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Taking the (Mojave) Road Less Traveled
July, 2021 - Issue #201

The morning sun illuminated the tent. I listened for signs of life in camp, but no one stirred. Fully awake, with no chance of falling back asleep, I slowly unzipped the door and stepped outside, careful not to disturb my two still-sleeping teenagers.
I walked slowly down the dirt road leading out of camp for lack of anything else to do. My concern over not awaking the others gave way to the realization that the next few minutes were a gift: desert solitude.
It was most welcome, as the previous days were a blur of packing, worry and texts. Six of us had spent months gearing up for this trip on the Mojave Road.The 140-plus-mile off-road trail traverses the Mojave National Preserve from the Colorado River near Laughlin to Zzyzx. Originally a Native American footpath, it evolved into a 19th-century wagon road that connected reliable water sources. Now, with the surging popularity of overlanding - aka off-road camping - it is having a moment.
The trail accesses a corner of California that drivers on adjacent Interstates 15 and 40 accelerate through on their way to somewhere else. But on this sandy two-track, the journey is the destination. The desert is more than a blank wasteland. It is a place like nowhere else. Beyond the freeways, its rich history, sublime scenery and other discoveries unfold along the trail.
Our caravan rendezvoused on a Friday morning, topped off the gas tanks and headed west to our first stop. Fort Piute is one of the most popular waypoints on the trail. Built in the 1860s to guard a mail route between San Bernardino and Prescott, Arizona, its squat rock walls still stand on a hillside above the riparian greenery of Piute Creek. We explored what's left of the fort and marveled at the requisite hardiness of the men stationed there.
"The moment of SURPRISING BEAUTY stopped me. I stood on the trail, turning slowly to take in the view around me, intently listening. Realizing there was nothing to hear,
I remained still, savoring the silence."
More modern structures stand testament to others' efforts to make a life in the desert. Abandoned mines, corrals and homesteads dot the trail. At the junction with Carruthers Canyon Road, we turned north and stopped to walk through a rock-walled house set among Joshua trees. Its doors and windows were long gone, but the stove and kitchen sink remained.
We continued north, climbing into the New York Mountains, which invite travelers to leave the desert floor and camp among pines and boulders at 5,000 feet. After some scouting, we found a large open area away from other groups and settled in for the evening.
Tents arose, beers popped and fish and carne asada sizzled on grills. After dinner, stars brightened overhead as the sun faded.
A lively fire danced in a ring of rocks while glowing gray coals baked our Dutch oven dessert. A bottle appeared, filling plastic cups with a warming digestif. Good food shared among great company was a fitting end to a day of rewarding travel.
I was among the first to retire to my tent, worn from a day of driving and desert sun, so it's not surprising I was the first to awake the next morning.
Beyond sight of camp, I had the desert to myself. The morning was bright but cool. Nothing animal or mechanical moved or made a sound. Not even a breeze whispered in the pines. I was enveloped in complete stillness and silence.
The moment of surprising beauty stopped me. I stood on the trail, turning slowly to take in the view around me, intently listening. Realizing there was nothing to hear, I remained still, savoring the silence.
I had come to the desert with my agenda and expectations. A route to follow. Mileage to drive. Sights to see. But this was something better. A gift of stillness and solitude found only by stopping long enough to notice it.
Eric Harnish lives in Castaic when he's not exploring California's hidden corners.

Taking the Mojave Road
Undertaking this self-supported trip through the desert requires thorough research and careful planning. These two resources can help you determine if you want to tackle the Mojave Road.
National Parks Mojave Road
insidescv.com/mojaveroad
"Mojave Road Guide - An Adventure Through Time" by Dennis Casebier
available on Amazon
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