Marvellous Mojave


Picture yourself in a pink Cadillac convertible driving westward from LA through the great expansive Mojave Desert towards glitzy Las Vegas. Sounds like the ideal road trip doesn’t it! No Cadillac for us though as we headed off in our red, dusty little hatchback, which was packed to the seams with stuff we didn’t really need for our trip.

Interstate 10 goes west from suburban LA through Palm Springs and onto Joshua Tree National park, which was our first destination. The Mojave starts about 50 miles west of LA and as you leave suburbia the vegetation shrivels up to leave only the occasional low-lying bush.

Just before Palm Springs is San Gorgonio pass with thousands of tall steel wind turbines by the side of the freeway. Standing stock still they lay in wait for a puff of wind. Like everything else they lacked energy in the sapping heat. When the hot desert wind blows here the turbines can produce enough electricity for a small city.

Palm Springs is a desert oasis retreat for the very well to do and the retired. Palm Springs is an unusual mixture of social sets. It is undoubtedly a party place for the very wealthy. Recently it has surpassed the Florida Keys as the most popular gay holiday destination in the US and the power of the pink dollar in the city is self-evident. There is also a big retirement community with the warm dry weather working wonders on old arthritic joints. Water is a precious commodity in the desert, but here it is lavished extravagantly onto the fairways of the many golf courses and poured into the swimming pools and spas of the exclusive hotels and private homes. There is not much to do during the hot summer days if you are staying in Palm Springs except lounge around the pool under guaranteed sunshine or stay indoors in air-conditioned rooms. The town centre has many exclusive boutiques but in the middle of the day when we passed through it the place was like a ghost town. We stopped for a crushed ice fruit drink (smoothie) at the only open café and moved on eastward leaving the statue of Lucille Ball sitting serenely in the shadows.

About an hour further on, the nearest town to Joshua Tree National Park is the curiously named town of Twentynine Palms; not a palm tree in sight though, not even a plastic one. There is, however, the garishly coloured Hi Desert Museum full of tacky souvenirs and a few dead animals with a giant Road Runner statue outside. The Road Runner statue is modelled on the real bird often seen in these parts and not on the cartoon version and would easily scare any self-respecting predatory cartoon coyote. Twentynine Palms was a good place to stock up on a few provisions for a night in the desert.

There are plenty of places you can stay in comfort and use as a base to visit the desert and you can usually get relatively cheap accommodation – apart from Palm Springs which can be quite pricey. But to really experience the desert you have to camp out under the stars far enough away from city lights that the stars are so bright that they look like they will fall down on top of you. Nothing beats eating your dinner by campfirelight and listening to wailing coyotes in the distance. You do need to be careful where you pitch your tent in the desert and to avoid dry washes and deep canyons as a sudden thunderstorm even many miles away can cause flash floods that can even be up to 20 feet high in places.

Joshua Tree National park is at a transitional point in the California desert. The trees grow at an elevation of 3,000 feet or higher and are in the Mojave which is called the high desert. The low desert is the Colorado Desert and it stretches south into Mexico and east into Arizona. The Joshua trees (made famous by that U2 album) have been called the world’s ugliest trees, but silhouetted against a setting sun their ungainly appearance transforms to that exotic desert image exploited so often by advertisers. It was Mormon pioneers who first named these strange trees because they thought they looked like Joshua praying with his hands extended upwards towards the heavens. He must have been all hands and legs.

Joshua trees can grow up to 40 ft high and may be as old as 800 years old according to some estimates so they are slow growers. They usually flower in the spring and have white flowers. Beside the Joshua trees there are often growing innocuous little hardy creosote bushes. They lay claim to usurp the gnarled 4,000 year old Bristlecone pines in the White Mountains further north as the oldest living things on the planet. Some of the original plants may be up to 11,000 years old, but their claim as the oldest living clones are probably more valid as it is impossible to tell which is the original plant.

There are many hiking trails through the Joshua tree forests, but you need to take care when hiking in the desert especially in the summer heat. It is probably best to rest during the middle of the day and keep any strenuous activity to either ends of the day. Although it is a forest, the Joshua trees do not provide much shade and respite from the heat of the desert sun. Dehydration is the biggest danger you will face and you need to drink up to a gallon or more of water a day. You are unlikely to be bitten by a poisonous snake, as most of them will scarper when the feel the vibrations of your feet as you walk. Watch out for shady areas under bushes and clumps of rocks where they may be sleeping, as a disturbed snake is most dangerous. The coyotes are particularly tame in the park and in the late afternoon they come onto the road and will stroll curiously around your car. They are, however, wild animals and are probably the best scavengers around. They have even been known to chew on the odd tennis shoe. Tarantulas, those big hairy spiders, are easy to spot as they can be up to 10 inches across, but their bite is not actually poisonous just rather painful.

The Trona Pinnacles near Ridgecrest in the Northern part of the Mojave are one of the most alien looking things anywhere on the planet. They have been used in Star Trek V to illustrate another world in another solar system, so you may have to share the place with some trekky fan. Down the end of a three-mile dirt track off the main road the pinnacles are about five hundred large tufa stacks spread out over fifteen square miles. The tufa was formed when calcium rich underground springs and algae interacted deep under the ancient lake that filled the valley. Chalk like deposits were built up little by little to form jagged shapes over the centuries. The lake has been gone for over 10,000 years and the pinnacles are now exposed to the elements and slowly wearing down. They were even more eerie at night when the wind swirled around them and they were silhouetted against a slow moving full moon and lightening flashes far off in the distance.

Red Rock Canyon is another movie location visited by science fiction buffs as the opening sequences of the Jurassic Park were shot here. It is near the town of Mojave and the main road runs through it. The rocks look like they are on fire in the light of a setting sun that reflects radiantly off their surface. They are equally beautiful in the morning if you can get up early enough to see them before the light whitens. This is a very popular place for rock climbing.

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