An unexpected delay in Vegas due to illness left us a day short on our Californian road trip. We had to make the difficult decision not to spend a night in the Mojave, instead just driving through en route to the coast. It was going to be a long day of driving, through blighted landscapes and under a hot sun, before we finally arrived exhausted in the middle of the night at Morrow Bay.
Rarely have I been happier to see a bed, but tiredness couldn’t take away from a great day exploring the Mojave National Preserve. On the surface, this is just a vast expanse of scrubby desert, seemingly hostile and unforgiving to humanity. Drive through its centre though and it becomes ever more fascinating.
Forests of Joshua Trees stretch off towards distant mountains; sun and wind battered human settlements cling to an improbable existence; long, slow freight trains trundle through the blasted landscape like something out of a movie; and the magnificent Kelso Dunes soar above the desert floor to offer extraordinary views over this enigmatic place.
We weren’t exactly unhappy to leave Las Vegas behind, and shortly after crossing the Nevada/California State Line we stopped to get gas. A visit to the ‘restroom’ brought a surprise: a ‘waterfall urinal’. Judging by the sign on the wall, it was the pride and joy of the establishment. I can only imagine this was an idea hatched late at night after several drinks. Possibly tequila.
Turning off Freeway 15 onto the Cima Road, we were plunged into a different world. For the next few hours we barely saw another human being, and the isolation of this place became only too apparent. It’s hard to imagine humans surviving here, but before Europeans arrived with smallpox, guns and air conditioning, a flourishing culture of Mojave tribal peoples carved out a successful society in the desert.
We headed towards Kelso, where the cultural and natural history of the Mojave is told in the National Preserve’s main information centre. This is situated inside the old railway station which, it’s fair to say, strikes an odd note in the otherwise functional surroundings of Kelso. There was nobody around, not even a car in the car park. It was a little spooky.
Although still morning, the temperature was rising as we headed off to one of the most extraordinary sights in Mojave, the Kelso Dunes. We could see the dunes glowing golden as we drove down the unpaved road. From a distance they don’t look so big, but when you reach the base and start the 200m climb to the top, their size becomes painfully apparent.
Reaching the summit was worth every step though. The view over the dunes stretching towards the mountains in the distance is spectacular, made all the more wondrous by the knowledge that you’re standing on dunes that are around 25,000 years old. What’s more amazing is that this spot is only a three-hour drive from Los Angeles, and yet there was only one other car in the car park – we didn’t see any actual people.
Back in the car after an invigorating climb under a hot sun, we set off through the desert towards Barstow and Bakersfield. After night fell we drove over one final mountain range, the last barrier between us and the coast at Morrow Bay. It was midnight and we’d have to wait until sunrise to see the town but, after days in California’s deserts, the smell of the ocean was refreshingly unmistakable.