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Escape To The Mojave Desert On A Motorcycle

Need some space in your life? Tired of bumper to bumper traffic, lines at the supermarket, and crowded parking lots? Thanks in part to its desolate appearance, the Mojave desert in southern California offers a visitor wide vistas, sparse traffic, and a feeling of freedom that's only intensified by riding through it on a motorcycle. And thanks to the efforts of many desert lovers, 1.5 million acres of the Mojave have been set aside as the East Mojave National Preserve to safeguard its spatial and scenic qualities. Expansive panoramas and rugged mountains are the main attractions, but sand dunes, caverns, whistle stops, wild burros, and a forest compete for your attention as well.

My trip on a 1996 Buell S2T started in Barstow, California, where Interstates 15 and 40 intersect. I escaped from the February rain that was pelting my home on the coast into clear and dry desert weather. Accommodations are scarce in the desert, so its best to plan ahead unless you're willing to throw a sleeping bag down next to a thorny cholla -- the cactus with spines so nasty that people swear they'll jump at you if you stray too close. Nearest the preserve are the small towns of Baker and Amboy. Baker is a strip along I-15 offering all services, including a booming business in radiator repair for gamblers beelining from L.A. to Vegas. Amboy is south of I-40 on Route 66 and offers Roy's Motel, Gas Station, and Cafe -- and not much else. I chose Amboy and spent the evening watching meteors spray across the ink black sky instead of holing up in front of the TV in Baker. Tough choice, eh? Other options are Ludlow, on I-40 and just a tad larger than Amboy; or Needles, where I-40 crosses to Arizona -- farther away, but a veritable metropolis for a desert town. At the northeastern extreme is Nipton, with a tiny hotel and all the trains you can stand.

Amboy is a town on the rebound -- at least that's what its owners, Don Myers and Walt Wilson, are hoping. They own and operate the Roy's complex--feeding, gassing, and refreshing the travelers of the Mother Road, as 66 has been known since John Steinbeck penned The Grapes of Wrath. Now, instead of carrying dust bowl farmers west to more misery in California, the road is a quiet stretch of desert highway; the anti-interstate--a detour for mind and machine. The Buell was an excellent choice for the trip. The small hard bags held enough gear for a motel/credit card weekend, and the rumbling Harley-Davidson engine seemed a kindred spirit with the open spaces. Its rough idle and elemental feeling matched the rugged landscape and with a twist of the throttle it provided the thrust necessary to dramatically shorten the long, straight desert roads.

Exploring the East Mojave from Amboy begins with breakfast at Roy's. "More coffee?" Walt asks as I pore over a map. "Watch your gas," he adds as I settle up, "It's a long way between pumps out here." Double checking my gear, I fired up the Buell and waved good-by. First stop, Mitchell Caverns.

Named for Jack Mitchell, who purchased the area to protect the caverns from vandals in the 1930s, this state park is an easy hour's ride from Amboy. Essex Road off I-40 crosses miles of flat desert in Clipper Valley as it approaches the east side of the Providence Mountains, finally climbing the foothills and affording a motorcyclist some of the few corners to be found out here.

The 7,000-foot Providence range is limestone, a tough and rugged mineral in the dry desert, but fractured by an igneous intrusion millions of years ago. Since then, water has been percolating through the cracks, slowly dissolving the limestone to form the huge caverns, then decorating them with the stalactites and stalagmites that elicit "oohs" and "ahhs" from modern day visitors.

Six campsites and no reservations make camping at Mitchell Caverns a gamble for an overnight stay. You can make reservations for cavern tours, however. An hour-plus tour runs daily from Labor Day through Memorial Day, with extra tours on weekends. In the heat of summer, when the 65-degree interior is enticing but visitation is low, tours are limited to weekends. Call the State Parks regional office at (805) 942-0662 for information on tours and camping.

Even if your schedule doesn't jive with the tour times, a run up to the visitor center at 4300 feet is worthwhile just to read about the desert, see the relics on display, buy a T-shirt, and take in the incredible view. The desert here is alive with barrel cacti, cholla, and other vegetation that make it look lush compared to the barren creosote flats already crossed on the way. It's usually cooler, too.

More flat desert stretches eastward from the caverns, offering minimal pavement for the Buell, so I rode 22 miles west on I-40 to the Kelbaker Road exit. Heading north, the Kelbaker runs through some of the prettiest desert anywhere. The Granite Mountains (one of many such-named ranges in the desert) look like huge granite boulders piled over 6,000 feet high. In reality, they intruded from beneath the surface and are decomposing before our eyes. Formed under greater pressure than they experience today, they are slowly expanding -- literally popping apart (at a geologic pace) as the internal pressure releases. A short hike in the Granites is a great way to stretch cramped up touring legs, and the big boulders have a knobby texture that makes them easy to explore.

At Granite Pass, marked by a cattle guard and microwave installation, the Kelbaker slips between the Providence and Granite Mountains, then slides into a long, low valley. Off to the west, tucked into a bowl that captures both wind and sand, the Kelso dunes are a permanent and prominent feature. Three miles down a marked dirt road (a rough go on a street bike) leads to a parking area for dune adventures. The reward for huffing and puffing to the top of the highest dune is an outstanding view of the sculpted sand and surrounding desert. Watch trains roll through Kelso, glimpse an eagle in flight on the updrafts from the hot desert floor, or watch the sand grains bounce and tumble in the wind. You might even see a stick lizard, the legendary reptiles that use a stick to stay cool while roaming the dunes. When things get too hot, they plant their stick in the sand and climb up to get their bellies off the scorching surface. And we think umbrellas are clever!

Kelso, a steam engine water stop founded in 1906 and the "Kel" in Kelbaker, lies in the bottom of the valley. The stately building next to the tracks is the old Kelso Depot, built in 1924 as an overnight stop for train crews. An oasis until the railroad closed the depot in 1985, it was once shaded by cottonwoods and landscaped with cool green grass. The greenery is gone, but public support has saved the depot from destruction, and today it is waiting for a new life as a visitor center or museum.

At Kelso, both the Buell and I needed fuel, so we rumbled up the long grade towards Baker, the nearest gas station. Over the top, the road meanders through miles of stark lava fields. The cinder cones that created this wasteland punctuate the horizon in earthy reds and browns. This is Cinder Cones National Natural Landmark -- 25,600 acres of volcanic relics dating from over 10 million years ago to as recently as 1,000 years ago.

At Baker, I buy what I need and leave as soon as possible. It's a busy town, full of tourists who want to be somewhere else and who see the desert as an obstacle. It's enough to ruin a good desert mood if you hang around too long. The Michoacan Mexican restaurant serves good enchiladas and isn't packed with touristas like the Original Bun Boy. A glance at the World's Largest Thermometer tells me it's a pleasant 77 degrees -- much nicer than a previous visit when it showed 113.

Cima Road leaves I-15 about 26 miles north of Baker and bisects the Cima Dome, a 10-mile diameter symmetrical lump that shows up best from the distance. Up close, it's just another slope, with one special difference -- it's home to a giant forest of Joshua trees. The dense growth makes it look verdant from afar, but don't be fooled -- you're still in the desert, and there are no sparkling streams in this forest.

Down the backside of the dome, the town of Cima takes small to extremes -- a post office and store in the same building. That's it! But they do have the coldest coolers for miles, and keep them well stocked. Talking to the nice lady in the Cima Store reminded me that the desert isn't just about space and scenery. The human side is hard to come by, but outside of the small towns where existence seems closer to the edge than most of us can handle, people live on. Whether tucked away on ranches off the many dirt roads, banging out a living as a miner in the mountains, or growing grapes for Route 66 brand raisins, people make the Mojave their home.

Populations are way down, though. Kelso housed 2,000 people during World War II, mostly laborers from the Vulcan open-pit iron mine nearby (an interesting side trip if you and your bike are up to a little rough stuff). Lanfair Valley, in the far eastern part of the preserve, supported a farming community in the 1880s, when a period of wet weather convinced people that they could make the desert bloom without the benefits of today's deep wells and massive aqueducts. The original inhabitants, the Mojave Indians, scratched out a living here until the white man arrived and pushed them out. They established the Mojave Trail from the Colorado River to the coast, first traversed in 1826 by Jedediah Smith and later used by John C. Fremont and settlers bound for California.

I followed the Cima-Kelso road along the railroad tracks to loop back to Kelso, then south to Amboy for another night at Roy's. I rolled in after closing, but Walt heard the rumble of the Buell and made a room ready. He was also kind enough to set me up with dinner long after closing the diner. Another day would bring me more roads and more sights, but it would take a quiet evening of star gazing to sort out all the feelings that a day of motorcycling in the desert evokes.

I'd be remiss not to add some caveats about desert travel: Naturally, take plenty of water -- and don't forget to drink it; second, like Walt says, watch your gas consumption. Consider bringing a small tarp to rig some emergency shade in the summer. The paved roads get enough traffic that help is not far away, but nothing beats being prepared for a little down time. The major denizens are rattlesnakes and scorpions. Common sense says not to mess with either -- and to shake out your boots in the morning.

Best seasons for desert travel are spring and fall. In the spring there are colorful wildflower displays; in fall you might get caught in a thunderstorm. Pay attention, because a flash flood from a cloudburst in the mountains can quickly drown the lowlands. Winter can be windy, rainy, snowy, foggy, or gorgeous. Summer is hot, but survivable if you take precautions.

Good books to read before a visit are Adventuring in the California Desert by Lynne Foster, and East Mojave Desert, A Visitor's Guide by Cheri Rae. AAA's map of San Bernardino County is my favorite. The Mojave Desert Information Center in Baker can help with any questions about visiting the East Mojave. Their number is (760) 733-4040.

If you're looking for space, the Mojave has plenty -- just chart a course for Route 66. And if you see a stick lizard, you've probably been in the sun too long.