At the end of last year, the pull of the wide open spaces of the American West was too great, and I once again undertook what has become an every 2 year ritual, a road trip through part of the American West.
North of Palm Springs, and home, the tiny dot on the map that is Amboy, CA generally marks the start of these road trips. Driving down old Route 66 a short distance takes one past various desert detritus, in this case a deserted service station. The lonely ribbon of Route 66 can be seen in the distance. The road, lifeblood of these trips, and the specific romance of Route 66, always seems an appropriate place to start, a genuflection to that legacy and the allure of the open road.
Heading north, and in the heart of the Mohave Desert ,sit the Kelso Dunes, the largest such dunes in the desert. There is a well trodden path for visitors out into the dunes. It feels a little like following tracks heading towards a sledding hill, toboggan in tow. But peeling off the path, one can get lost in the hushed splendor of the wind rustling the sand, with this set against the simple geometry of dunes , plains, and mountain. For a moment, one can channel Lawrence of Arabia, imagining his camel rising on the horizon.
Near the border of Nevada and California is an extraordinary industrial installation, the Ivanpah Solar facility. It sits adjacent to I-15, passed by thousands daily. Why was I just finding out about this? I was memorized .
3 large towers sit, encircled by huge arrays of solar panels, that direct their energy up to the towers, where it is absorbed. I was struck by the fact that these huge towers were about the only thing that could be in scale with the vast surroundings. As I sat flabbergasted, I was also struck by how matter of fact it all seemed. The I-15 drivers all barreled past , seemingly oblivious, no doubt visions of pots of gold that lay on the horizon in Las Vegas, or perhaps more immediately, a Happy Star Burger at the impending Carl’s Junior just up ahead.
The following day found me in the wide open spaces of the Colorado Plateau in Arizona and Utah, specifically around the Colorado River. I took a short hike to the edge of this plateau, to take in the vastness, where in the distance one can regard a single butte 60 or miles away. I never cease to be astounded by the scale of this spectacle. In the foreground, the Colorado River, fresh from desperately trying to keep drought stricken Lake Powell from drying up, narrowed in preparation for pouring through Glen Canyon Dam.
But what I was I really struck by was the middle ground, the massive Navajo Generating Station. It is the west’s largest power generating facility, and apparently the massive coal plant accounts for 30% of ALL of Arizona’s emissions from energy generation. I did not know that sobering fact on this morning. Instead , what I was transfixed by was what appeared to be a giant phantom of steam and gas, hovering, rather menacingly I thought, over the plateau. Perhaps it was the Ghost of Climate Change, admonishing us that we are doomed.
Past Page and the dam, the Colorado is allowed to return to its natural state , carving through the red sandstone of northern Arizona, on its way to the Grand Canyon. Horseshoe Bend is particularly scenic . As it is near the side of the road, it is a well-trammelled walk to the edge of the canyon. On any day, hundreds will amass at the edge of the canyon for the photo-op. But they rarely venture beyond this point.
So, one can walk down the canyon a bit, and soon have the place to one-self, where I meditated on the millennia long effort to carve this cathedral. A half mile below, a low hum of a single motor boat churned up the river, indifferent to us all above.
As is often the case, an unskilled photographer cannot possibly capture the splendor and scale of a place as extraordinary as Zion Canyon. A highlight of the trip, I hiked from the bottom to the very top of the canyon, a 2,500 foot climb on the Observation Point trail that takes one tight along the shear canyon walls, and on this day, along an increasingly icy, snow-packed trail, often at the edge of a cliff, and finally to the top of the canyon.
It was pretty exhausting, as one also has altitude to deal with, but the feeling of exhilaration at the top is priceless, and on this day, the weather, though very cold, was perfect. Bucket List- Hike from the bottom to the top of Zion canyon- Big Check.
Some of these stops were planned and extraordinary, others not so much- say, when one has drank too much coffee. This seemed like a good spot, and I was drawn to what was across the street.
On a road trip, there are basic needs that need to be tended to, and as I was taking care of that , I regarded the home across the street. People do live out here, and there are some absolutely extraordinary settings for homes. Yet many of these are quite modest, and their basic needs can be no different than any suburban home on a cul-de-sac. Take, for example, “Trash Day”.
I had hoped to hike the legendary Wave rock formation along the Arizona/Utah border, but was unable to obtain a permit. So, I was told about the “next wave”, an almost as exotic landscape in Utah . It was quite journey to find it, at some point I became quite concerned that my non-4 wheel drive rental might not make it on the increasingly rutty dirt tracks. In settings like this, alone, having not seen another car for hours, the mind can’t help but wander- what the fuck am I doing?
But alas, I found the trail, and made my way out to a well-worth-the-effort fantasy land of undulating colored rock. I sat in pockets of rock, completely subsumed by the formation. It was dizzying , otherworldly.
After some time exploring, I had to start to make my back, as it was now early afternoon. But I couldn’t find the trail. I searched, I double-backed, I got back up on the ridge where there was snow, followed foot steps, which turned out to be own from 5 minutes earlier. For the first time, I think ever in these settings, I felt a bit of panic set in. It was 2:00 in the afternoon- what if I don’t find the trail. What if I am stuck here- how much water do I have? I turned again, no I’ve been here too. I was disoriented, and sat down. I was sweating, it had been an hour of this. (“Stranded hiker found living on pond runoff while keeping wolves at bay”).
After calming down, I headed out again, and finally managed to find my way out. And of course, 5 minutes later I ran into a family, dog in tow, ready to play on the rocks. 5 minutes after that another family, with a kite. My panic seemed absurd now. I headed for the car. Life lesson- keep calm.
Into Nevada, and onto the lonely roads. Driving in Nevada, through the Basin and Range, has a mesmerizing rhythm to it. One drives 5o miles across a basin, range in the distance, seeming so close, yet an hour passes. Finally, the drama of climbing through the range, wondering what awaits on the other side. And…………….another basin. Another beautiful lonely basin.
Goldfield , Nevada is one of the most bizarre towns I have been to. It is a ghost town, but really almost a city. Once a thriving city of 30,000, it is now largely deserted, but has left behind an amazing collection of buildings, a huge hotel, civic buildings, shops and offices, many finally crafted and substantial multi-story structures. A few do still call the town home, though often seeming to live in the trailer next to the crumbling house.
And in this setting , at the edge of town, sits this, a sculpture park…… of vehicles. It seems an appropriate graveyard for these vehicles. Nevada has a lived-in rawness that the other states lack, its old mines, dwellings, and yes cars, sit astride its natural wonders, open for inspection. I love this about Nevada.
Nevada is a state of distances, with the vast lonely space between its calling card. So this seemed like an apt , and ironic, way to end this post. Beginning with an homage to the original open road, Route 66, churning through California, Arizona, and Utah, it ended here, in the high desert of Nevada, with a bus turned on its side and blasted into the earth.