When we told Max we were taking another road trip he was less than enthused because he knew that the first couple of days would be a test of his endurance as we crossed through some of the harshest places in the country.
No way to avoid it, road tripping across the vast swaths of the American West usually means driving through some of the most boring scenery imaginable to get to some of the most visually stunning places.
About one hour east from Max’s house is the western perimeter of the Mojave Desert. “Mojave” is a Native American word that means “died of thirst under the blazing sun while surrounded by flesh-eating tarantulas.”
Actually, I made that up. “Mojave” is really a shortened form of “Hamakhaave,” the Mojave Indian word meaning “beside the water.” Heh.
The Mojave Desert is primarily within southeastern California and southern Nevada but there are bits extending into Arizona and Utah. The desert is enormous, covering 47,877 sq mi (124,000 km2) which is larger than 20 of the states in the US. It also boasts the lowest, hottest and driest places in North America.
The highest peak within the Mojave is Charleston Peak in Nevada at 11,918 feet (3,633 m). The lowest elevation is Badwater Basin in Death Valley California at 279 feet (85 m) below sea level. The climate is beyond extreme with annual temperatures that range from 0 °F (−18 °C) to 130 °F (54 °C). Rainfall is less than 2 inches (51 mm) a year.
Interstate 15 is the principal route across the Mojave. Because it connects Las Vegas and Los Angeles, it is always congested with lots of heavy truck traffic jockeying with passenger vehicles full of folk intent on getting to Sin City to hear Celine Dion sing about the Titanic.
Though hostile and notoriously dangerous, this arid region is very popular with visitors and not just those going to Vegas but also those interested in the legendary Death Valley and Joshua Tree National Parks or the many ghost towns, early man sites and off-road adventure opportunities.
There is a strong military presence in the Mojave including the largest Marine Corps base in the world, along with Edwards Air Force Base and the Naval Air Weapons Station China Lake which is known for its experimental aviation and weapons projects.
The presence of these bases might account for the many reports of supposed alien activity in the desert night skies.
A tradition when crossing the Mojave (aside from sweating blue bullets hoping your vehicle will not overheat, blow a tire or run out of gas) is to comment on the roadside attractions like the Calico ghost town, the Peggy Sue Diner, the meth labs in Barstow, the rare earth mineral mines in Mountain Pass or the ever-popular attractions of Baker and ZzyZx.
Just try typing that last one fast.
Baker California, about two hours east of Max’s abode, is a one-street town that proclaims itself the Gateway to Death Valley. This one-street respite from the freeway is home to the world’s tallest thermometer, a 134 foot tall electric sign that was erected in 1991 to commemorate the record 134 °F (57 °C) recorded in nearby Death Valley on July 10, 1913.
Whoo-hooo, could it ever get more exciting? Yes, it can, read on.
Next to the thermometer was a café and motel called The Bun Boy, both now closed, which were quite the tourist attractions in their own right. Given the name, you can imagine the type of selfies taken in front of the café’s sign but after two hours crossing the wasteland, even Bun Boy jokes can sound pretty funny, I guess.
Another eminent spot along I-15 is Zzyzx, California. In 1944, a radio evangelist and all round con man made up the name “Zzyzx” and bestowed it on the area claiming it to be the last word in the English language.
He used a dubious mining claim to squat on the land and then set up a health spa at a local mineral springs where he also sold his “special” mineral water to thirsty travelers. It wasn’t until the mid-1970’s that the Federal government called him on his scam and reclaimed the area which is now a Desert Study Center for California State University.
Years ago, a Hawaii entertainer who was well known for always protesting his poverty, described himself (in pidgin) as having “plenny pretty much of nottin.” At first glance that’s a good description of the Mojave. But there’s more there than meets the desiccated eyeball and the Mojave’s bleak exterior actually disguises a myriad of interesting venues and weird roadside attractions if one has the time and constitution to explore this challenging part of America.
For the record, Max usually sleeps through the trans-Mojave crossing, waking only to join the AJF in a biological break in Baker.