Chris Roams

Travel, Adventures, and Photography

Back to Las Vegas

Back on my bike and heading out of San Diego I turned back east, my stop for the night was near Ocotillo Wells in the Anza-Borrego Special Vehicle Recreation Area, one of the few areas where vehicular cross-country travel is still permitted. Juan Bautista de Anza came though here as he established one of the first overland routes from Mexico to the isolated settlements of Alta California in the late 1770’s. Today the wasteland is criss-crossed by Jeeps, dune buggies, sand rails, dirt bikes, ATVs, and anything else with an engine that can make it through without getting stuck in the sand. Hidden out in the vast expanse are bubbling geothermal mud pots, sand dunes, rocky outcroppings left over from ancient volcanoes, and all sorts of other obstacles. Camping is allowed anywhere and driving through at night RVs can be spotted circled up around campfires like modern day wagon trains.

I was heading out into the Imperial Valley, another of the ubiquitous terminal basins of the desert where water flows in and evaporates before it can find an outlet, leaving behind a broad salty plain. Unlike the typical basin with a puddle of salty alkali water at the bottom this valley sports an enormous lake 35 miles long and 10 miles wide and supports abundant agriculture with mile upon mile of farms and orchards on either end of the lake. It wasn’t always like this though: this was just another parched desert basin up until 1900 when the first irrigation canal was built, tapping into the Colorado River some 50 miles away and 200 feet higher in elevation, flowing down into the valley by the force of gravity. After only 5 years the Colorado, swollen with snowmelt and untamed by the dams that exist upriver today, broke through the irrigation system and began dumping its entire volume unimpeded straight into the dry lakebed at the bottom of the Imperial Valley for 2 years forming the current Salton Sea in the process. Agriculture flourished and the Sea boomed for a while as resorts sprung up on its shores but until the Hoover Dam was constructed to control the seasonal floods the Colorado would occasionally break its banks and flow into the valley, the water level fluctuating uncontrollably and inundating the resorts. Even with the dam in place the Sea was doomed from the start: rivers contains salts and minerals dissolved and eroded from the rocks along its course that are normally dumped into the ocean. With no natural outlets the water evaporates in the hot desert sun leaving its mineral contents behind, salt began to build to higher and higher concentrations mixing with ever increasing levels of fertilizer runoff from the surrounding farms into a toxic cesspool. Today the farms still exist, kept green by the life-giving flow of the canals, while the shores of the lake are a string of run-down and abandoned towns, some shielded from the lake by levees with the former resorts and assorted junk lying on the wrong side of the wall half-buried and corroding in salt.

Just east of the Salton Sea, built along the banks of a canal on the edge of a military bombing range, lies what can best be described as an un-abandoned city. Originally a Marine Corps camp established during World War II as a training base, the camp was abandoned and its buildings razed after the war leaving only the concrete slabs that provided the camp’s foundations. Starting in the 1960’s people began to move here, living in trailers, RVs, old school buses, shipping containers, and whatever else they could bring out and park on a slab. Some stay year-round while others travel during the warmer months and winter-over at what has come to be known as Slab City. Just outside the entrance is Salvation Mountain, a monument built into the side of a cliff out of adobe, straw, old tires, and lots of paint covered in Bible verses. Inside the city are a few dozen to a few hundred residents (depending on the time of year), churches, bars, a radio station, an open-air nightclub, and many of the other amenities one would expect in a town cobbled together out of vehicles and semi-permanent structures. The whole place is off-the-grid, relying on solar power and generators for electricity, its residents hauling in water and hauling out trash and sewage. A few art installations are scattered around including murals on the old concrete tanks atop the hill behind Salvation Mountain and fighter jets buzz back and forth just on the other side of the canal dropping real bombs on their imaginary enemies. The main road into the slabs continues on across the canal and out into the bombing range beyond it with only an illegibly faded sign to warn the wayward traveller. At least one of the former residents of the slabs blew himself up with dismantling live ordinance while scavenging the range for scrap metal to sell.

Turning back east I crossed the coastal mountains again, climbing up out of the desert and through the tiny resort town of Idylwild perched up in the mountains only a few dozen miles from Los Angeles at a location that could easily be mistaken for the Sierra Nevada with grey granite peaks soaring above thick groves of trees. Unlike most resort towns this place doesn’t have the lakes or ski runs that attract droves of boaters or skiers, instead remaining relatively quiet. The ride down the hill into the Los Angeles metro area was all too quick.

It’s not fair to say I have a love/hate relationship with LA, I pretty much just hate it. My recollections of my previous infrequent trips primarily involve heat, smog, and traffic. Sucking up stewed exhaust fumes under a dingy yellow sky isn’t my idea of a good time so I generally just avoid the place like the plague. Despite my prejudices I figured it was high time I head into the city and its environs to experience whatever it is I’m supposed to experience there. I settled on a plan of driving in through the twisty roads and tunnels of Los Angeles National Forest, visiting the Griffith Observatory, and then making my exit down to the coast again via the twists and turns of Mulholland Drive, Mulholland Highway, and Topanga Canyon down to Malibu.

Things took a turn for the worse even before I made it to the city limits, instead of the heat and haze I had been expecting an ominous grey sky threatened rain. As I started my climb up into the forest the threat turned into reality and I turned tail back to lower elevation to dry out, Twisty roads are much less fun when wet. I headed to a nearby Starbucks to plan my next move only to discover that I had found a “drive through only” Starbucks which I previously didn’t know existed and was quite useless for my purpose of a dry place to regroup. I ended up taking the highway into the city and found my way through the traffic (which was still there) to Griffith Observatory, barely below the cloud ceiling. After a quick tour I headed back to the parking lot only to hear another tourist ask which way the observatory was, I turned around to see that the massive building only 50 yards away had completely disappeared into the mist. So much for photography. My jaunt down Mullholland Drive only got worse, first some rain showers and then a torrential downpour. I could barely see through the fog on my visor but somehow managed to make my way to a Starbucks with indoor seating, a check of the weather radar showed only one small patch of very intense rain in the entire Los Angeles metro area, right over where I was. Deciding that Los Angeles really does hate me I turned back to the east.

My first attempt to get out of Los Angeles took me back up into Angeles National Forest, I much prefer the lonely back roads to the chaotic mess of the highways. As I climbed higher it became apparent that this plan wasn’t going to work either, the mountains were thoroughly embedded in the clouds and it was impossible to see more than 50 feet down the road. Rather than continuing blindly along the ridge to the east I turned north, the most expedient way back into the desert. I didn’t care where I was going as long as it wasn’t where I had just been. Dropping out of the mountains I was surprised to see a large city seemingly in the middle of nowhere, complete with an airport and enormous hangars, unmarked except for a small cartoon skunk emblazoned on a corner, I realized that I had stumbled across the Skunk Works.

Back during the cold war Lockheed was working on top secret projects including the U2 and SR71 spy planes. Their facilities in urban Los Angeles weren’t exactly conducive to keeping secret projects under wraps so they built a new facility in what was at the time still empty desert far enough from prying eyes yet still close enough for an easy commute. Most of this facility’s products were shipped off to the even more remote Area 51 for testing.

I continued north past Palmdale to another area for cutting edge aerospace development: Mojave Spaceport. It was here that only a few years ago Burt Rutan’s Spaceship One became the first privately funded vehicle to not only put a human in space but repeat the feat only a few weeks later without much more than refueling. Now, with Richard Branson’s backing, a larger version is scheduled to begin ferrying paying passengers into space within the year. Passing through the town just after dusk not much was visible other than the flashing lights of the hundreds of wind turbines dotting the hills above.

Here I turned east, out to Barstow to hunker down for the night. I was heading back to Vegas but the next morning brought with it tremendous wind gusts. Having watched my bike get tossed in the air by a gust while in Death Valley I certainly didn’t want to be riding in it. I spent a few hours around the train station, a leftover from a bygone era when Barstow was a major stop for passengers on the Santa Fe Railroad. The ornate hotel and restaurant has been restored and a number of retired locomotives sit outside. Inside a Route 66 museum honors the highway that began eroding the railroad’s passenger traffic before the Interstates in turn made Route 66 itself obsolete. Today the rail yard still bustles with the activity of freight trains coming and going while just around the corner the interchange between I-15 and I-40 handles the automobile and truck traffic transiting between California, Nevada, and Arizona. Despite the changes over the past century Barstow remains a crossroads after all.

The wind was still ripping across the desert so instead of taking to the highway to Las Vegas I slunked out to Rainbow Basin, a small little-known BLM preserve just north of town and hiked through its network of canyons whose walls are dripping with eroded chunks of fossils. The twisted and contorted layers of stone attest to the tectonic forces at work in the area, some buckled into deep folds while other jut into the sky ending in sawtooth ridges. A walk up one of the canyons is like a walk through time with each layer of rock representing another era with another climate, the petrified ripples leaving evidence that there was a time before this was a desert.

By the afternoon the gusts had died down and I turned my attention back to Las Vegas, stopping by a lonely outpost named Zzyzx on the edge of the Mojave Preserve. Originally one of a chain of watering stops along the old Mojave Road for explorers, miners, and then a railroad before a radio preacher constructed a religious resort on the site, planting the trees and gardens in the process. The resort was eventually confiscated by the government due to the improprieties of its owner and today it is a research station of the University of California system whose streets and paths are open for tourists to wander among the palm trees and fountains still running on the edge of a harsh dry lakebed.

With the wind finally dropping off to tolerable levels I set off for Las Vegas at last. The sun set as I crested the spine of the Mojave Preserve, the dust kicked up by the day’s wind turning the cloudy sky into a mashup of yellows, oranges, and reds.
Main Street - galleryBlowsand Hill - gallery<br />The Range - gallerySlab City - galleryHarrier - gallerySalvation Mountain - galleryTime Machine - gallerySalton Sea - galleryBombay Beach - galleryFramework - galleryGriffith Observatory - galleryRainbow Basin - gallerySyncline - galleryCanyon - galleryFP45 - galleryCasa Del Desierto - galleryZzyzx - galleryMojave - galleryLake Tuendae - galleryMojave Sunset - gallery