The Mojave… It’s as though nature tested a man for endurance and constancy to prove whether he was good enough to get to California.
– John Steinbeck
April rolling into May found us juggling state maps as we beelined along Interstate 15 toward California. We crossed out of Utah and into a corner of Arizona, indicated by a sign stating, “ARIZONA: THE GRAND CANYON STATE WELCOMES YOU”. Not long afterward we knew we had entered Nevada – we saw no sign, but the crossing was evident by the sudden frenzy of neon-lit casinos and road billboards advertising loose slots and lobster dinners.
Las Vegas and the Hoover Dam
We passed energy farms and power grids, and allowed I 15 to roller coaster us on a loop through Las Vegas, from which we could glimpse the glitz and glamour of the strip: Circus Circus, MGM Grand, Caesar’s Palace. The onslaught of people and traffic was dizzying after the open emptiness of the southwest. Changing to I 95, we turned straight south to Hoover Dam, that vast drop of water from the Colorado River which fuels the needs of Southern California, Nevada, Arizona, and more.
We drove through the security check that is required by all larger vehicles (I gladly and gleefully took them through every cute, organized little cubbyhole and box, excited to find I had a built-in audience), then under the gleaming white bridge which looms high above, before winding onward and upward, over the dam, to a view from high above.
Hoover Dam is an architectural wonder, set off by art deco splendor, and the gleaming bridge high above the gorge would have a million dollar view. It is possible to walk the area, but no dogs are allowed out of vehicles. We just couldn’t figure out why. More fear for the wildlife, we supposed? After all, a dog might eat their cameras. Or maybe a national security hazard, with plots involving the terrors of dog hair? The reasoning wasn’t clear, but we obeyed, staying in the truck and doing three loops up and back to admire the view before we sensed the gentle, far-off presence of the Hover Dam security following us. Maybe they saw Katie and worried for the country.
Should you find yourself in our footsteps, then at this point you will be faced with a choice:
- Option A: Travel by day. The Mojave will be hot. Small lizards and rodents with heat-shedding strategies are at home in the heat, but our human systems are less adapted. Air conditioning and the load of a trailer together will be tough on the engine, and open windows on the highway could threaten to carry maps, snacks, and possibly even the dog right out the window. Or…
- Option B: Tootle around Lake Mead, walk the shoreline, enjoy the sunset,
and hit the road again at dusk. Travel by night in the cooler air, and in the midnight hour
find a dirt path leading away from the road, and set up camp in the desert. The bright moon will light the sand and cast clear shadows of the brush and flowers by which to see your setup without ruining the view of the stars. Return to the road in the early morning and catch a sunrise, to reward you for your choice.
Joshua Tree National Park
We had crossed into California during the night, and made it to Joshua Tree National Park early morning. Coming in the entrance from the charmingly named town of Twentynine Palms (we didn’t stop to count), we started with the Visitor Center (shopper’s tip: great t-shirts here). One of the NP maintenance folks stopped by to admire our rig. He was enthusiastic, and wistful. “My son wants to hit the road. This looks just right for him. Just a few more years until I retire. Maybe just right for me, too…”
Joshua Trees are wild things to see. U2 was onto something there. They are like palm trees that have chosen a spiky haircut instead of palmy dreadlocks, and they keep regular company with their cousins, the cholla, who are the real bad boys of the neighborhood. With names like “teddybear cholla” and “jumping cholla,” they are just ready to jump out and grab you – and eat you alive. My neighbor at home in Denver keeps a cactus and succulent garden in a hot space out back by the alley. It is stunning to behold, with bold flowers, a natural shapeliness that pleases the inner engineer – but woe betide the person passing on their bike, looking at their cell phone, who misses the cholla that sticks out into the alley. It is death, better than a guard goose to protect the space. In summer my neighbor prunes carefully (for aesthetics, but also presumably to avoid lawsuits) with machete and multiple pairs of leather gloves. Cactus pruning, now that’s badass.
Between Joshua Tree and the coast is one long, wide spread-out stretch of Los Angeles and its environs. We consulted iMap, Google Maps, and my mother, and decided there’s really never a good time to do it. Just hit the road, grin and bear the traffic, and get through it. Stopping first for an unlikely Cambodian Noodle lunch at JT’s Country Kitchen, we put pedal to the metal (then went bumper to bumper) until, late that evening, we found ourselves on that beloved stretch of coast from Ventura to Santa Barbara. My folks met us at the exit from Highway 101 and we wound the last few miles up the hills of Montecito to their house overlooking the ocean, 1000 feet above the water. Cool breeze, fresh sheets, a giant shower (well, heck, a shower at all), home cooking, familiarity, hanging out with my parents – it was good to be there, home away from home. We settled in for some time in a place we love.
As my dad put it, “What other campgrounds offer fish dinner, wine, and a pool?” And family.