I don’t know what first attracted me to the desert. Maybe it was surviving within the inhospitable conditions. Or it could have just been the emptiness and solitude. But I finally made it out there last week after a few years. I had wanted to make a habit of taking a yearly sabbatical, where I just go off by myself for a bit, take my little 4WD truck and have some alone time.
I had been to Joshua Tree, then Death Valley and the last place I went was the Mojave National Preserve in 2010. My last sabbatical was right before I changed jobs. I wanted to go to Death Valley again next, but couldn’t in 2011 or 2012. This year I finally got my act together, but because of the government shutdown and the road conditions I couldn’t go to where I wanted to in Death Valley, so I picked a place in The Mojave National Preserve.
Roadside camping is where there is an established spot. There is a cleared area, perhaps with a fire ring. They’re all over, including national parks. The park’s website listed them, including the one I had been to last time. And I found another one that I remembered considering. This one was in Caruthers Canyon. It was accessible only with four-wheel drive. Like all roadside camping spots, there was no water, no facilities. I planned my trip and made this my destination.
October seemed the right time. My truck’s air conditioning doesn’t work so the drive wouldn’t be too hot. But it wouldn’t be too cold either. Plus, it would be just a couple weeks before National Novel Writing Month. Before the month begins I like to write up story outlines, character biographies, and backstory. I would take notebooks and pens and write. I would sit out in the desert and write, how utterly cool would that be? It’s what I wanted to do last year. I ended up going to Starbucks to do it. This year I would do it right.
I left at 5:00 am on Monday and got to the Costco in Victorville right when the gas station opened at 6. I got a cup of coffee at the Starbucks nearby and lamented that their Wi-Fi was down and I couldn’t use my iPod to check in. Then I got back out on the road headed northeast on interstate 15.
The drive was wonderful. I stayed in the slow lane most of the time. The air was cool. I passed through Barstow without stopping and kept on. The sun came up to my front right. I kept up with big-rigs as cars passed on the left. I stopped at Zyzzx to take a few pictures and then drove into Baker where I topped off the gas tank, grabbed a Subway sandwich and a can of Coke and texted Prajna that I was well.
I put the coke into the 10 gallon cooler strapped into the back of the truck. I had put two bags of ice in it the night before and topped it off with hose water.
Then I headed out. I was now farther on the 15 than I had ever been. I drove on through Mountain Pass where the scenery was stunning. Shortly before the Nevada Boarder, I turned off onto a highway. After the highway, I entered the Mojave Preserve.
I drove on a road for several miles. The pavement ended and it became pretty rough. I looked at my printed directions and my odometer to figure out when my turn would be coming. It seemed to take a long time and I wondered if I had missed it. But finally there it was, New York Mountain Road. The road was two ruts with grass in the middle and pretty sandy. I put the truck in 4WD and second gear, drove on and watched for my next turn.
I drove slowly. The last vehicle I had passed was the previous rough road about 30 minutes back. I had no cell signal. There was my next turn. I got onto Caruthers Canyon Road, still in 4WD. And now the road was uneven too. Parts of the road were washed out and there were ruts off to the left of it going around. At one point, I stopped and backed up to the alternate path. Then at one point, the newer path joined the old one in a rough dip. I stopped the truck, got out and assessed the road. I could make it. And I did. First gear, four-wheels, it wasn’t a problem, but it was a rough jolt. Once past it I looked in my mirror and saw my water cooler on its side. All my water had spilled out.
I got out of the truck and jumped in the bed. Ice was everywhere. I righted the cooler and began hand-scooping the ice chips back in. I was just a short way from my destination. But this was almost all my water. Aside from this, I had two 16 ounce containers. If I lost my water, I would have to go get some. I would have to brave those roads again for hours. I scooped and grabbed, not worrying that the bed of the truck and my hands were dirty. I kept at it until I couldn’t get any more. The cooler now was about 1/3 of the way full of ice. Once melted, it would be about 2 gallons.
I strapped the cooler down again. I had not slacked in securing it before, it was just a significant jolt. Then I drove on. I was jittery. The road split and I went to the left. A few minutes later, the road ended in a little circle. There was a fire ring. I had made it.
I pulled the truck around so it faced out and shut it off. Water was dripping out of the back. I still was awfully tense. I got my gear out and pitched my tent. I ate half my sandwich and drank the Coke.
It was absolutely silent. The wind made noise in the tree or flapped the tent, but there wasn’t even the sound of birds or insects. I was there. Now what? I couldn’t relax. For a minute I thought I had lost my iPod and almost flew into a panic. There is was next to the driver’s seat where it had come off my belt. There was a little tree there at the campsite and I set my chair under it with my writing materials. I got my composition book out and sat in the chair. Then I spent a long time journaling. And that is what I did more than anything for the time I spent there.
I got out my big notebook and worked on the outline for my November novel. I took my time with it and tried to write a lot. But I was still jittery. Someone who had camped there before had fixed a rock into a part of the tree I was under and it made a little seat. I sat on that for a bit and did some writing. Blue Like Jazz and watched a Jerusalem Beetle crawl to some shade my tent made.
The air was cool in the shade, perfect in the sun. I figured when the sun went down it would get pretty cold. I cooked my supper just as the sun went down. There was hills surrounding me and the sun disappeared before 5 pm. It was dark by 6. I bundled up and lit my camping lamp. Then sat next to my truck and read my book. I plugged speakers into my iPod and listened to soft music.
I kept getting up and walking away from my light to look at the stars. There were more stars visible in the sky than I had ever seen, even on my previous trips, now I had eyeglasses. At one point, I looked to the west and saw the tops of the mountains lit up with moonlight. The moon was shining on them before it reached me on the ground.
I watched the moon come up later. It was coming up on 9pm. I was tired and went to bed. It was cold and uncomfortable, but I managed to sleep off and on. The moonlight was brilliant enough that I could almost read by it.
I finally got up when it was light. I made coffee and breakfast. There was a lot more I wanted to work on for my novel. But I just couldn’t seem to focus on it. I was worried about getting through the big step on the way out. I was worried about the rest of the roads. And I finally broke down and admitted the truth to myself:
I was not having such a good time being farther than I had ever been from another living soul. This was a little too lonely. I was shocked at myself. The über cool loner wasn’t as much of a loner as he wanted to admit. This was too much, too far and I just couldn’t relax. Maybe it was losing all of my water, I don’t know. But I felt a little better when I finally just accepted the fact that I would have done better to spend an afternoon in Starbucks.
I packed up everything I had brought in, including the firewood I was going to use, but didn’t for lack of water to put it out. I selected a favorite CD and prayed to God that I would make it safely out without getting stuck or disabled.
I made it past the big dip and out onto the rough 4WD roads. I took one wrong turn and made it back and had no more trouble. By noon I was at the Kelso Depot, which is the park headquarters. I texted Prajna that I was alright and that I missed her.
I had a wonderful drive home though desert communities. As I drove past homes that were isolated, my first thought was how much I wished I could live there. But the thoughts faltered right away and something I never thought before replaced them. I don’t want to live way out in the middle of nowhere. I like living in the town I’m in.
I got home and everyone was watching MacGyver on Amazon Prime. People were happy to see me, but everything was just as it had been. Nothing had changed but me.