Follow the trip from the beginning here.
We were up not so bright and not so early after the night that wouldn’t end. In fact, we barely made it up in time to check out, so I started loading up the truck while Jill went to check out. The sun was beating down mercilessly, which reminded me to refill the coolers with ice from the machine in the lobby, to the dismay of the glitzy clientele and the amusement of the maids darting around the hallways. ‘They probably don’t get too many car campers in this establishment‘ I thought and flashed a smile at a tuxedo-clad gent and his sequinned companion, feeling a touch under-dressed in flip-flops, muslin skirt and my best rumpled shirt with the hole in the elbow.
Jill returned to help finish loading up the truck and then we made straight for the Jiffy Lube to get a maintenance done on the truck. In the unforgiving light of day, Vegas, which had come on so brash and sparkly the night before now seemed a little like a bottle blonde with her roots showing. The streets that had been teaming with pedestrians at 4 am were now deserted save for a few road sweepers.
We were in and out of Jiffy Lube, appropriately, in a jiffy, and then we headed for the freeway, stopping to grab breakfast and coffee to go on the way out of town. I offered to drive but Jill now had her heart set on driving the entire route. On road trips with her husband she usually got precious little time behind the wheel and ‘anyway‘, she said, ‘you make a much better navigator than I do.‘ We trundled west along I-15 with the windows down, but before long we had rolled the windows firmly shut and cranked up the air conditioning because it was beginning to get uncomfortably hot.
Just outside of Jean NV, streaks of startling white sand and pools of recent rainwater lined both sides of the interstate. It was mesmerising to watch it whip by and the sight put me in mind of salt flats. A short distance from the freeway there is a completely dried out lake, Jean Dry Lake Bed, popular with film crews and fashion photographers for its other-worldly appearance. I didn’t know at the time that we were passing by it; otherwise I would have tried talking Jill into taking a detour.
It was just about noon when we crossed the state line into California and plunged headlong into the furnace that is Mojave National Preserve. Fields of Joshua trees spread out towards the horizon, lending a deceptively lush green to the landscape that seemed to contradict the arid climate.
Deeper into the desert, the green gave way to rich burnt charcoal tones; then hazy black-purple mountains shimmered off in the distance with great swathes of chocolate and orange desert scrub filling up the foreground. I fell head-over-heels in love with this desert landscape; it was alien and harsh and fearfully beautiful.
There was no sign of wildlife as we ploughed through the desert; not one glimpse of deer or bighorn sheep. Perhaps they were avoiding the worst of the sun, or perhaps they were avoiding the proximity of humans. One of the main differences between a National Park like Yellowstone and a National Preserve like Mojave is that hunting is illegal in the park but allowed in the preserve. Not only do these poor creatures have to contend with stultifying temperatures; they have to dodge bullets as well. I would dearly love to have spotted a roadrunner; the signature bird of the desert and cartoon character who always outwits the coyote, but it was not to be. As the air-conditioner kicked into overdrive, I couldn’t help thinking of those who had crossed this harsh land on horseback or in covered wagons and wondering how many of them had perished along the way.
We pulled off at a roadside Shell station to fill up the tank and replenish the ice in the coolers. A blast of heat hit me as I opened the door and nearly knocked me off my feet. The blissful chill inside the cab disappeared within seconds as the white-hot air seared through the open door. It was lucky I wasn’t wearing anything made of polyester because it would have melted on contact. Imagine opening a preheated oven, stepping inside and closing the door behind you. Now imagine doing that whilst running a fever, clutching a hot water bottle and gargling Tabasco.
The ice was melting quicker than we could fill up the coolers, so we settled for slush and hit the road again. In Barstow, my heart skipped a beat when I saw first one sign, then another telling us we were on a stretch of road that used to be Route 66.
It was unexpectedly thrilling to be on this most iconic of routes, following the path of Woodie Guthrie, Jack Kerouac and Steinbeck’s Joad family from The Grapes of Wrath. It was from Steinbeck’s novel that this road got its most enduring nickname, The Mother Road, although I am quite partial to The Main Street of America and The Great Diagonal Way. With the advent of bigger, better, faster interstates, Route 66 was decommissioned in the 1980′s, but almost immediately Route 66 groups sprouted up all along the route to have this major piece of Americana preserved for posterity’s sake. At present, it is part state historic route, part national scenic byway and part state scenic byway, depending upon what state you’re in. In 1999 a National Route 66 Preservation Bill was signed by President Clinton, and the National Park Service has published a Route 66 travel guide featuring some of the route’s iconic stops listed by state. There are calls to recommission the route, but no indication yet that it will come to fruition.
Outside Barstow, we veered northwest onto state route 58 which runs through Tehachapi Pass. The pass marks the southern end of the Sierra Nevada mountain range and connects the Mohave Desert to the San Joaquin Valley. Jill and I gasped at the sight of one of the biggest wind farms we had ever encountered. Miles of white turbines gleamed down from the mountaintops as they churned in the wind; it was spectacular to behold.
As we drove through the pass, I noticed a rather unusual sight off to the right; a rather forlorn-looking remnant of a boat, stranded in the middle of nowhere with the words S.S. Minnow barely decipherable on the side. It looked decidedly charred from the distance; apparently the Minnow had been a roadside attraction for quite some time but just a few weeks before Jill and I passed by, a massive brush fire swept through the area leaving just the burnt skeleton of a boat in its wake.
There is a happy ending to this story. Shortly after the fire, a group of local artists got together and started a task force to renovate the boat. A month after our sighting of the S.S. Minnow, she was restored to her former glory and now basks happily in the sun by the side of the road.
It was getting late in the day and we needed to decide upon a place to stay for the night. Jill had her heart set on seeing California’s Lost Coast; she’d heard about it from a friend who had told her it was spectacular. “Are you sure you don’t want to see Big Sur?” I asked, thinking of those sweeping ocean vistas that would be a fantastic contrast to the days of desert we were leaving behind. “Positive,” said Jill, “let’s go straight to the Lost Coast” so I pulled out the map and chose a spot for the night; Salinas.
The sun sank in the sky and the ruffled Californian hills turned first golden, then pink as the light began to fade. On the horizon, those hazy hills looked for all the world like big piles of crumpled up paper; close up they resembled lunar landscapes, at once smooth and strangely pocked with giant depressions.
Past Bakersfield we drove through the town of McKittrick just before we lost the light. The oil industry reared its ugly head with fields of grasshopper pumps, bobbing up and down, draining heavy crude from the ground below, now denuded of any vegetation that could impede progress.
As the sun bid its final farewell behind the Cymric Field pump jacks, I longed for the last rays of light to touch anywhere else but here.
We cut over to Highway 101 and instead of going further west to Highway 1 with its dramatic ocean views, we turned north in a bid to make good time to Salinas but it took us a good three hours to reach our destination. Jill’s eyes were bugging out with tiredness by the time we pulled into Salinas and started looking for a place to camp. She had been chomping on pumpkin seeds since Tehachapi in an attempt to stay focused and now I joined her as the piles of husks started to overflow from the Venti coffee cup we had designated as a trash can.
A thick fog coated the entire town and the streets were deserted. Somewhere off one of the main streets a group of men were huddled outside a venue with a broken, flickering neon sign that buzzed intermittently. I hopped out to ask them directions to the nearest campsite and they all agreed any campsite in the area would be closed by now. An older chap mentioned a motel his cousin ran, and then all of them chipped in with their personal recommendations on where to stay. I thanked them for their suggestions and got back in the car. “So?” Jill asked through a mouth full of pumpkin seeds. “Yeah, so the campsite idea would seem to be a no go.” I grabbed a fistful of seeds and started chewing. “That’s what I figured” Jill said and spit a pile of husks into her hand. In the pools of light created by our truck’s headlights we watched the guys swapping cash for bets, or merchandise, or something.
We drove back the way we came through the swirling mists. Up ahead in the distance, the California Inn Motel beckoned to us with a flashing neon sign advertising vacancies. Jill drove into the parking lot and I hopped out once again and rang the bell at the window. There was no answer so I rang again and the blind inside the window lifted by about 2 inches to reveal a little hole; you know, the sort of thing you see at gas stations after hours; a little semi-circle cut out of the glass to allow cash to be passed to the attendant while you attempt to mime exactly what it is you would like to purchase. A hand popped out of the hole and started waving around frantically. “No vacancy, no vacancy.” I stared thoughtfully at the disembodied hand for a moment, then suggested that the person attached to the hand might consider changing the neon sign outside that had led us astray. The hand showed no sign of remorse, gesticulating wildly and repeating the mantra “No vacancy.” I thanked the hand politely and returned to the truck. Jill wound down her window, spat a pile of husks onto the ground by my feet and looked at me earnestly.
“I just talked to the hand” I said. “It said no vacancy.” I got back in the truck and sat there, softly singing “Welcome to the Motel California” to the rhythm of Jill spitting husks as we stared out at the engulfing darkness. The Eagles’ Hotel California couldn’t hold a candle to the quiet desperation of our music-making. We promptly went down with a fit of the giggles, punch drunk from lack of sleep.
Thankfully our phones had reception again, so I did a quick search on motels in the area and made a few calls. The cheapest one was on the other side of town and they had vacancies. A couple of blocks down the road, we saw another motel so pulled in to do a price comparison. I was thrilled to find not only a hand, but a face and an entire body waiting to greet me at reception. The price was almost double the one we had been quoted, which I mentioned to the lady at the front desk. She asked where the motel in question was and when I told her, she shuddered and said “It’s in the bad part of town; not a place you girls should be going.“
Jill and I looked at each other for a moment; then turned the truck towards the bad part of town, agreeing that if it was too weird, we would come back to the other motel. We were both a little delirious with exhaustion at this point and when Jill gets this tired, she gets sidetracked easily. Along the way, she spotted some great old houses and before I knew it, she was driving through neighbourhoods raving about Victorian architecture while I took over the bag of pumpkin seeds and toyed with the notion that we had already found a motel room and I was actually fast asleep dreaming that we were driving around Salinas admiring houses. The fog was so thick we couldn’t see more than a few feet in front of us and the moisture-heavy air smelled like the ocean. Jill was convinced that any moment now we would turn a corner and reach the sea, but I assured her we were quite some distance from the coast and eventually we found our way back onto the freeway and took the exit for the bad part of town.
The motel was right off the freeway and came equipped with two security guards. We got chatting to them before we checked in and they turned out to be a lot of fun. They reassured us our truck would be fine out in the parking lot and we would be perfectly safe staying here because they were on duty all night. As if to prove the point, they showed us the bags of fast food they’d stocked up on to get them through their shift. We checked in, parked our truck in the lot and didn’t even bother moving much of anything into the cab; partly because we knew the security guys had our back and mostly because we had stopped caring.
We grabbed the coolers from the car to cobble together makeshift sandwiches that we ate sprawled out on our beds in front of the television. There was some sci-fi movie on with Justin Timberlake that Jill had seen before. It was halfway over when we switched it on so she tried to fill me in on what had happened up to that point, but fell asleep before finishing. I lay on the bed for a few minutes trying to muster up the energy to take off my shoes but before I had the chance, just as Justin Timberlake was running towards his movie mother, I fell asleep with the television still on and the remote control grasped in my hand.
Here’s a short video of some of the sights we saw today.
(to be continued…)