Mojave National Preserve, January 20, 2013: We had planned to head north from Baker to Death Valley but I noticed a large swatch of green on the map just south of Interstate 15 at Baker labeled “Mojave National Preserve.” I suggested we go check it out and Mary was game so after a frosty night among the big rigs at a truck stop in Baker we crossed the interstate and headed into the unknown.

It truly was something of an unknown because even though we probed around in Baker for information about the Preserve, we couldn’t find any. The only indication that we weren’t driving into a trackless wilderness was a small Mojave National Preserve sign on the two-lane road leading into the desert. We didn’t know with any certainty whether or not water or camp sites or information was available inside the preserve. To be on the safe side we filled our trailer’s water tank up at a truck stop in Baker.

Thirty-five miles down that desert road on which we encountered only two vehicles (rush hour in the Preserve), we came to the isolated enclave of Kelso, a former Union Pacific railroad depot. We were getting the strong impression that the Preserve does not get a lot of visitors. Much to our relief the Park Service has an inviting and informative visitor center at Kelso. It occupies the former depot. We were also reassured to learn that water is available at Kelso.

We toured the museum absorbing as much information as possible from the displays, free brochures, and a professionally-produced, 20-minute movie about the park. I also bought a couple of books in the well stocked bookstore; one about local trails and one about Olive Oatman, a white girl kidnapped from her family and raised by the Mojave Indians.

Unhindered by any cloud cover, the brilliant sun chased away the morning chill by 9 o’clock. A 75-year-old, veteran RV’er and desert dweller from Spokane named Ray stopped at our parked vehicle in the Visitor Center parking lot to swap notes. He told us he’s been on the road for the past twelve years in his travel trailer avoiding mortgage payments and seeing the sights. He usually favors Baja this time of year but decided to give Southern California deserts a try this winter.

Ray appeared remarkably trim and youthful for 75. I told Mary that I plan to look that good when I turn 75. She said that would be some trick because I already look older than Ray (I’m 62.)

In spite of Mary’s stinging pronouncement, I was pumped by the desert air and scenery when we drove out of Kelso. To me, the desert seems so clean and pure. I love the unadorned horizons and cloudless sky, the bare-rock mountains and sandy washes. I know the desert can be windy but during our time in the Preserve, the air has been calm and the sky an unadulterated blue from horizon to horizon. With no human habitation closer than 35-mile distant Baker, the night sky and its full complement of stars is a pristine black and the silence is a rare treat in the 21st Century.

We drove seven more miles to the Kelso Dunes which we had to share with a mere three or four car loads of other visitors. Another great feature of the Preserve is their tolerance of camping outside of formal campgrounds. We found a small grove of Tamarisk trees near the base of the dunes and claimed it for ourselves. Absolute silence except for some goldfinches in the trees.

I hiked to the top of the highest dune, a vertical climb of about 500 ft. The only other people on the dune was a French couple who, as I approached, appeared to be playing liking children in the sand. They were sliding down the sandy slope on their butts, as if sledding on snow, with their hands waving through the sand to each side. As I approached they informed me that rather than “sand sledding” they were trying to locate the woman’s camera. It had dropped from her pocket on the ascent and was now submerged beneath the surface somewhere on the slope. I helped them look for awhile without success. As I pulled away the woman shouted with glee that she had at last found her camera.

Although the summit was about 500 ft above the base of the dune, the effort required to reach it was at least that of a 1000-ft ascent. Fully half of each forward step was lost to downhill slide in the unstable sand. The view from the summit was 360 degrees. Tiny Kelso seven miles distant was the only sign of human disturbance on the broad sloping plain between two mountain ranges.

The day had been pleasantly warm with an air temperature of about 60 degrees and the full radiational heat of the sun. As soon as the sun went down the temperature dropped sharply and we donned our coats and sweaters. Inside the trailer we fired up the furnace.

1/21/2013, Hole in the Wall Campground: A twelve-mile dirt road from Kelso would have delivered us to Hole in the Wall Campground but we opted for the 35-mile paved route that took us over another 4500-ft pass and down to Interstate 40. Essex Road left the interstate and went north to the campground.

Only and handful of other campers occupied about thirty sites at Hole in the Wall. We had our pick of easily accessed sites with stupendous views of the surrounding cliffs. A small visitor center is hosted by a friendly volunteer who filled us in on several hikes in the nearby canyons and hills. We immediately set out on the 1-mile Banshee Canyon Hike which passes through the grotto-filled canyon of rhyolite and tuff cliffs. The final hundred yards of the hike is through a narrow slot in the canyon wall that is too steep for the average person to ascend without the aid of iron rings that are driven into the rock. We had to throw Vera up those sections.

When we returned to the trailer it was still only 1:30 and I still had plenty of energy left so I set out on the 6-mile Barber Peak Loop Trail which circled the base of the mountain which forms a backdrop for the campground. The landscape on that loop was a profusion of cacti and purple, red, and white cliffs.

1/22/2013, Hole in the Wall: Although last night was as clear and star-studded as the previous night, the temperature was milder and the temperature inside our trailer never got into the chilly realm as it had previously. I nearly finished my new book, The Blue Tattoo, this morning while Mary, as usual, worked crossword puzzles.

We had noticed last evening with some curiosity, a couple that occupied a nearby camp site. Their mode of transport is a small jeep with a large open cargo trailer filled with plastic bins and various gear. Of most interest to us, is their plywood wind shelter in which they sit in their lawn chairs in front of their wood stove. Their shelter is a small tent. I walked over this morning and said hello. Because their set up is so unusual in this day of super-sleek RVs, I half expected one or both of them to be fringe kooks, but they seemed like a perfectly sane, normal couple from Santa Cruz who like to camp in the open air.


1/23/2013, Baker, CA: We’re back in Baker, Gateway to Death Valley. We had to make a run to Bullhead City, AZ for supplies. For some strange reason all our batteries (4 of them) went dead last night and the truck wouldn’t start this morning. Had to get a jump from the campground host. The truck batteries are supposed to be isolated from the RV so that this sort of thing doesn’t happen. Had we seen an RV shop today we would have stopped and tried to get this problem fixed. For now, we’re just unplugging the RV from the truck at night.

Remember how I was crowing about the great weather down here? Well, it’s still warm enough but the sky has clouded over and there’s a 40% chance of showers on Friday. So much for me and my big braggy mouth. Guess I’ll shut up and sign off for now.

Oh, I almost forgot. I tried one of those Mojave cow pies (see photo.) I don’t know what people see in them. I didn’t think they were that good. In fact, they tasted like shit.