I can remember getting into the Jeep and maybe driving down around West Covina, past the Home Depot and the bowling alley, back up to the 210, maybe getting off at Foothill and driving east thinking of stopping at Kohls. I drive over to Montclair Plaza and go into Barnes and Noble. When I’m coming in the front doorway, there’s an alcove there with discount books. A black woman is looking at some volumes, wearing a black t-shirt with the words ‘Man Up’. It’s a Nike shirt. I say ‘Nice t-shirt’ to her and she smiles. I go in and head to the magazine section looking for a truck magazine, something with modern, new trucks, but all they have is the mags that tout the huge diesels and crawlers, the monsters. I look for the automotive book section, but it’s been moved. Fiction, that’s where I go. I pick up a copy of ‘Tale Of Two Cities’ by Charles Dickens, after reading about an author who’d mentioned the classic characterizations of Dickens. The woman with the black t-shirt moves around the aisle and lands near me, so I ask her where she got the t-shirt. Perhaps a son or daughter is an athlete?
It’s her son, she says, a track athlete. 16 years old, junior 100 meter champ, she says, and we talk. Track, student athletes, the old days, but just a bit, I didn’t want to bore her with tales of the epic meets in the 60s and 70s. They live in Chino Hills and we talk about the development there, continuing strong now, even in the recession. She’s proud of her son and thinks he might get a scholarship. He needs a coach, she says, and they’re looking at various track clubs in the area. He’s got speed and endurance, and is a good 800m runner, and maybe a 1500m man. She is nice, and finally I say, Well, nice talking to you. She makes a speedy exit.
On Saturday, the streets of Claremont are ready for the Tour of California bike race, and I feel the walls beginning to crawl in. Back at the Claremont Club a swim meet is underway with the PA announcer and the kids, races underway. It’s time to head out. I take I-15 up to Victorville, and then up past the logistics airport into Adelanto. North of Adelanto on US395 the driving is free and clear. Up almost to Ridgecrest I take the Trona Highway, the back route around Ridgecrest to the east, and head up into the Panamint Valley. Stopping for gas, Karl rings in.
‘I’m in Trona,’ I say.
‘Trona. I’m 80 miles from Death Valley.’
‘Oh, wow. Hey, tomorrow night that jazz trio is playing at the Kitty. Interested?’
‘OK. Right now, I’m trying to outrun the rapture. If all goes well, we’ll have another day though, right?’
‘Yeah. I’m at the bank right now.’
‘Closing down all your accounts?’
‘Got it all in my pocket.’
‘On your way to the Moody Blues concert,’ I say, ‘Put it all on Rapture, to place.’
‘Right.’ Karl likes that.
Fueled and fired up, I head up into the beautiful Panamint Valley, dropping down through some twists and turns into the flat part of the valley, going north to the Death Valley cutoff. When I reach the cutoff, the sign says it’s only 28 miles to Stovepipe Wells, the unofficial ‘paying’ entrance to the park. It had always seemed like a much longer drive through Emigrant Pass and on down to the valley floor. The drive goes well and there’s not much traffic at all. Coming down the long straight stretch before Stovepipe I see two motorcyclists behind me but they don’t run up on me and push me. They pull into the Stovepipe station and so do I. I pay my entrance fees and drive further into the park past the dunes and the cutoff to Scotty’s Castle, and head down into the lower regions of the badlands. At Furnace Creek, I stop for gas.
The two motorcyclists are there, along with a Ferrari. When the Ferrari fires up, the sound is classic Italian, the pipes high and tuned, and I reach into the Jeep and pull out the camera and shoot a couple of pics of the Ferrari as it pulls out onto the main road. I talk to the motorcycle riders.
‘Like that Versys’, I say. He’s got a green Kawasaki Versys.
‘Nice little bike,’ he says.
‘Got enough power for a road trip like this?’
‘Plenty. Got it up to 110 moving with that Ferrari.’
‘You guys were keeping up with the Ferrari?’ I say.
The other rider has a BMW 1200 GT, a classic powerful road bike.
‘Yeah,’ the BMW rider says, ‘When he punched it I let it out and it sputtered a bit but we were having fun keeping up for the most part.’
‘I was looking at the Versys for a bit when I was checking out bikes. 650 twin, right?’
‘Right. It can get up to 120, 130, no problem. Goes off road a bit too.’
I ask them if I can shoot a couple of pictures and they grin, standing on the pump platform.
I head out the east end past the Furnace Creek Inn and out and up onto the flat plain of the eastern portion of the vast, unhurried desert. The park is magnificent, un-visited mostly, with a timeless feel and look about it’s epic flats and striking mountain ranges. The contrast is stunning. I’m also happy that the park hasn’t seemed as remote and forbidding as it has in the past. Even driving out east, I know I’m in for some miles before Shoshone, and down to Baker. I’m still a long way from home. It doesn’t feel like that desolation I’d experienced before. Of course, that night driving in the Panamint can spook anyone. And at night, this kind of driving is much slower and requires much more concentration and precision. I’m glad it’s light out. Driving these long stretches of empty desert road are draining, both physically and mentally, requiring constant concentration, and the possibility of breakdown or mechanical failure is something you can’t take lightly. I’m prepared. I have food, shelter, enough to get me by for even a couple of days if I have to.
Shoshone is beautiful, and I slow, going through the town. The Shoshone Inn looks standard, but it’s the location that makes it special. There’s water there apparently, because as you enter the town from the north there’s quite a bit of swampy rushes where water runs. Trees surround the town. The Crow Bar Café looks like a hideout and I almost stop there, seeing a few people at tables under the big wide porch awning. The front of the place looks like a cross between an orderly junk yard and a cowboy museum. I need to make some time, though, and it’s only around 4:00. I’ve got another hour to Baker, and an hour to Barstow. I can have dinner at Coco’s in Barstow and keep myself nourished.
South of Shoshone the terrain varies, from rolling mesas that abut the mountains to the west, to the straight-line strethces down past the Dumont Dunes through the Saddle Peak Hills, the Black Mountains and the Alawatz Mountains,. It is beautiful in the late light of the afternoon, and the traffic is very, very light. Almost no cars or trucks at all. Although the light appears to be good to shoot some photos, I don’t stop and continue all the way into Baker when I stop for gas. It’s only 65 miles to Barstow. I’d forgotten how far it was, thinking it might be as much as 120 miles. I’m happy that it’s not far. I get into Barstow and eat at Coco’s, that has re-located across the road and up a block. The meal is good. The restaurant is nearly empty, but for four fire fighters including two women, and a family with their mother.
The desert puts me in a good place. It usually does. There were no epiphanies, no revelations, and thank God, no rapture. It’s a long day, and I feel fine driving the long open roads of the expansive forgotten regions of the eastern part of the state. The Jeep drives fine. There’s about a month or so that I can get back in there, to Shoshone, perhaps, and explore the eastern part of the park before the heat is too much. The Shoshone Inn and the Crow Bar look like places where I could hang out and wander around, talk to some locals, make friends with the bikers, have a few beers. Not too many people roam that part of the country in June, July, August, September. Yes, it’s hot and desolate and I have to be prepared and careful, but with plenty of water and shelter, it should be a good excursion. The stories will come, if I let them. The drama will unfold as it always will, on its own time and in the contexts that reflect the complexities of the region. The best part, maybe, of the day’s trip, was that it re-set my sense of the remoteness, and brought that special region of barren landscape closer, made it seem less difficult to travel and to reach. Anza Borrego and Joshua Tree are beautiful and easy to travel in a day, and be back. There’s no sense of foreboding, no element of risk in those locations.
Death Valley always represents a stretch for me, a reach, a gamble, the race against the mythical time and the fading light that darkens the landscape and the soul. And, there are a few other remote outposts nearby that are worth finding; Amargosa, Beatty, even Scotty’s Junction. That area, further east even than Death Valley, between the park and the California-Nevada border, is really remote.