The road split the desert in two, its rough grey surface an undulating path that in its march to the horizon interrupted the endless expanse awash with the muted colors of sand, cacti, desert sage and an occasional burst of desert flowers.
Craggy mountains loomed in the distance, their peaks shrouded by wispy white clouds to the southeast, angry dark storm clouds to the northeast. In the distance, where the desert rolled across the miles, rain fell in a curtain of grey mist upon the parched earth.
Swaths of the downpour swept across the land, and the clouds rolled swiftly above. Ahead, the sun forced its way through a breach in the clouds, sending a wide band of rays to the ground and causing one of nature’s more breathtaking displays.
Not one or two, but many. In succession, stretching from the ground only a couple hundred yards from the roadside, where we sat in our stopped car, still, silent, watching the magic unfold. Brilliant hues of purple, yellow, orange and red reached towards the heavens then plummeted to earth, bringing its palette with it to mesh with the brown dust of the desert.
It’s a mystery, really, how a rainbow occurs. I understand the physics of light refraction and all, but I still believe that a rainbow is one of those things that’s always worth stopping to admire. And with the experiences of last week fading into the distance, more than ever I’m paying close attention when I am compelled to stop and take stock.
I guess that’s life in the Mojave, an ever changing backdrop of weather patterns against a canvass of landscape that hasn’t changed much for thousands and thousands of years.
It’s a beautiful yet barren place, just south of Death Valley, where our love of the unbeaten path took us from the speed of Route 15 to a cross-desert tour that once again reminded us that one only has to step off the highway to find entertainment, variety, and enormous sources of pleasure.
It occurs to me: there are many in the world who are richer than we, but few who are more enriched. Such have been the gifts of our meanderings.
Among the surprises along this route:
The Amboy Crater, which is a fairly recently active volcano whose last eruption only 500 years ago has left shards of solidified lava in miles-long ring around it, a permanent reminder of a volcano’s power and reach. You can hike to the top of the crater and look both down into its maw and also across the expanse of the desert, but we opted for the road and progress towards San Diego.
We came across the chloride flats just outside Amboy, which Wikipedia informed us are the world’s second largest natural collection of the kind of salt we in the northeast use to keep our roads free of ice and snow in the winters. I don’t know where the #1 source lies; Salt Lake?
A baffling array of tiny deserted homes, many of them surrounded by chain link fences, as if to either keep curiosity seekers out or, perhaps, the toxic contents of the homes within. Prompted by the vision, I shared the history of Love Canal with Gabi, though there was no evidence that Wonder Valley, CA has anything in common with the unfortunate hamlet whose inhabitants were forever tainted by the misdeeds of Hooker Chemical Co.
More abandoned restaurants turned into churches, more amusing signs (“Citizen Canine” for a dog grooming business in some roadside town; “Watch for Tortoises” in the desert ), more ghost towns created in the 70s by Route 40, which forever consigned Route 66 to history, making the “famous” Roy’s Café in Amboy an active yet sad reminder of a day when the business meant a good deal to the adventurers driving by.
Back in the comfort of our car, having won $50 from the Wheel of Fortune slot at the airport then used it to pay for the taxi to pick up our car at our friends’ house, it’s good to be back into the rhythm of the road, where we follow our instincts, the map and our love of experiences in our self-centered pursuit of whatever’s around the next corner.
The road leads us to the Joshua Tree National Park, a mysterious and, legend says, mystical place dotted in some parts by the famous trees that are the park’s namesake, and other places by scrub brush, cacti and fascinating towers of boulders. They rise to the heavens, stacked by nature’s action on one another to create countless different shapes, forms and structures.
We pause for a couple hours to hike to Mastadon Peak, a soaring stand of rock that affords those who climb it (I made it up two-thirds of the way before the freelance climb’s challenges made me reconsider whether to continue), drinking in the desert’s beauty against the clear blue sky. We later hear that an usually wet spring has caused an equally rare explosion of desert flowers, and the land before us is living testimony to this natural fact.
Brilliant fields of yellow buttercups fan out before us, and as we drive we stop to photograph those as well as the bright purple flowers of a budding cactus.
The road switchbacks through the end of the 58-mile drive, and we reluctantly leave the quiet beauty of Joshua Tree for the direct route to San Diego on Route 15.
In 24 hours we’ve gone from the neon glitter of Las Vegas to nature’s most engaging light show, from paved paradise to the random chance of a blooming desert cactus, once again reminding us how easy it is to access incredible natural simplicity just by shifting the rudder a couple of degrees.