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Welcome to the online blog for traveler/writer/photographer Steven Barber. Come in. Relax. Take off your shoes and socks -- or any other article of clothing, this is the internet. Have a look around. I hope to intrigue, amuse, entertain, and maybe provoke you just a little. I love to find adventure. All I need is a change of clothes, my Nikon, an open mind and a strong cup of coffee.

Sunday, December 4, 2011

ROAD TRIP: Mojave Desert

As I mentioned in my last blog post, there's a time known as “o’dark thirty” -- a time before most sane people crawl out of bed and start their day, usually so-named because it’s not only dark, but will remain that way for hours. Last Saturday, “o’dark thirty” was indeed that: 3:30 am.

I hauled myself out of bed at 3, showered and got dressed in record time. I grabbed my customary thermos of coffee and the camera bag – which I had brilliantly thought to pack up the night before – and left the house. My first stop would be the gas station, followed forty minutes later with a stop to pick up my friend Jim who had, perhaps in a moment of mental deficiency, agreed to accompany me on a photo shoot into the Mojave Desert. The early hour was required because, as any decent photographer will tell you, the best lighting for shooting something like a desert will be either in the just-past sunrise morning or just before sunset. I’ll get into the reason later, but rest assured that were it not for the morning lighting, I would never have succumbed to the alarm’s insistent buzz.

Our not very offroad vehicle
Leaving the house I find my neighborhood gas station and pull in. The roads are empty, and the station itself has an eerily silent air to it as I get out and pump the gas. Normally abuzz with activity, it almost possesses a post-apocalyptic silence. The only sounds are those I’m making as I remove the gas cap, insert the nozzle and the pump comes to life. It’s a strange moment. Not even the attendant is visible inside the min-market, adding to my sense of solitude. Resisting the urge to get back in the car and head home I fill up the tank, replace the cap and, as I get into the car, spy the attendant now stocking the beer refrigerator towards the back of the market. At least I’m not quite as alone as my imagination was insisting.
Road Trip buddy Jim

There's a reality in the Los Angeles metro area that not matter what time you get on a freeway there will be traffic. At 3:30 on a Saturday morning this is put to a lie. While I was never quite really the only car on the road, we moved at what I could be describe as "full speed" the entire way to Diamond Bar to pick up my friend Jim. And sure enough, despite having budgeted forty minutes for the drive (which normally requires a solid hour if not more), a half hour later I pull into the driveway outside Jim’s house. calling him discreetly on his cellphone so as not to wake the rest of his family. Jim's up and ready, and soon we’re on the 210 freeway headed east with our eventual destination being a drive down Kelbaker Road and a section of Route 66. It's among the most remote yet historic parts of the California desert. Full of photographic targets, including ghost towns, long straight patches of empty highway, train rails (and frequent trains), and a surprising number of volcanic lava flows and cinder cones. Few people realize that the Mojave was an active lava field as recently as 800 years ago. The desert has preserved the terrain as if the flows were mere decades ago instead of centuries. It makes for a dramatic setting, particularly if the lighting is right…the colors in the lava and surrounding terrain are stunning.

We get to Ludlow in a couple of hours, arriving just before sunrise, which is precisely the timing I had been planning. We opt for breakfast at the Ludlow Cafe, an authentic old-style cafe echoing nicely an era some fifty years ago when the entire town was moved a quarter mile or so to the west when Interstate 40 was completed. For some very obscure reason the interstate highway commission couldn't be bothered to place the offramp near enough the town, so the town itself moved. It's a striking visual of a desert community struggling to hold on within just a few hundred feet of the old town's corpse. One has to wonder at the seemingly inept and inconsiderate planning that went into such a design. The stories of the multitude of towns destroyed when Route 66 was replaced by the interstate are manifold, but surely Ludlow should have been spared the planning commission's absurdity.
Old Ludlow, slowly crumbling away

But -- and this is important for our day -- the ruins of the old town are perfect fodder for my Nikons. After a quick breakfast and pleasant exchange with the restaurant's only waitress (at this time in the morning), we head east along Route 66, which parallels I-40 for six miles more or less, passing through the previously mentioned ruins of old Ludlow. We pause for a few minutes in this area for me to grab some shots by the early morning light. It's a strange and somewhat eerie sensation with the quite active roar of 40 in the air and the sound of a BNSF freight train rumbling by. Your ears and eyes don't quite agree on where you are, conveying to your brain the conflicting visuals of a dead town with the sounds of a busy town. It just doesn't seem to match up, and the mind rebels. I finish up with a few shots of the ruins and of the train -- just to make peace with that part of my brain -- and we're off again.
Route 66 is in good condition in this part of the desert, and we make good time. I take the twin gifts of an empty straight road to have a little fun with the car, getting our speed up a little faster than the CHP would prefer, but there are few cruisers on this part of the California Highway system and we can open the car up a bit more safely than we could on 40. In fact, once we leave Ludlow other cars are scarce, and we encounter only two for the next hour. There are more trains than automobiles in these parts.

A tree grows in the desert
Our first stop comes ten miles or so down the road, where the town of Bagdad once stood, or at least in the vicinity. The only marker is a dirt road which branches out into the desert toward a field of four large rock formations which seem to be the only markers between the road and the distant mountains to the south. Jim and I both estimate that the boulders are maybe two or three lies out, and the mountains at least fifteen. The desert messes with your sense of distance, and objects that seem to be just a few miles away may indeed be multiples of that. In this case we decide not to drive out to the boulders, first because it's a deceptive distance, and second because, to be honest, a sports car is probably not the best offroad vehicle. I'm sure my wife and our mechanic would agree, so after Jim takes a few minutes to walk over to the railroad tracks to greet in incoming train -- our second of the morning -- we continue on down the road, stopping briefly at a solitary tree which grows out here -- according to the internet it stands where a gas station once sat, and was spared the bulldozer which claimed the man-made elements of the stop. I don't know if it's true or not, but the tree still seems to be thriving in an area mostly marked by tumbleweeds.
Jim explores the lava field

Our third stop is next to a lava field. Jim takes advantage and rapidly climbs his way to the top for the view. I wander around the base of the black rocks, marveling at the otherworldly feel. If the sky were a different color you could easily convince yourself the rocks were of an extraterrestrial origin or perhaps a setpiece for an episode of the Twilight Zone in which someone is marooned upon a lonely planet. I wonder if Hollywood had ever visited this place, conveniently next to the road, and decide not. The ground in a little valley behind the rocks appears to be pristine. We decide to leave it that way and move on. As most landscape photographers will tell you, take only pictures and leave nature alone.

The town of Amboy in the distance
As I mention above, the area was volcanically active as recently as 800 years in the past. Amboy Crater was one of the most recent, and its cinder cone rises dramatically a couple hundred feet over the desert sand. It's a few miles west of the struggling town of Amboy, where the world-famous Roy's sign still stands in defiance of changing times. I am surprised to find a full-blown rest stop and parking lot off to the side of the highway where you can park and picnic, hike through the desert to the crater, or use the restrooms. My last pass through these facilities may have been there, but the road to access them was gravel, so I left well enough alone. In this case, we stop for a short break before heading towards Kelbaker Road. We decide not to stop in Amboy because already we're running a bit behind schedule and Jim needs to be back in LA by 1. We zoom on by -- though I've included a shot from a previous expedition so you can see what Amboy looks like. 
Roy's Cafe in Amboy

We find Kelbaker Road and it's smooth sailing. We encounter quite a few more cars and motorcycles on this stretch of road, most of which consider my Maximum Speeds to be inadequate. Go figure. I gun the engine, making it clear I could move faster if I wanted to, but this only eggs on a younger guy in a hopped up Corolla (wtf?), so I slow down and wait for him to pass. He doesn't, preferring instead to ride my bumper, so I actively pull off to the side and let him rocket on by. I don't mind driving fast, but I'm not going to race anyone and risk all of our lives on his dumb move.

The otherworldly granite wall just north of I-40 on Kelbaker Road
Now that we're off to the side of the road though, Jim and I decide to talk a short walk to take pictures of a spectacular wall of granite just northwest. You can see these rocks from I-40, and a short trip on Kelbaker Road brings you much closer as it winds to the east, skirting them in a pass between the granite and another mountainous structure of a completely different type and coloration. These are the sort of things which make the desert so fascinating to me. You have to wonder what would create such vastly different topologies within a short distance of each other. As you drive Kelbaker, the visuals are indeed stunning, ranging from granite, to sand dunes, to volcanic within the space of thirty miles.

Kelso's modern Post Office
Again relatively alone on the road we roll down the windows and let the outside air blast the cabin. It's a refreshing feeling, though I have to crank up the heater a bit to keep us from catching too much of a chill. Oddly, the temperature outside is just over seventy, but it feels much colder as it swirls through the car.

Time is getting short, but we decide to make a couple more stops. Deep in the middle of the Mojave, almost exactly halfway between interstate 15 and interstate 40, sits Kelso Depot. It's an oasis of sorts, originally constructed as a rail yard during the second world war. An old post office, restrooms and the surprisingly large train depot (which contains, among other things, a restaurant) are worth a few minutes so we oblige. The visitor's center is in very good condition, and offers a history of the depot and the railway's impact on Southern California.

Road Trip - Mojave Desert
Again we take off, heading North towards the town of Baker, familiar to millions as the main stopover between the city of Barstow and the Nevada state line. Baker is famous as the gateway to the Death Valley, as well as proud owner of the world's largest thermometer (thankfully not a medical one). As we make our way there we stop for two brief photo ops along the road. The first is to take pictures of more cinder cones to the east, an area I personally refer to as 'the four sisters" since there are four cinder cones lined up together. It's a spectacular view, and the colors of the rock have a red-black hue that makes them ideal for the sorts of pictures I want to take. As we stand alongside the road we note three four-wheel-drive vehicles come out of a nearby dirt road and head towards Baker. They're the only cars we see or have seen for nearly 45 minutes, pretty much since leaving Kelso. There's a calm serenity however, and we lean back against the car and just take it all in.

Eons, not hours
There's a beauty in the desert, a feeling of ancient grandeur. We tend to become so wrapped up on our daily lives that the sale of time escapes us in the focus on the next few hours or days. Out here, though, time is measured in eons. It forces you, through both scale and wonder, to look at things not from a momentary perspective, but from one of a vaster framework in which our lives themselves are short and insignificant…that each moment must be appreciated and enjoyed because, really, the world works independently of our artificial constraints. It forces you to back away from our own sensibilities and accept and become part of something much larger than yourself, where you can bellow fruitlessly against the world or you can step back and nakedly accept that you need to be part of the greater whole, not the other way around. It's a difficult lesson to swallow. 

Jim and I stand in awe for a few minutes longer before climbing back in the car and heading home. And, encountering traffic and realizing we're going to be late, I can feel the moment pass and I once again am reduced to my much smaller human world of timeframes, traffic and limited horizons.

It's a difficult lesson to swallow, indeed.

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