Thursday, March 11, 2010

The desert.

California State Route 127 originates in Baker. Baker is home to the “World’s tallest thermometer,” and the town relies on tourism. It is a popular stop for people who travel between the two most decadent cities in America, Los Angeles and Las Vegas. Baker is hot and dusty and dying.

SR 127 leads north from Baker. It cuts through the desert and passes nothing after nothing. After about a half hour of driving, huge sand dunes appear in the east. This is Dumont Dunes, an extremely popular place to drive off-highway vehicles like dune buggies, ATVs, sand rails or motorcycles. Dumont is also one of the few sand dunes that “booms”. A small avalanche of sand grains can create an eerie, low frequency humming sound. But Dumont’s distinctive “singing” pitch is almost always drowned out by the droning of OHV engines. On the big weekends (Halloween, Thanksgiving, Christmas, New Years and President’s Day), more than 100,000 people make the pilgrimage to Dumont. A few unlucky drivers die each year in spectacular crashes.

Another half hour past Dumont is Tecopa, which is famous for its hot springs. The Tecopa Hot Springs Resort is run by the county and costs $7 to enter. Men and women walk off to separate concrete cubicles where natural springs fill pools with warm, clear water. Clothes and bathing suits are not allowed. After being in the hot water, it is very comfortable to sit and steam in the cool evening air. A white cross atop a gravelly hill stands out against the darkening sky.

From Tecopa, SR 127 curves gently for a few miles on flat ground before winding through low hills and canyons. It’s difficult to tell whether these strange geological formations are made of soft dirt or hard rock, but the landscape is too harsh to justify pulling off the highway to find out.

Twelve miles north of Tecopa is the intersection of SR 127 and SR 178. SR 178 passes through the Nopah mountain range on to Pahrump, Nevada, the “Heart of the New Old West.” At night, disembodied yellow and red lights wind their way up the mountain pass through the blackness. It’s hard to imagine someone actually driving through such a void.

Just past this intersection is Shoshone, which is barely a town at all. About 40 people stay in Shoshone year round. They live in decrepit houses with rusted metal siding, or decrepit trailers with rusted metal siding. In Shoshone, there is a gas station that doubles as a general store, a post office, the Shoshone Inn, the Crowbar (a restaurant and bar) and the Shoshone Museum. There are also a few abandoned buildings whose peeling paint is lit by twinkling Christmas lights strung around their roofs.

Shoshone is a desert town. Almost everything is the color of rust. Mornings in Shoshone are quiet except for the rumble of the occasional vehicles on their way to Death Valley.

About 15 miles from Shoshone is an abandoned mining site. The mine used to be the center of a town, until profits went down and everyone left. Now, almost nothing can grow on the poisoned soil. It is barren even by desert standards. Twisted metal and a broken wood frame litter the ground, but the site is unlikely to be cleaned up anytime soon.

A man from Canada spends his winters squatting on the site with his old, scarred junkyard dog. They spend their time in a run-down RV, doing nothing in particular. There isn’t much to see, and there is even less to do. There is no one within ten miles, and these miles are even more arduous because of the unpaved, dirt road. The only notable thing about this part of the desert is the tremendous solitude and the endless beige.

The town of Shoshone and Las Vegas lights:

The Death Valley salt flats:

The China Ranch Date Farm, an oasis in the middle of the desert:

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