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Driving California's Mojave Desert and Death Valley

On California’s Highway 190 in the Mojave Desert,

Photo: Noah Webb

We left the park the next morning via 190, north through Towne Pass, in the Panamint Mountains—an arcing, twisting trip past razor-sharp peaks that led to territory more from the Desert 101 textbook: flat, dusty, hot, boring—all well summarized for us in a small town called Trona. A local back in the valley had described the desolate burg this way: “If you were scouting a site for a movie about post-apocalypse America, this would be your choice,” he had said, and he wasn’t exaggerating. I swear, we didn’t see another living being as we passed the town’s golf course, its two smoke-belching factories, and a big, deserted-looking gas station.

Next, we stopped off at the Calico Ghost Town, a restored 19th-century mining town turned tourist attraction. The train ride around the park was a nice trip down the Old West’s memory lane, but nothing like what awaited us at our final stop, 55 miles north on I-15: Baker (population 914) and the Mojave National Preserve. Baker continued the Twilight Zone motif nicely. It has three motels—the Royal Hawaiian, the Wills Fargo, and the Bun Boy, which a ranger had advised was the most recently updated.

The friendly, middle-aged lady who checked me in at the Bun Boy wanted to sell me a lotto ticket along with the room, but I demurred, though I later heard that this single motel/convenience store has had more lotto winners than any in the state. Inside room No. 103, we found an oversize bed, a TV with limited cable service, an enchanting view of nearby I-15, and a hand-printed sign on the back of the front door: Please keep door closed. Snake spotted.

Nothing in the Mojave National Preserve could quite match this experience, though the nation’s largest Joshua tree forest came pretty close, and a trudge up and down the preserve’s 45-square-mile Kelso Dunes—one of the largest dune fields in the United States—wasn’t something you get the chance to do every day. We capped the day off at the Mad Greek Café, across the street from the Bun Boy Motel. We had two excellent Greek salads seated in the shadow of a plastic statue of Hercules in a restaurant out in the middle of the California desert.

The snake never appeared, and by the next morning we were ready to leave the Mojave as anonymously as possible. But the desert has its own rules. When the clerk at the Bun Boy took my key back, she asked again if I wanted a lotto ticket. I hesitated, and then heard myself say, “Sure. What the hell?” The payoff of a road trip through the Mojave is that you just can’t leave without taking some of it with you.

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