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Desert Nocturne

Originally Published in Trailer Life Magazine

The Xplorer van conversion and I hadn’t been on a proper road trip. After tinkering with the interior and having some minor engine work done, I’d settled the mile-scarred Class B into various local campsites, and she’d proven to be a great improvement over my previous RV, the pop-up trailer that was cold and lacking. But the cozy motorhome and I hadn’t set out on a real adventure. So I pulled out a map, pointed to a black squiggle that slices through the vast emptiness of California’s Mojave Desert and reminded myself that my favorite roads are the ones I’ve never driven. I double-checked that everything I thought I’d need was in the van, then set out the next morning on a three-state desert excursion.

Even on a Saturday morning, Los Angeles’ traffic reminded me why I was getting out of town. The Interstate 10 freeway east finally managed to free itself of collisions and construction just about the time I headed north on Route 62, toward Yucca Valley and past one of my favorite places, Joshua Tree National Park. I toyed with the idea of spending the night in the park, but it was early yet, and the Xplorer was slowly chewing up the miles, shirking off the pronounced wind and seeming to beg for more. Since I’d covered this stretch of road many times, and since the unknown beckoned only a few miles ahead, we plugged onward.

I would have been more comfortable with the sign on the eastern edge of Twentynine Palms that said Next Services 100 Miles had the speedometer and odometer not stopped working three miles before I read it. These dashboard indicators, I told myself, don’t necessarily contribute to the successful passage across a barren landscape. In fact, since I don’t exceed the speed limit and since I now knew definitively that I would have no need for an odometer for the next 100 miles, I should be fine, I rationalized. The fact that the gas gauge had also conked out didn’t fill me with confidence. I had, however, sought an adventure, and now I had one.

So I nosed the rig through a landscape scarred by shattered dreams. Abandoned structures whose builders had long ago succumbed to the ruthless desert climate slowly surrendered to the twin tortures of time and temperature. Small, empty cinder-block units gave way to a few mobile homes that I thought must be inhabited by either hearty desert lovers or dedicated misanthropes. Soon thereafter, the only trace of human influence became the road itself, the ribbon of blacktop cutting through creosote and splitting the Iron Mountains and the Granite Mountains. A turn now and again, a full palette of browns and beiges and a wind fierce enough to remind me that I was a small entity in a big, brutal world contributed to my feeling of utter contentment. Mile after mile of new terrain, a working CD player and a Dodge van that had yet to leave me stranded in the middle of nowhere explained the grin on my face.

When I finally hit Route 95 and decided — despite the exorbitant price of gas — to fill the tank, I learned that one of those powerful gusts of wind had ripped the small aluminum fuel-tank door from the driver’s side of the van. Guess I should have fixed the busted hinge, I thought. One advantage of driving a vehicle that’s not worth much is that its demise is not worth much worry. So, worry-free, I drove past a sign that read Next Services 49 Miles.

I spent the night in the free, no-hookup Ramada Express RV park in Laughlin, Nevada (winning back the 60 bucks at the poker table I had lost on my previous visit). I slept soundly among my fellow RVers, woke early, filled up in Bullhead City, Arizona (far cheaper than on the Nevada side of the Colorado River that separates the two towns), then took Route 68 out of town, toward Kingman, Arizona.

In the tiny desert town of Dolan Springs on Pierce Ferry, off the major north-south artery of 93, my mother owns a small piece of property. To travel its buckboard access road without later needing the services of a chiropractor requires 4WD. The van, along with all else it lacks, does not feature this off-roading must. I arrived at the property an inch shorter and in need of dental work, but I soon found myself using a Pulaski to level a patch of land so I could settle the increasingly humble vehicle among the Joshua trees. An hour and a half of heaving rocks and eyeballing garnered me an exhausted night’s sleep, the yaps and howls of coyotes providing the perfect desert lullaby.

The next day I settled into a campsite at Lake Mead. As I set up my lantern and camp chair at 4pm, ready to bundle up against the cold and read long into the night, a generator roared to life in the next campsite. Six hours later it shuddered off. The next night brought seven more such hours. I cursed television and those who can’t live without it, then set out for a more-remote outpost.

I found it in Mojave National Preserve, a huge, wide-open swath of stark emptiness located in Southern California between I-15 and I-40. Favored by off-roaders and fans of dusty nothingness, the Preserve delivered the silence I sought. But first I had to come to terms with the fact that my four maps contradicted each other. Camping existed in the Preserve, I knew; I just didn’t know where. Twenty miles of washboard dirt roads were punctuated by tiny signs with a picture of a Jeep on them, which I took to mean I could soon be in trouble. I soldiered on, however, and my careful, inching negotiation of ruts delivered me to the empty Mid Hills Campground, where I spent a cold, quiet night under the stars.

On the drive home, the van’s brake light went on.

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