out the floor mats to put under the wheels to drive out of the sand a time or two, but we didn’t get so stuck we had to wait for help. 

We Fought the Road….

In fall 2012 we had navigated the Escalante/Grand Staircase in southern Utah, driven out of some washes right after a flash flood, spent most of a week on unmaintained dirt road. So we thought we were pretty cool.  We planned to check out the annual meeting of the Mojave Desert Historical and Cultural Association (MDHCA) in Goffs just south and east of the Preserve, and thought we would drive the Road from its beginning at Laughlin, Nevada, west to the Lanfair Road and then to Goffs.  That effort would be a fairly humiliating failure if anyone had been around to see our failure, which no one was, distinguished by an ER visit in Bullhead City and a night resting up at a rundown casino/motel in Laughlin.  I was so frightened at times that I had trouble breathing. Writing about it a year and a half and a hundred miles of Road later, I realize that I have learned a lot and that understanding does vanquish fear, at least in this case.  [I have written more about this first attempt in another place.]

Ready for a Rematch

By fall 2013 we were ready for a rematch.  Our Vanagon was beefed up with a Subaru engine, had new wheels and heavy duty tires that raised our clearance a few inches.  Armed with a GPS and the Road Guide, we got on the real Road this time at mile 3.5, camped at 6.9.  We had the GPS up and running, we’d bought a week’s worth of Peet’s coffee at the Von’s in Bakersfield, and I had a new Ursula LeGuin novel.  Could life get any better?

The hills on the east side of U.S. 95 are not in the Preserve, and they are carved up with roads, jeep tracks, washes and gullies made by rain and fools.  As we were getting ready to go, we were passed by a two (three?) vehicle crew planning to run the whole Road. 

Remembering our chagrin at learning that our earlier effort was not even on the Road, we paid obsessive attention to the Guide and the GPS.  At about mile 11.5, just over the state line into California, the Road goes over what the book calls “major undulations” and I first thought of as impassable troughs.  Scott got out, looked them over, drove over the first few.  Josie and I got out and walked them, and they didn’t look nearly as bad as they did from the passenger seat.  We crossed a road that was used for desert training in World War Two.  There are WW2 mementos all over, ranging from dirt tracks to dogtags.  Looking west we can see the Piute Range.

We crossed U.S. 95; pavement, how odd; and headed up into the Paiutes.  The road is rough and rocky.  I wouldn’t drive a hundred feet of it, but Scott enjoys it and is good at it, and if I’m going to do something this far out of my comfort zone, I couldn’t ask for a better companion.

The Road enters the Preserve at about mile 27.  At about mile 28.5 we decided it was too steep and rough for us. Disgruntled, we consoled ourselves by admiring our maturity as we turned around and retreated to U.S. 95.

After the MDHCA Rendezvous (about which more in another story) we decided to run some more Road.  (Usage note:  one apparently “runs” the Road and doesn’t drive it….who am I to argue?)  We drove north up the Lanfair Road to Cedar Canyon Road, drove on it instead of the Road to the Kelso-Cima Road, got back on the Road about mile 62.  We let air out of the tires down to about 25 psi to give us more footprint and picked our way ever so slowly up to Marl Springs at mile 70.5.  Camped at a fire ring about .3 miles away from the water up the Road.

No moon, a blaze of stars, even the Milky Way.  And yet Las Vegas, a hundred miles away, lights the northern horizon.

Looking east the next morning we can just make out the Kelso-Cima Road at the infrequent moment that a car goes by.  The trains are slightly more frequent, but it’s all so far away that we can’t hear the traffic.  What we hear is the wind:  the breeze coming down off the mountains we will cross later; a persistent fly; the background murmur of insects.

Josie hears and smells other sounds and scents.  Her ears go up, she hurtles out of my lap, pokes around, hurtles back.  Don’t tell her “there’s nothing there.”  Her doggie nose and ears are in overdrive, cataloging:  insects, lizards, rodents, maybe something big and dangerous.

I relax and smell.  At first the city nose smells nothing – no diesel fumes, no garbage, no cleansers or perfumes.  And then a burst of scent, intense as pennyroyal.  I must be smelling a mint, even though I can’t find it.  We’re enjoying the aftermath of rain a few weeks earlier, the Mojave second spring:  paper bag bush and creosote bush blooming, chia (is that what I’m smelling?).

We set out from about mile 71, past the high point of this range, able to see Cimacito to the north.  Stopped at the Mailbox at mile 74, one of the Road icons, originally installed by the Friends of the Mojave Road, now maintained by the MDHCA.  We were the first sign ins today, one the day before, and one that was probably the crew we met our first morning.  For reasons that are lost in the fog of memory, there is a shrine of ceramic frogs piled up a few hundred feet off the road.  If we ever find such a frog we will save it for a return trip.  There are many attractive campsites past the Mailbox, but we forged on, made it down to Kelbaker Road (paved, runs the length of the Preserve from north to south) without incident, despite warnings in the Guide about sand.  Thanks to recent rains, good tires, and good driving.  West of Kelbaker the land flattens out into creosote bush as we approach Soda Lake.  We drove about five miles and, not having found a campsite, stopped about mile 90 just past Paymaster Mine Road.  (The next morning we passed the campsite we had hoped for at about mile 91.8.).

The moon wasn’t up and the stars were so many and bright you can almost read by starlight.  The Milky Way is sprawled across the heavens and it’s so crowded with stars you can’t even pick out constellations except for the Big Dipper.  We can see I-15 as a little line of light and the lights of Baker, about 15 miles north of us.

It’s the first of October 2013 and we may not have a government – Paul Krugman writes, This is the way the world ends; not with a bang but with a temper tantrum – but we still have a desert, creosote bush as far as one can see, little white strip of Soda Lake growing larger and whiter as we approach.

We did it!  Across Soda Lake, we left a stone at Traveler’s Rock (another ritual activity of those who run the Road), turned north at Razor Rd.  The Road continues to Afton Canyon, but it’s deep dune buggy sand.  Another time we’ll drive to Afton Canyon on I-15, camp and poke around.

Kramer Junction:  chokepoint of highways 395 and 58, power lines, train tracks, gas stations, the nerves, bones and sinews of civilization with none of the ornamental flesh and skin.

January 2014:  from Passenger to Co-pilot

The Mojave Road crosses Lanfair Road just north of Cedar Canyon.  We turned east, put a penny in the penny can (another ritual), and found our way to Indian Well, an amazing petroglyph site 1.2 miles north and .3 miles east off the Road.  We had been there with a group from the MDHCA Rendezvous and very much wanted to go back and spend time looking and taking photos.  We got stuck and unstuck twice, the second time requiring about half an hour of wrangling.  I reminded myself that we had done it before.  I’m much less anxious every time, although I did gulp the minute we turned onto the Road and were driving at an uncomfortable angle.

The reason the petroglyphs are there is obvious, a well where the water comes up from a crack in the rock.  Various settlers believe that they or someone they knew made the well, but the rocks are covered with petroglyphs, some of which (the archeologists tell us) are at least 3000 years old, so it’s clear that people have come this way for thousands of years, maybe hunting, maybe headed to the coast to trade.  The Road was originally a Mojave trail traversed by runners, and although this is off the canonical road, of course people would have camped here and replenished their water supply.

We arrived just at the great light; Scott thinks he has a few really good photos.  I set up camp and fed Josie.

As soon as the sun went away the temperature dropped like a rock; it is the high desert (4000 ft more or less) and it is winter.  We had bundled up in all our clothes by 6 pm and crawled into our bed by 9:30.

January 20

Pleasantly slow start waiting for the sun; flocks of finches, no doubt because of the water. Left about noon and rejoined the Road.  We have never done this stretch and would like to see how close we can get to where we had to stop last October.  And this is where some of the Lanfair and Dunbar homesteaders proved up their patents (the language for getting the land secured).  We are so pleased to have located the Dunbar settlement, about which we had heard, and to note that there was at least one Black homesteader at Maruba and a couple at Barnwell, as well as a handful of families at Dunbar.

Almost immediately we came to a washout we couldn’t negotiate.  But this time we didn’t turn back. Instead we spent about an hour and a half filling in one part and taking down another, taking turns digging with our folding U.S. Army surplus folding shovel and gathering rocks to speed up the filling in process.  That plus our 2 x 6 boards and Scott’s outstanding driving (and my guiding from the front) and we made it!  There were other dicey parts and a lot of sand, but we were able to pass the Hudnett and Jones sections and take photos (not much to see).

Camped at mile 37.3, a really nice pullout decorated with an actual tree, a wrecked school bus and a Ford Falcon station wagon, both gutted and shot full of holes.  We can see some trailers on what must be private holdings.  We haven’t seen another human or moving vehicle for more than 30 hours.  The only engine noise has been from the occasional airplane.  The evening star is bright and low (Venus, I guess).  The sky is white with stars, and even way out here the light leaks over the horizon:  Laughlin about 20 miles east, Searchlight 20 miles north, and Las Vegas to the northwest (how far?).

January 21

Some cloud cover after almost a week of clear skies, and breezy heading to windy.  Got on the Road about 11 am with the goal of Ft. Piute.  At one spot we had to get out the boards and blocks (the yellow giant Legos from Trailer Life have totally earned a spot in the van), and we have video of driving through a wash.  We detoured north at mile 31.4 to look over Piute Gorge, a steep hike to Ft. Piute, decided against it this time but filed it for reference. 

Then back to the Road, reached the summit of the Paiute Range at mile 30.5.  The road down is steep and rocky; this may be where we turned back last time.  But we did make it down to the water district road, a real dirt road (!), followed it up about a mile to the turn up to Ft. Piute, drove about a half mile in and pulled out to camp.

It was full dark and full cloudy, so instead of the stars we can see the lights of U.S. 95 about ten miles to our east and the glare that is Las Vegas over the horizon to the north.

Working on the road in places to make it passable has had the side effect of taking my fear and anxiety level way way down.  Some it’s probably being busy, but I think the primary thing is that I’m learning what the van needs to get through a spot.  As we’re filling in a hole with rocks or digging down a high spot or arranging the mega-Legos and boards to make a ramp, I’m increasingly understanding what’s required.  And guiding Scott up on the boards or watching from behind to make sure the rear wheels are going to stay engaged, picking up the boards and blocks, makes me feel less like a passenger (passive; same root?) and more like a co-pilot.

January 22

The sun’s up over the Jedediah Smith Butte – yes he did come through here; those Mormons were gluttons for the hard places, weren’t they?  We can just see U.S. 95 about ten miles to our east; a big truck looks like a little white moving dot.  And past it we can see the Road, an almost straight little tan line scratched in the vegetation.  Ambition?  Hubris?  The urge to boldly go where few have gone before? 

It’s been almost 72 hours since we heard any engine noise except our own and an occasional airplane.  Very few animals: jackrabbits, some tiny chipmunks.  Last night we saw a covey of quail and flocks of little finches.

The Road focuses the mind.  Getting from one place to the next takes all our attention: Scott’s considerable skill; my increasingly non-anxious helpfulness.  Carolyn Heilbron prescribes doing something difficult as the way to get satisfaction while aging.  Obvious but so true.  Here we are having to spend more and more time maintaining our bodies, having to think about our next (and probably last) housing option, stretching out our money, all important but not exactly uplifting.

At the same time Scott is learning beautiful photo techniques that he gets to try out when we go places, and I hope my project working with Marina D. on Native language recovery will be a new and difficult project for me.  [and I also have an idea about the child care stuff that will make it less looking backward and more reflecting on the lessons for today.]

We decided we could hike to Ft. Piute more safely and probably faster than driving the road.  On the way we passed two more pullouts with fire rings, including one just before a particularly awful spot very close to the top.

Our time of seeing no other vehicles ended just before noon, about an hour shy of 72, when three very cute little sand rails (dune buggies built on VW engines, very short wheelbase, very big tires) with Arizona plates passed us, munching up the road with nary a care.  Friendly, one woman.  Drove up to the top, got out their folding chairs, plopped them down in the middle of the ruin, had lunch, left.  Didn’t ask them how much of the road they were running, but we guessed they were probably headed out and back to a trailer somewhere; the rails are street legal, but it would have not been much fun to compete with traffic on pavement.

We poked around the ruins, took the nature trail up where we could look down at the creek and up at the gorge.  The trail would be a great day hike, perhaps even an overnight if there’s really water in the creek, always a maybe in the desert.  We saw green rushes but didn’t go down far enough to verify that the creek was running.

Fort Piute itself (never actually a fort, but a military outpost to protect the mail route – from whom?) was built in 1867, abandoned after six months when the mail route changed.  Made of stone, maybe half the walls still standing, a couple of rooms joined by a corral. Did not look cozy, and everything except water would have to come up the road by horse/mule/burro/soldier.

The walk back down to the van was all vista all the time: Jedediah Butte on our immediate right, the wash and Paiute Valley between us and U.S. 95, more Paiute Valley and mountains upon mountains to the east.  Walked by the remains of someone’s idea to have a turkey ranch; nothing left to see but broken pipe and remains of fencing and a water hole. 

We packed up and picked our way down to U.S. 95, 7 miles in about an hour, breathtakingly fast; we averaged more like 7 miles a day most days.

January 23

Having showered (bliss!) we left Goffs about 12:30 with invites to return.  Back up Lanfair Road to take the Road west for the last stretch we haven’t done.  Scott called his brother just so someone would worry about us if we didn’t show up on the other end.  But if he had waited five minutes, we would have known that we would have company, four augmented jeeps and their four drivers were stopped for lunch.  They had come all the way from Laughlin, were planning to run past Cima Road and camp before Marl Springs. They were very friendly, offered lots of info and advice, let us go first on the next stretch. 

We drove the stretch without a hitch, even though the Guide warned of deep cuts, etc., etc. When we came off the Road onto Cedar Canyon, our minders pulled around us, their good deed done.  We went back on the Road and made it almost as far as Rock Spring, decided against the last precipitous descent into Watson Wash at mile 50.2, went around and got out at Rock Spring to look around.  Sent Bob a text so he could stop worrying about us.

There isn’t much left of the short-lived Army outpost built in 1867 by a water source a day’s ride from Ft. Piute.  The setting is magnificent: huge jumbled rocks similar to Joshua Tree, junipers, grass yellow against a dark sky, skeletons of junipers lost to the burn in 2005.  Overlooking this vista is a rock house built by Bert Smith in 1929.  He lived there for forty years and after his death it was the house of desert artist Carl Faber. 

January 22

We went back to Rock Spring and walked the wash we decided we couldn’t drive; heavy sand.  The Guide says it should have been .7 miles to the steep place we stopped, but it was either the longest .7 miles on record or somehow we managed to miss where the Road came down.  But we got a great hike, long enough to get the endorphins up and to appreciate a really greasy snack when we got back to the van.

Last night in the Mojave.  This trip concludes our determination to run the Road.  Next time we will branch out a little; we saw several potential side trips we want to follow up:  Caruthers Canyon, the part north of I-15, Afton Canyon.