Arid (and) Extra Dry

Most of us reacted to eighteen months in the unwelcome company of COVID-19 the same. We reflected on our time with Mr. Virus and wondered, “What would we have done more of?” More get-togethers? More travel? More dinners out?  Yes, yes, and yes.  But instead, we hunkered down and waited for things to get better. Our routines became more… routine.  Everything faded to black and white.  Clocks came to a standstill. It’s the same feeling I had, coincidentally, enduring a drive from Colorado to California earlier this month.

My advice: choose “East” while you still can

Maybe you’ve made the trek: Denver to San Diego via Interstate 70 and then Interstate 15.  Sounds so clean and easy, doesn’t it?  Two highways.  Plenty of lanes.  Rocky Mountains on one end and Pacific Ocean on the other.  Yeah, well, it’s all the mind-numbing in-between stuff that makes you want to burst through your sunroof and flag down a helicopter heading west.  There’s a whole lot of nothing in the desert.

The problem with this drive (which was not a flight because my wife & I wanted to bring our bikes) is the beautiful part comes first.  From Denver, it’s four hours of majestic snow-capped mountains, rushing rivers, red rock canyons, and breathless (literally) summits as you cruise on over to Grand Junction.  There’s good reason America the Beautiful was penned in the Rockies.

Cruise control suggested here

But don’t get comfortable.  Once you reach Grand Junction (which isn’t so grand), beauty takes a big break.  Pretend you’re a marble inside a rolled-up blanket.  Then someone flips that blanket out and off you go, rolling across the flattest, most desolate desert floor you’ve ever seen.  The mountains reduce to buttes reduce to sand dunes reduce to nothing.  The highway morphs from all sorts of curvy to ruler-straight. Your cell phone signal goes MIA.  You suddenly feel parched.  And you wonder, why-oh-why does the dusty sign say “Welcome to Utah” when there’s nothing welcoming about it at all?

So it goes in middle-eastern Utah.  Every exit is anonymously labeled “Ranch Road” (and why would you want to exit anyway?)  The highway signs counting down the mileage to Interstate 15 march endlessly.  When you finally do arrive at I-15 (your single steering wheel turn the entire journey), you bring out the balloons and the confetti and do a happy dance.  YOU MADE IT ACROSS THE MOON!  Well, sort of.  Now you’re just in central Utah.

I-15 wanders south a couple hours to St. George.  It’s probably a perfectly nice place to live, but St. George reminds me of the Middle East.  Squarish stucco/stone buildings, mostly white.  Not many people on the streets.  The temperatures quietly ascended to triple digits when you weren’t looking.  You realize you’re starting to sunburn through the car windows.

Proceed with caution (and water)

But then you make it to Arizona (briefly).  The landscape changes, suddenly and dramatically, as if Arizona declares, “Take that, Utah!  We’re a much prettier state!”  You descend through curve after highway curve of a twisting, narrow canyon, rich with layers of red rock. It’s the entrance to the promised land!  Alas, Arizona then gives way to Nevada, and here my friends, are the proverbial gates of Hell.  Welcome to the arid, endless, scrub-oak-laden vastness of the Mojave Desert, where everything is decidedly dead except for a brief glittery oasis known as Las Vegas.  The Mojave looks like it wants to swallow you whole and spit you out (except spit requires water so you’d probably just be gone forever).

Hang on to those dashboard gauges for dear life, friends, because it’s a full four hours in the Mojave broiler before your car gasps past the “Welcome to California” sign.  In those hours you’ll call your kids (one last time?), declare your final wishes, and wonder why you didn’t visit your parents more often.  Anything you see in motion off the highway is probably a mirage.  If you do make it to California, you’ll pull over and kiss the ground sand before wondering, “Hey, how come California looks exactly like Nevada?  Then Google Maps smirks the bad news.  You’re nowhere near the end of the Mojave Desert.

Baker. Barstow. Victorville. Hesperia.  You’ll pass through each of these towns and wonder, a) Why does anybody live here? and b) Is this the land that time forgot?  But finally, mercifully, you’ll descend the mighty Cajon Pass (the outside temperature descending alongside you), burst forth onto the freeway spaghetti of the LA Basin, and declare, “Los Angeles.  Thank the Good Lord.  I must be close now”.

You’re never alone on the Cajon

Except you’re not.  The Basin is dozens of cities, hundreds of miles, and millions of cars collectively called “Los Angeles”.  Hunker down, good buddy.  The Pacific is still hours away.

Here’s the short of it.  My wife & I made it to San Diego.  The car didn’t die in the middle of the Mojave.  Neither did we (though I left a piece of my soul behind).  We even rode the bikes a few times.  But I can’t account for those nineteen hours behind the wheel.  It’s like Monday morning became Tuesday night in a single blink.  Just like 2019 became 2021 without much in between.

What goes down must come back up.  The time has come to do the death drive in reverse.  Ugh.  Maybe we’ll leave the bikes in San Diego and catch a flight instead.

17 thoughts on “Arid (and) Extra Dry

  1. Oh my gosh… sounds like when I drove from Seattle to Chicago. There were stretches of highways that were so barren, you had to “make sure” you had GAS, because there were NO small towns, not even for fast food. Leave the bikes, take the flight. Although, you need your car in Denver…. GOOD LUCK!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Good point about the gas. We were a little nervous on a drive like this, knowing the supply chain has been interrupted and plenty of pumps are empty. Made us fill up whenever we got to a half tank.

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  3. I have to say I prefer driving in Arizona over driving in Utah. I’ve done a lot of desert driving my life and while there is a certain beauty in the desolation, it’s not the same as a nice forest. I’ve learned to always have plenty of water, extra food and I start looking for a gas station when the tank drops to 1/2 – gas stations are few.

    but if you really want desert, go to Death Valley – sand, heat and nothing.

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  4. I’ve heard the Death Valley description many times; deserving of its name. My dad said it’s the hottest place he’s ever been on the planet in his 92 years; something in the neighborhood of 120 degrees. Vegas was 119 when we passed through two weeks ago. Suffocating.

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  5. I really know what you mean – the drive from Alberta to Phoenix… in the winter, is a lot of not much to see, broken by a few snow storms where you see even less. The spring trip home is better – we usually take the east route around the Grand Canyon which has much better scenery than the Las Vegas route.

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  6. My gosh, that’s practically a straight line south from the top to the bottom of the U.S! Have you done it in two days? Adding in stops, I figure at least twenty-six hours behind the wheel. That’s three days in my book, at least to avoid a total meltdown.

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  7. Have you ever tried 25-40-15? I’ve never driven the I-25 section, but I have done the rest, and it’s a lot more interesting. Longer than your route, I’m guessing, but it would be a lot prettier, scenery-wise (you spend a lot more time in Arizona). Although I should note that in going by Saint George (UT) you were pretty close to Zion National Park, which is pretty spectacular. Give it a visit sometime if you haven’t already.

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  8. That’s a great idea for a future trip. I never realized I-40 connects Albuquerque to Barstow, and that trip only adds two hours to the total. Will definitely consider it next time around!

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  9. You get an appreciation for just how big this country really is, that’s for sure. Plenty of wide and open space out there, at least in the Western states.

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  10. Many years ago (1964 I believe), my father had a job interview in Anaheim and we drove from Oakville, Ontario to Anaheim, California. He had two weeks’ vacation and we pretty much traveled there, he had the interview, we visited Knott’s Berry Farm, Marineland and Disneyland for my benefit and we turned around and came back. We drove in a VW Beetle with no A/C and plastic seats in the back. My bare legs stuck to the seats so we brought a blanket to lay across the seat. My mom did not drive at all. My father had his arm crooked, resting on the open door as the window was down the entire time – he got a horrible sunburn and a blister the size of a saucer on that arm, which required a trip to the E.R. as the blister burst and his arm got infected. I seem to think we did go through Death Valley, but that is sketchy to me – I was just a kid. I hadn’t thought of that incident in decades. Safe travels home.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Glad you were rewarded with the amusement parks! I’d forgotten about Marineland. Knotts was as much about the chicken dinners, pies, and jams back then as it was the amusements. And the in-the-car desert sunburn is no joke. Dress for comfort and pay the price. My burn didn’t warrant the ER but it was still a burn.

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      1. I got the fun part of the trip – Bubbles the Whale at Marineland of the Pacific was my favorite. My mom got her purse pickpocketed at Disneyland. I saw Knott’s Berry Farm again when I took a California trip in 1980 – it had changed a lot. The rest was spent driving. You were lucky not to have a sunburn like that. I guess he never thought he’d get a severe sunburn but it was many hours in the heat of the day, on a roundtrip made in two weeks’ time.

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  11. I’ve done the drive through the Rockies to California more than once, but give yourself time to go through the fabulous red rock parks in southern Utah. That will keep you happy for a while before the desert takes over. Or do that on the way back!

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  12. Yes, we’ve done this drive enough to consider more scenic routes next time. Also, the return trip included some dicey miles in Utah due to recent flash floods, and lucky timing on through Glenwood Canyon, which closed shortly after our pass-through due to flooding. Believe I-70 still closed today, almost a week later.

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  13. Wow, that is a drive I have never made. We have driven the eastern half of the US pretty extensively, but all of our western travel has begun at the airport. You wonder how people managed that drive when car travel without breakdowns was not the norm.

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  14. There’s a good two-hour stretch through Utah where you have no cell phone service. I’m not gonna say I held my breath that long but those wide-open spaces certainly make you wonder “what if” with your car. Happy to report we had no mishaps in either direction.

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