I know that a site with the title “Lureofthebeach” should only include trips to the beach but having been to Santa Monica a little while ago and having the need for a road trip after getting vaccinated the decision was to head elsewhere. Road trips in our family are needed on a regular basis and we have visited every state in the continental U.S. while on these trips. This would only be a short trip but was much needed after a lockdown for a year. Our favorite part of the country is the West–with deserts, mountains and plains it has always intrigued us. California has much of this type of scenery so this trip was designed to go to the mountains and the desert. Having traveled over this terrain for decades this journey was over familiar ground where comparing the present to the past was constant.
Heading north out of LA the great change are the freeways rather than old roads and the constant expansion of the suburbs. It seems every valley is now occupied while the mountains remain clear, all the way to Palmdale and Lancaster which now form one single community along the freeway. North of Lancaster the countryside is more rural and deserty all the way to Mojave the last town with road services and a vast park for airplanes sent into the desert for storage. After that it is really high desert. Not that it is all sand. There are plants growing everywhere but they all have one thing in common and that is they do not depend on rain which falls rarely. So at this time of year the plants are green and grey and the landscape monotonous. Then, slowly emerging on the horizon, is a lava wall that is the remnant of a volcanic area. Black and menacing the wall slides along for a few miles and the road, by now the famous Highway 395 that goes from the near Mexican border to the Oregon state line, starts to climb and then suddenly at the crest is Little Lake. The lake was created when Los Angeles was building the aqueduct that carried Owens River Valley water to the booming city to the south. It was designed to provide water for the way station with facilities that functioned to provide for people going north to the building sites. The need for that is long gone as a modern highway and new cars make the trip north in a matter of hours rather than days. Just to the north of Little Lake is cinder cone as part of a field of cones that clearly indicate where the lava wall came from. The volcano is an introduction to the tectonic activity that created the Eastern Sierra range that starts to rise on the left as you go north. It is just like a great wave of granite about to crash into Owens Lake and it is beautiful and overwhelming. The highest peak is Mt. Whitney at 14,505 which I will admit I have never climbed. A little way to the East is the lowest point in the U.S. in Death Valley.
After admiring the mountains it is time to go back to the desert by taking Highway 395 off to the East and South. Again there is mile after mile, not of sand but arid waste with the plants that manage in the dryness. As we go south there are towns such as Ridgecrest and Inyokern and huge military bases such as the China Lake Naval Air Weapons Station in the middle of which is one of the greatest aggregations of Petroglyphs in California. As mile after mile goes by there always seem to be little hamlets and single houses out in the middle of nowhere that manage to deal with the desert. Can there be this many retired people living here? One sign of life are the growing fields of solar panels, some seemingly covering square miles, that just don’t dot the landscape but overwhelm it. We constantly head east and south avoiding Barstow and getting into more and more desert conditions and again there are always little settlements off in the distance with an occasional ghost town thrown in to mark the passing of mines. Occasionally modern roads peter out, one supposes the money ran out, and you are suddenly on the old fashioned desert road where the landscape was not contoured and cars go rolling along from hillock to hillock, up and down you go. The most dramatic example comes when you approach 29 Palms. By now Joshua Trees are getting thicker and thicker and you go uphill to face a downhill that is really downhill. If you were skiing you would quickly find an edge to start slowing or turning, but in a car you just have to go straight down and hit the brakes. There are three of these steep descents before you hit the built up part of the town which has the usual malls sprinkled along the highway. After going through the Morongo Valley, where there is a great birding spot at a watery marsh, now being engulfed by development as this whole area is, you descend to the true desert of sand dunes and the improbable Palm Springs. While the towns, such as 29 Palms, are modestly middle class, Palm Springs and much of the Coachella Valley reeks of serious money where there are hotels that charge $700 dollars a night for an ordinary room. The Cahuilla, the local Indian Nation, are building gambling resorts to extract as many dollars as they can. For a long time the only visible evidence of the tribes was the land that they owned which went undeveloped while right next to it malls were going up. Now they have a casino right in the middle of Palm Springs which was undeveloped land for a very long time. The area is no longer the simple escape from LA that attracted a lot of the movie world in the 50s and 60s.
When one gets ready to leave it is a matter of getting on Interstate 10 and heading for the pass between Mt. San Jacinto and Mt. San Gorgonio two 11,000 peaks with snow much of the year. The pass between them has been the way into the LA basin since people walked through, then rode, came by coach, and ultimately by car. When I first came through it there was just this extensive valley floor with not much on it. Now it is a vast forest of Wind Turbines that goes on for miles taking advantage of the nearly constant winds between the peaks. So speeding by the mechanical monsters one goes through it and heads on into the endless suburbs that are the sprawl of greater Los Angeles.