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Desert Escapes

[whitespace] Route 66
On the Road Again: The horizon recedes to a sun-baked eternity along California's Route 66.

The mineral heart of California's hot zone defies comfort, but roadside relief exists in Barstow and Amboy

By Christina Waters

EVERY PERSONAL MYTHOLOGY contains its half-joking, half-serious anecdotes about where we'd like to spend our sunset years. Mine was always a one-liner about someday retiring to Barstow, where I'd live in a silver Airstream trailer, tending my cactus garden and writing my memoirs. Of course the fantasy also included winning the Pulitzer Prize and attracting flocks of adoring graduate students who would archive my collected works for posterity. But that's a different story.

Over the past year, that joke about Barstow has become more than virtual reality as I've been spending time in the desert. The Mojave Desert to be exact. Vast as an ocean--the desert is really just an ocean that's matured beyond the liquid state--exotic as a Middle Eastern bazaar and so hauntingly complex that it would take a lifetime to explore, the Mojave has done a number on my soul. Scanning its elegant gold horizons, I thoroughly expect to find John the Baptist foraging among the snakeweed and cholla, preparing the way for his messiah.

Next to its stark majesty, forests and fields appear overwrought, a little silly. The desert needs no adornment to dazzle. Wearing a sky lavish with shooting stars and carpeted by those craftiest of botanicals--the sages and the cacti--the desert defies us to find comfort within its mineral heart. It's a challenge I'll take, I decided after that first trip last June, when the morning temperatures accelerated past the 90-degree mark and continued on to burn 115-degree holes in my brain. Such intensity. Such heart-stopping beauty.

Into the Mystic

BE PATIENT and the intricate details will emerge, details often lost in more temperate, water-rich regions. Shadows contract and expand--the hunting slender snakes and lizards are of no particular color, yet always the exact color of the shifting sand. A tinder-dry thatch of Apache plume forms a shady forest for a chipmunk. Coyotes lounge in the larger shade of tamarisk trees, soothing gray green against the glittering rocks.

Mirages mambo crazily in the distance across mountain ranges whose subtle colors acquire increasing density and hue as your eyes grow accustomed to a world without leaves and grass. Sagebrush and mesquite--stately, evenly spaced groves of mesquite--echo the locations of broad root systems. One imagines an underground conversation, of roots whispering in the cool dark away from the merciless heat.

As your eyes acquire a new, more subtle set of calibrations, the true desert begins to appear. The mountains unmistakably display the very backbone of the continent. The vast sweeps of alluvial fans suggest millennia of rains that moved raspberry iron oxides, turquoise copper deposits and yellow bands of sulfur and chloride from mountaintops down to soft valley floors. Here in these million undeveloped acres, the desert reveals itself still at play--a Mardi Gras of crystals and rust.

You can read by moonlight at the western edge of the Mojave, where big-horn sheep climb the big rocks and coyotes sing their dreams. This is the way into the mystic.

What looks from a distance like so much wasteland is transformed, on closer inspection, into an intricate pattern of washes and canyons bearing surprising juiciness and a wealth of animal tracks. After one spring rain, a sudden colonization of flowers grips the dusty corridors of myriad arroyo. The rocks each beg for inspection, some bearing the green of copper, others glittering with mica and pyrite. The blood-red Martian rocks are the volcanic debris from the Mojave's many fairly recent eruptions--most notably at saucy little Amboy Crater, just two hours along old Route 66 from Barstow.


Desert survival.


Queen of the Desert

BARSTOW, once a queen of truck stops along the mother highway, Route 66, is now a boom settlement of fast food and motel chains grafted on to a debris of tired trailer parks and liquor stores. While it would be counter-intuitive to use the expression "poised" of Barstow, let's be reckless and describe Barstow as poised halfway between Los Angeles and Las Vegas, which is why there are those countless Arby's, Denny's, Carrow's, Taco Bells and Motel 6s congregated just near the Highway 15 exit.

At the western edge of town, the quintessential roadside retreat, the 50-year-old El Rancho Motel, still holds down its patch of faded glory, complete with an aqua swimming pool no one swims in and a thicket of hand-lettered signs indicating the mileage to cities around the world. Barstow is 12,600 miles from Karachi. I've spent several raucous evenings at the El Rancho, using my spartan motel room in the way that God intended. That's right. You got it. As Roy Orbison would say.

The decor at the El Rancho is exactly what it needs to be. And no more. A framed print of the ocean from K-Mart hangs over the bed. A lethargic swamp cooler sticks halfway into the room from its window perch. There are three lamps. Two of them work. Maroon tiles line a bathroom so small you can bruise your elbows just brushing your teeth. But armed with a bottle of Campari--purchased in Palm Springs, the nearest depot of exotic liqueurs--a boombox and our favorite CDs, we've managed to exercise our El Rancho Motel privileges to the fullest. By law, all vintage motel rooms must have walls the thickness of plastic wrap. As a result, when romping between the sheets, you will share your delight with your neighbors on both sides.

The Bottom of the Earth

FARTHER DOWN Route 66 is the metropolis of Amboy, famous for its middle-of-nowhere ambiance, its 250-foot-high crater and Roy's Motel and Cafe. Once a landmark on Route 66, Roy's is now the pipe dream of two L.A. entrepreneurs who bought up the town's 12 lonely buildings and now pitch the town to filmmakers as a vintage Western truck stop suitable as a set for commercials and other cinematic ventures.

The day we visited, Walt--our contact man and Amboy co-owner--had a hangover from a four-day party/photo shoot with some guys from L.A. Sure, we could stay overnight--and he opened up one of those straight-from-central-casting little white cabins for us--but, nope, there was nothing to eat. We even had to borrow a corkscrew from a passing motorist, but, by god, the sunset was lovely, and we could hear the trains all night long, wailing their way toward Chicago through the empty desert.

Always travel with pretzels. They're light and full of salt and don't require the application of heat. Just tear open the bag and consume. Especially appropriate with red wine, they formed our predawn breakfast before we made the two-minute drive to the trail head at Amboy Crater.

Figuring that a mere 250-foot crater would be a piece of cake to climb, we set off along the trail. Crimson clouds rose in the sky as we meandered our way around huge encrustations of lava that last spewed from this tiny cinder cone 6,500 years ago. The crater became huge by the time we reached its smooth, rocky slope. Determined, we managed the serpentine switchbacks, pausing every few steps to catch our breath and to gasp at the view. Fifty miles in every direction, the desert arranged itself in receding layers of mountain and valley, mountain and valley, around the cinder cone.

Finally at the rim, we half climbed, half slid down onto the hard-baked crater, an eerie sulfuric green surrounded by the deep oxblood caldera. Amboy Crater, beloved of UCLA petrology students, is a perfect trainer hike for those who want to feel that they've roughed it without days of hiking or the hassle of tents and sleeping bags.

In 45 minutes, we were back in the car and cruising through the lunar landscape toward 29 Palms, where you can get a decent cappuccino at a place called the Finicky Coyote.

Bullish on Barstow: It's not Tahiti, but Barstow does boast watering holes for the dusty traveler.

Bohemian's Rhapsody

FROM THE DAYS of Rita Hayworth and Salvador Dali to the present era of Mick Jagger and Cindy Crawford, the 29 Palms Inn--a bohemian enclave of adobe bungalows crowded around a lush palm oasis--has attracted those in need of an incognito getaway.

The cluster of charmingly funky adobes, each with its own fireplace, tiled shower and view of the technicolor Mojave sunsets, offers ample anonymity as well as a chance to dress for dinner (i.e., throw a linen shirt over the bathing suit) and meet for cocktails around the pool.

An oasis of frontier culture as well as palm groves since 1928 (and earlier as a folkloric Native American power spot), the setting hosts local artists, celebrities, cowboys and top guns from the world's largest Marine base just a few clicks down the road. It is arguably one of the most satisfying ways to get lost for a few days within a mere three hours of L.A.

Thanks to an organic garden on the property, the inn's kitchen rustles up surprisingly tasty fresh salads, pastas and seafood dinners. Ghostly white barn owls nest in the twin palms by the pool and provide a nightly dinner show gliding toward their invisible prey. By day, the inn lies silent, pulsating in the heat. Guests retreat to their air-conditioned bedrooms. Long-eared jackrabbits pant in the creosote. A lone roadrunner patrols madly while huge black ravens circle the oasis. The hum of insects echoes the throb of the desert floor, vibrating in the heat--everything suspended in an arid freeze frame until the hour before sunset, when life can continue.

The mountains that hug the inn's southern edge lie within the mighty Joshua Tree National Monument, a hallucinogenic jumble of boulders the size of office buildings where every Western movie you ever saw as a kid was filmed. When we pay our respects to these 850,000 sacred acres, we rise before dawn, walk or drive to any one of a million panoramic spots--like the enchanted trail to 49 Palms Canyon--and wait for the sun. Deep purples shape-shift into magenta and then orange--barrel cacti glow red in the gathering day--the rocks reveal their secret identities as living creatures tuned to a mineral, rather than a biological, genetic code.

Once the sun's up, the spell is broken--until sunset--and we head either for the Carousel Cafe, where a full breakfast of eggs, potatoes, bacon and pancakes still runs under $3, or the Jelly Donut, where two generations of retired military warriors refight either the Korean or the Vietnam war--sometimes both--and talk about their latest operations.

29 Palms is addictive, a sere warp of both time and space. Long may it elude developers, entrepreneurs and designer consciousness.

The Mojave will outlive us all.

Roy's Cafe & Motel 760/733-4263. Timothy White's photos of Amboy--one of which appears on this week's cover--can be seen on the website.

El Rancho Motel 112 E. Main St., Barstow; 619/256-2401. Point your web search engine toward "Virtual Barstow" for a terrific homage to Barstow as well as Route 66.

29 Palms Inn 73950 Inn Ave., 29 Palms; 760/367-3505 (but don't bother, because they're booked up solid, except during the summer when the rates go down and the temperature goes up).

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From the April 28-May 5, 1999 issue of Metro Santa Cruz.

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