Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Driving in the Desert

I recently did the "cross-Sierra shuttle" for my husband, who wanted to climb Mt. Whitney:  I dropped him off in Kings Canyon, then picked him up 9 days later in Lone Pine, on Highway 395.  In the meantime, I drove to Las Vegas to visit my sister.

During that week or so, I drove something like 780 miles, maybe 680 of it through the desert, in three separate sessions.

Driving through the basin and range country always fascinates me.  You have a long way to go, and the traffic is often quite light, so everybody drives as fast as they can - I drive as far over the speed limit as I think I can get away with, so I'm regularly passed by people who think they can get away with more.  The immediate roadside whips by, but there's nothing on the immediate roadside except sagebrush, and the occasional dead truck tire, so you focus on the landscape.  The road can be anything from a 2 lane highway to Interstate 15, and you share it with a steady procession of big rigs. The traffic all moves at roughly the same speed; occasionally a car passes a truck, or a truck passes a truck, at a relative speed difference of maybe 5-10 miles an hour.  It's all very stately.

The landscape is flat, with mountain ranges rising on both sides, anywhere from 5 to 30 miles away; the road trails across the middle of the flat part, and eventually vanishes into a notch.  You have a lot of time to watch the mountains rotate past you in slow grandeur. 

Occasionally you pass a highway turnoff, which leads to a dirt road, which leads over a low hill to - who knows?  A ranch?  An abandoned mine?  Once in a while the dirt road will lead to a solitary house, a mile or two back from the road, with a couple of outbuildings, surrounded by empty desert.  It's hot as the seven hinges of Hades - I don't think I saw a temperature below 95 on my car thermometer the entire trip - and you wonder how they can possibly live in that bare building, with no shade trees.  There are no shade trees, of course, because there's no water for them, which leads you to wonder where the people in the house get water.  It seems a little outside the range of the Alhambra man.

Driving through the basin and range country makes you feel very small and fragile.  The mountains are huge, and they loom over you.  If you ever took geology, you may remember what an alluvial fan is - you can see a lot of gorgeous examples of them.  The rock colors are beautiful and subtle.  All you can think is, I hope the car doesn't break down, I hope the air conditioner holds up.  Between Tehachapi and Barstow there is one settlement (I hesitate to call Kramer's Corners a town) that's right on the road (Highway 58) - you pass the towns of Mojave and Boron, but they're off the road a mile or five.  I stopped in Boron to find a rest room; I didn't see a building taller than one story (how would you keep the second story cool?).  The town seemed to huddle under the lash of a furnace-hot wind; and yet, the people were friendly and helpful, I saw an antique store, they have a museum to the twenty-mule team era.  They didn't have a gas station that I saw; they must drive to Kramer's Corners for gas.  What must it be like to live in a blast furnace?

For that matter, what must it have been like to cross those deserts, not in an air-conditioned car at freeway speeds, but on a horse, making maybe 20 miles a day (horses can go faster than that but they have to have water)?  Or in a Conestoga wagon behind a span of oxen (10 miles a day)?  Terrifying and beautiful. 


  1. Hedera:

    I just hopped down to Santa Monica and back last weekend, and was reminded of all the aspects you touch on here. I've spent a lot of time in the Southwest, chasing down photographic subjects with my large format cameras. I've driven 50 miles into empty wilderness, without a cell phone, and you do wonder about breaking down. What next?

    Once, at Eureka Dunes, I was slogging through the sand when two jet-black figher planes roared over me about 500 feet off the ground--literally an ear-splitting scream that made my timbers shiver. My god!, I thought, what must it be like to lie under something like that when it's YOU they're attacking?!

    If you get a window seat on a transcontinental flight, you can spend hours watching the incredible landforms of the dry country--Utah, the Four Corners country looks like "another planet"--the way Mars does in those shots from space.

    People talk about all the "open space" that people could occupy. I don't buy it. Most of the earth is inhospitable to humans, only fit for scorpions and lichen and so on.

    One weird thing you notice in open desert: If you're alone, and there's no car noise, you can hear your heart sloshing blood around. Gush-gush. It's eerie.

  2. I've been down in Arizona a couple of times, and across New Mexico, and those are another two flavors. I enjoyed this post and your descriptions.