Windows down. Sunroof open. Summer air rushes through the cabin. Tires screech in protest as they fight against another turn they’re simply not designed for. The engine roars back up through the power band, and the heavy beast remembers what continent it was born on as it catapults out of another curve. Ulysses is happy today, she wants to run. A glance in the mirror before I enter the next turn reveals no sign of the stock Discovery 3 running with us, either I’m hauling ass or he’s dragging it. I glance at the speedometer—it’s me. 33-inch mud terrains wail in anguish once more as they’re pushed to the edge of traction. I push the accelerator down farther and smile with a joy that only comes from driving a slow car fast.
I’m relieved the event is over. Don’t get me wrong, I love the community and visiting with the people that bring it together, I just wasn’t wired for large gatherings in fixed locations. Three days is just about right, then it’s time for my cure: an equal number of days wandering. Soaring. Eastbound above the smog along Rim of the World Highway.
Chris catches up as I roll to a stop next to the old, long abandoned Cliffhanger. I’ve know him since I was 14, but never would I have guessed he’d want to race down this twisted tarmac, hopping from tavern to tavern, on a never-ending quest to find the world’s best tuna melt. So go our conversations and revelations over a pint at the first of two bars in the entire town of Crestline.
We hit the next bar, so we can say we’ve hit every bar in town—tuna melt ordered, and we watch as the attractive brunette behind the bar grabs a muddler and sets about making a proper mojito. She’s lived here her entire life. She owns the place. It dawns on Chris what she’s making for me. He orders one too, and she skips through the back door again for another bundle of fresh-picked mint from the garden. The tuna melt arrives, and all is right with the world.
Conversations with more of the locals reveal the location of an “edge of the world” campsite just outside town. The view on arrival does not disappoint, not a bad end to the first (half) day.
Rounding the next bend I’m blinded by the full force of the rising sun. Chris and I parted ways before dawn, it’s a weekday and he has an interview for a new job back in the city. The windows are still down. The air is already warm. I’m on tarmac again. I don’t hate the stuff as much as many fellow dirt-travelers do. So long as it’s twisty; so long as it has no more than two lanes; so long as it’s free of traffic it’s all good. At 6am on a Monday, this road is mine.
The Los Angeles County Line. I’m rewarded with what is possibly the most disused section of California state highway still technically open. Everything about this road feels of neglect and decay. I dodge and weave between sharp shards of broken mountain large enough to slash even the Discovery’s meaty tires. Angeles Crest is a driver’s road, and I share it with only a select-few fellow enthusiasts. Edwards AFB slides into view as I near the summit, and I can’t help but wish another abandoned project—the Space Shuttle—would glide in for one last landing.
Pulling up to Inspiration Point for a stroll I encounter my third vehicle of the day: a fully-farkled Subaru WRX screams around the bend, and for a moment I wish the Foz was here. The WRX sails back down the mountain, and the only remaining noise is the shriek of a golden eagle on the cool Pacific breeze. “June Gloom” is in full effect below, the eagle and I are alone on this island in the clouds.
The remnants of State Route 39 blink past on the left (that’s Beach Boulevard to you Orange County folk), and I pause for second breakfast between the twin tunnels of Mount Williamson. Hours have passed since the last vehicle, and in this solitude I begin to feel foolish for bothering to pull off the road. Waypoint noted: I must return here with gels, strobes, and proper tripods for some in-tunnel vehicle photography.
Trees reclaim their rightful place overhead, once more blotting out sky through inoperative chair lifts and long forgotten ski slopes. Signs of California’s budget crisis are blatant on arrival at the copper-clad Chilao Visitor Center. I make it half-way across the bridge entrance to the main building before realizing just how sketchy the platform is. The classic line from Funny Farm runs through my head, and I turn back to seek facilities elsewhere. Not a person or vehicle is in sight—like the highway below this place is devoid of human life. No…more desolate than that, no squirrels nor birds nor deer have left their mark in this place. It’s in this moment I realize the faded graffiti sprayed over the crumbling pavement are the street signs.
The towering mass of Mount Wilson looms ahead at mid-day. I’ve somehow made it this far through life and never been to an observatory, so I turn south. The silence is interrupted only by the rumble of eight content British cylinders as they haul my kit up the side of the mountain. The parking lot is completely empty, surely such a large operation would still be open? I catch a shimmer in the corner of my eye, and turn to not quite see downtown Los Angeles in the brown soup below.
It’s 12:58pm. The sign at the Cosmic Cafe states the next tour starts here at 1:00pm. A squirrel laughs menacingly at me from the rafters. No signs forbid it, so I invoke universal adventure law #8 and set off on a self-guided tour of the impressive facilities. Open door after open door stands ready on the mile-long round trip through museum exhibits and observation decks. At the top of an absurdly long staircase to “The Big Eye” a photographer is deeply focused in a long exposure of the mechanics on this giant lens. I nod a silent hello and leave him in peace.
An all too familiar burning fills my nostrils on the descent into Big Tujunga Canyon. One part sweaty gym clothes, one part sea salt, two parts second-hand smoke, and a dash of spray paint—this is LA smog. The empty black snake of Angeles Forest Highway winds through the canyon ahead, pavement so fresh it’s without paint, and I long for a different sort of British supercar to flee the burning air.
Freeway. Four divided lanes stretch north across the desert. Traffic, thankfully moving steady at 75 miles per hour. I roll the windows up for the first time so I don’t go deaf with the draft off the big rigs I’m passing. Making good time, I arrive in an odd town with bible verses on every corner. And skin-tight dresses for sale behind the gas station. And a spaceport. I leave the town of Mojave, before the shady characters in front of the derelict Qwikie-Mart can make a move, and head for the desert of Mojave.
Divided freeway returns to two-lane, windows and speed limits descend, and all is good once more. The road forks into two, the right choice is immediately obvious: right, of course. Tarmac crumbles to sand, sand leads to new places. Surprisingly, Google Maps will route through an OHV area on ATV trails. Unsurprisingly, it gives no warning of the forsaken terrain to come. The fun one-hour shortcut turns into three hours of washboarding torture along the camping-forbeodan backroad into the Trona Pinnacles.
I hide from the sun, still blazing at this late hour, behind the pinnacle where Kirk battled with “god.” Camp gets real simple when it’s 102°F after sunset—no fire tonight. One chair. One table. One blanket to keep me from sticking to the sleeper’s deck. Iced tea and cold cuts for dinner, the fridge is my second favorite upgrade. No wind. The air is heavy. It’s impossible to sleep. I stay up until 2am shooting at the stars.
The heat of day preceeds the dawn, the first rays of sunlight striking me half way through a not-quite-cold-enough shower. A towel is simply not necessary, I’ll take the extra evaporative cooling. Shorts, shirt, flip-flops, and I’m on the road. I can’t bring myself to turn on the perfectly good air conditioner. The windows are still down. The breeze is heaven.
Sometimes wandering doesn’t turn out well. Sometimes rolling without a plan ends in failure. Sometimes proper preparation means bringing your own breakfast. The town of Trona is a ghost town, no diner, no coffee shop, no snacks at the only functional fuel pump. I watch with a wary eye from the doorless restroom as an old lady carries a five-gallon jug of water up the hill. It’s the only sign of life I see before pushing onward in search of an interesting turn-off.
It’s been 10 minutes since the road last curved, and 15 hours since I saw another car. Opportunities like this don’t happen every day, my breakfast of yesterday’s donuts can wait—the perfectly stereotypical desert road is dressed up and ready for the picture. Moments like this are why I cruise the deserts in summer. Squirrel…there’s an open mine shaft on that hill. Stay out, stay alive, who wants to live forever?
Ballarat. Ball, Arat. Baller Rat. The cold soda and history conversation with the caretaker are well worth the quick jaunt across the dry lakebed. I want to cut eastward through the Barker Ranch, but probably don’t have the time to complete the journey without having to rush home afterward. I hate rushing. I like driving fast, but I hate rushing. When I die, if some jerk buries me instead of burning me Viking-style, there better be a bottle of Solera 23 left on my headstone. A full bottle.
A lone coyote stops at the junction of state route 190 at the same time I do. Right-of-way is unclear. The coyote scowls at me. I wave it to go through first. It yawns, makes a U-turn, and heads back into the open desert. I turn east and make for the Amargosa Valley, thankful the coyote wasn’t one of those crazy road ragers.
Evening is fast approaching. I cut south into the Mojave Preserve, always a sure bet for a quick and safe camp. What’s left of Cima Road crumbles beneath the rumbles of the knobbies on the way past the Mojave Cross, now restored to it’s rightful place of honor above a new bronze plaque and picnic table. I remember buying sarsaparilla from the kind old caretaker at the Cima store every time I passed through here—I’m saddened, but not surprised, to find it closed permanently this time.
The perfect campsite enters view somewhere between the perfect ranch and the perfect sunset. I stop to watch the latter, but not tired enough for sleep I pass on the former. Goffs isn’t far, then the river, then the Arizona free country. I stop for dinner. I stop for snacks. I stop anytime there’s a good curve to shoot 15-second exposures of the big rigs running highway 95.