Once we left Death Valley, we were suffering from what I like to call “beauty exhaustion.” This is a state in which one has been so consistently surrounded by majestic views and gorgeous mountains striped and marbled with a rainbow of colors that your brain reaches a point of saturation, and you can still see these things, and you know intellectually that they’re amazing, but you are now numbed to it. Unable to respond to them on any kind of an emotional level.
“Oh look, another stunning vista.”
“What, another one? What’s the next town?”
We had spent most of the last two days in the countryside, surrounded by natural beauty, both stark and magnificent. We had spent long hours on empty highways, and towns were our lifeline. More than that, they were a source of comfort to us; driving through a town was an assurance that we were not going to end up stuck in the desert, chewing charred meat from the bones of ground squirrels and suffering the sliminess of poorly prepared nopales, slowly dying of thirst. I think that hitting the tire in Nevada and the punishing heat of Death Valley both drove home how much our lives really depended on the Chrysler. This is a feeling that I don’t remember from our previous trips, but our previous trips weren’t through some of the nation’s hottest country in the height of summer. Those trips were in the spring, and there were times I needed a sweatshirt… and no times at all that I was aware of the possibility of dying from heat and thirst.
This was different.
The next town was Death Valley Junction, California (formerly Amargosa, California), population: four. Yes, four. I had been so hopeful… but the “town” consisted only of a couple of old buildings, one being the large hotel and theater complex. We were lured in by a hand-painted sign offering ice cream. The parking lot was massive and empty, and the sidewalks cracked.
The hotel was staffed by one cranky middle aged woman in glasses, who sold us each a pre-packaged ice cream from a chest freezer in the gift shop. It was such a small sale that I regretted even having troubled her with it. The theater was closed up with padlocks and in one case, a cleverly twisted wire hanger.
We found ice and provisions but no California State map in Shoshone, and ended up picking up a map at a Mexican grocery in Baker, CA. The entrance to Mojave National Preserve was just across the street from where we were.
So we set off. The Mojave was some of the flattest, emptiest country that we drove through. There was a gentle climb in elevation, and it was fascinating to see how far up we had to go before the weather became moderate enough to support even the prehistoric-looking joshua trees.
Mojave was supposed to be a major part of the trip. I had wanted to see Hole-In-The-Wall Canyon, and the Kelso Dunes, and we were scheduled to spend last night at Hole-In-The-Wall Campground. Still a day behind. We picked up a map at Kelso, a ghost town and ranger station inside the preserve, and decided that Hole-In-The-Wall was too far to backtrack to. We needed to make up that time somewhere. The road out to the Kelso dunes was too rough for us to trust the Chrysler, with its already badly beat up front end. With a keen feeling of disappointment, we more or less ended up simply driving straight through the Mojave.
Our road brought us to Route 66, one of our favorite highways. We headed west on 66 and came to Amboy, California. We saw the big fifties style sign for Amboy Roy’s Cafe… from our previous travels, the huge old signs had become associated with delicious burgers in my mind and we stopped. I went inside and found that it was more or less a convenience store.
“Excuse me,” I said to the man inside, “do you know where in town we might find a hamburger?”
“This is it.”
“This is the town.”
“Oh,” then desperately, “do you have hamburgers?”
“No kitchen,” he said.
The store was full of mementos from Amboy Roy’s glory days, photo albums of bikers and scantily dressed women at the diner.
We moved on.
We headed south on North Amboy Road, and we passed monstrous heaps and berms of earth. At first we speculated as to what they could be, but on the other side of the road, nestled between two of the berms, we saw a long, rectangular pool of water. The water inside was clear blue-green, vivid under the midday sky, and it was rimmed in white crusts.
It was an evaporation pool. They were wringing salt from the soil of the desert.
A bit further down, we found an old, burned out trailer. It had been a handsome little thing at some point, pink with bright chromed trim. Now gutted, it sagged hopelessly to one side. Someone had loved this place… someone had at least cared about it enough to mark paths through the native vegetation with borders of small stones. Inside was the carcass of a little propane cook stove.
We continued along North Amboy, and it began to slope downwards. We were heading into Wonder Valley.