Just Deserts

What is it about the desert?

Away from the routine, the stresses and boredoms, just the two of us and Josie the dog instead of the parallel play of our lives at home. There are the pleasures of the road trip, the signs by he side of the road, the newspapers in small towns, the décor in cafes, the small talk with waitresses.

But it’s mostly about the desert itself: the open views, the emptiness, the impact of humans on the land. The California desert is an open book, the history of settler hubris and disappointment strewn like rusted tin cans. Its mountains are carved by mines; its roads and washes pass claim markers, corrugated zinc sheets, old bedsprings and weathered planks twisted by the elements and shot full of holes; the bones of corrals long abandoned, shotgun shells and truck tires.

The people are gone, but the animals are not. Lizards and snakes, little rodents and rabbits scurry through the ruins, driving Josie to joyous distraction. In the washes track of deer, coyote, maybe big cat. Holes that might be burrows of snake and lizard, ground squirrel, hopefully desert tortoise. Coyote song, coyote scat, coyote scent that sends Josie into the van and the safety of her little bed.

Sun, moon, stars, sky. Watching the moon rise over a slightly different part of the ridge every night. Sleeping until the sun strikes us in our pop-up loft and Josie stands on the counter below and pushes her nose into my tangled hair.

The colors: grays and browns and dusty purples punctuated with the occasional flash of gaudy color from a flowering plant. Our dirty van fits right in, its off white exterior softened to the color of the dust that clings to every surface.

The plants. Almost everything is armed, from the chollas that reach out to snag clothing or the nose of a curious dog, to the creosote bush and mesquite, to the yuccas and Joshua trees, to the barrel cactus and the prickly pear.

The wind. The sage-scented breeze that takes the edge off the warming sun; the wind that blows tumbleweeds into the road and dust into every crevice of the van and orifice of the people.

I don’t think I’m any different on the road than I am at home, but that’s probably not true, since I can see how Scott is different when he’s more relaxed and when the challenges are physical and not social/political/psychological.

Which brings me to the subject of driving on bad road. Maybe it’s the Michigan boyhood, maybe it’s some testosterone-based urge to conquer something. It has some similarities to the joys of backpacking for me – driver and car meet road in a direct way similar to how hiker and pack meet trail – and then of course there’s the worship of the gasoline engine, so deeply embedded in this culture, especially among men, that it appears innate.

Bad to the bedrock: driving in the desert.

All good roads are the same, but every bad road is bad in its own way.

Some bad roads were paved once upon a time; you can tell by the axle-breaking potholes. Some of the worst roads in the Mojave preserve have little swatches of barely recognizable pavement, usually on either side of a cattle guard.

There are categories of bad: washboard; rocks; sand; washouts. Washboard is best flown over at 40mph, skimming the tops of the washboard. All very well, except that most of the roads we were on were too steep/narrow/full of unexpected holes to make 40mph anything but a fantasy.

Rocks come in several kinds, of course. The misplaced boulders in the middle of the road that are not too high to clear (unless of course they are too high, in which case some piece of the underbody goes clunk or falls off). The rocks that help by filling in some of the holes (although also of course disguising them). And the worst ones, the deceptively small sharp rocks that lie in wait for the tires.

Sand, now. Someone should write a sonnet about sand: let me count the ways. There’s packed sand that promises to hold up a vehicle just fine until it suddenly becomes soft sand that crawls up the wheels in a slithery hug. There’s soft sand that piles up in the center so that even though the tires are on fairly firm ground the van slows as we plow onward. There’s blowing sand, almost but not quite dust, teaming up with the desert wind to toss tumbleweeds around and push the van out of the reassuring tracks left by the last vehicle.

Washouts are the peak experience of the bad road, since they tend to happen where the road has some other tragic flaw, and is therefore already narrow or otherwise impaired.

And of course there’s the getting lost. On good road, getting lost can mean anything from missing the exit off the interstate to ending up in a bad neighborhood (whatever that means to you).

Bad road, on the other hand, offers so many more ways to get lost. Bad roads are often not on the map, no matter what map you’re using. Or if the road is on the map, the map doesn’t show the myriad side roads or near roads or turnouts to abandoned mines or ranches. Bad roads are almost never signed in the ways that comfort city dwellers, no NameOfRoad (although sometimes a number, based on the obscure numbering scheme of whatever governmental jurisdiction lays claim to the land), no signposts to a destination.

Well known bad roads like the Mojave Road are marked with cairns, rocks piled up by other travelers that reassure you, hopefully accurately. These can be misread, especially at intersections, the most unnerving part of a bad road. We missed our turn on the Mojave Road at one point and followed the track under the utility poles until we went up the side of a mountain and looked at the other side, then turned around so very very carefully and picked our way back down.

And sometimes good road turns into bad road. First the sign says Road Narrows. Then a little farther along it’s Pavement Ends 600 feet. And then you find out what kind of bad road you’ve got.

It’s always easier to drive in daylight than dark, but bad road demands visibility, and driving bad road always takes so much longer than you think it possibly could that it’s almost a given that the last half hour of driving on any given stretch of bad road will be the half hour when it’s getting dark and there’s no obvious place to pull out and camp.

Bad road, bad road, I can hardly wait for our next trip.

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