As it happens so often in the desert, the gale force winds settled down sometime in the night and gave way to sounds of coyotes yipping in the hills nearby and the low groan of desert tortoises in the Mojave River right next to the campsite. As dawn broke, the sun filled the rooftop tent with warmth and I decided to get up and get going as early as possible. I was itching to get started on the new days adventure.
After a quick breakfast of Starbucks VIA, oatmeal, roasted pecans, and dried cherries and blueberries, we packed up and got ready to hit the road. Bryon started up the Sportsmobile and tore off through the campground to test out the transmission. A few minutes later, he came roaring back and up the river berm and down the road. He came back about five minutes later reporting that the transmission appeared to be in good shape. He no longer heard the metal-on-metal sounds and the gears seemed to work properly.
Since my GPS coordinates were a mess, we opted to let David lead us as we began the drive through Afton Canyon. It should be noted here that Afton Canyon is another place where dry, sandy conditions can occur, so we were a little hesitant when we started feeling that familiar feeling of floating across the sand in the bottom of the wash. Not wanting a repeat of the previous day, we stuck to the inside edge of the canyon as much as possible, hugging the sandstone cliffs to the south. At 9:00 am, the temperature was already well into the 80′s so we took the opportunity to relax for a few minutes in the shade of these beautiful cliffs in this delicate riparian zone on the edge of the Mojave River.
The next leg of our journey would lead us east into the Mojave River wash heading toward Shaw Pass. There would be no shade, and there was even more possibility of hitting silty, sandy conditions. We drove back and forth in the wash looking for the correct route. Dave stayed in contact through the HAM radio letting me know that his track diverged from the obvious track we were following and that we needed to find the correct route through the wash. We drove back and forth for about 20 minutes trying out new routes that ultimately ended in impassable conditions. I suggested driving farther up the marked road to the northeast to see if we could find an intersecting trail. Dave took the lead again and I followed him closely. As he went further off the track on his GPS, he slowed to a stop and informed me we were too far off the mark. It was then that I noticed a rock cairn, or a pile of stones used to mark a trail. In the planning stages of this drive while reading The Mojave Road Guide, I remembered that much of the Mojave Road was marked with these rock cairns as a sort of “road sign” system. I knew we were finally on the right path! I radioed ahead to Dave and informed him of my find. He turned around and came back to my location and we turned down the well-marked road.
Soon we were flying through the wash with the familiar rock cairns showing up on our left-hand side every few hundred yards. The addition of the rock cairns made navigation so much easier and we made good progress as we began a slow ascent to the top of Shaw Pass. We took a break at the top to look back to the Mojave River valley below and see what we just navigated through. It was an amazing sight! Next up was Soda Lake, a dry lake bed that can be treacherous at times. Soda Lake is best avoided if there is obvious water present or even if there was rain in the past few weeks. You see, Soda Lake can appear dry, but once you get a vehicle onto the salt pan, the weight can break through the dried crust and reveal the primordial ooze below. Many a vehicle has paid the price both literally and figuratively on the playa. Lucky for us it was a fairly dry winter and Soda Lake was bone dry. We would have no issue making it out to Traveler’s Monument, a rock pile which started as a protest to the BLM and U.C. System for closing the original Mojave Road route into Zzyzx from the many people who have traveled the Mojave Road as well as a commemorative plaque that tells a bit of history of the road. I could tell you what the plaque says, but then I’d have to kill you. It’s for traveler’s eyes only!
After crossing the playa, the terrain changes yet again back to a dirt track strewn with black volcanic rock. This area, called the Cinder Cone Lava Beds has fascinating scenery including three perfect cinder cones and a basalt lava palisade that stretches for miles along Kelbaker Road. We loved this spot so much that we decided to pull over just off the road for an impromptu lunch. It was then that Bryon broke the bad news to us that his transmission was completely shot. He had no first gear, second was dying on the vine and he had to take third and fourth out back and shoot them. He’d been nursing second gear all morning and it seemed to be working. He’d be able to limp along with us and then try to find a shop at the end of the road in Laughlin.
After lunch we picked up the pace a bit, gaining elevation through a Joshua Tree forest that rivals any in that other National Park a bit further south until we reached the Mojave Mailbox. Installed in 1983, the mailbox is a waypoint for Mojave Road travelers to stop and sign the log book letting others know you’ve been there. Dave, Bryon and I all took turns jotting down our names in the log book when Dave called us over to check out the “frog shrine” and the less populated, but nonetheless weird “gnome land” about 50 yards away. After the mailbox (Elevation 4556) we started a loooooong undulating downhill toward Cima Road. Think a long series of whoop-de-doos resembling 10 foot ocean swells. About half way through these “waves” Dave got on the radio and asked me if I brought the Dramamine. Being seasick already, I had my window down just in case I hurled. Luckily, everything stayed down and we finally arrived at Marl Springs where we quickly stopped to allow Dave to take his life into his own hands and grab a couple liters of Marl Spring water. That man is one brave soul.
As it was getting toward late afternoon, we left Marl Spring and hit the longest stretch of tarmac in two days, a three-mile jaunt to get us back to the Mojave Road. I don’t know what it is, but touching pavement after being off it for so long feels like cheating. We crossed Cima Road and headed further east up the hill again toward the site of Pleasant View School. The terrain changed again and we were surrounded by majestic buttes, creosote, and huge boulders. We were back at 5500 feet in elevation and any residual heat from the valley below was gone at this altitude. The schoolhouse is no longer there, but a large tree marks the spot where it stood. We set up camp, grabbed a cold beer, and started taking in the scenery when a caravan of rigs pulled up to our site. Everyone got out of their vehicles and came over to say hello and check out our Land Cruisers and Sportsmobile. An older gentleman got out of the first rig and was introduced to me as Dennis Casebier. I nonchalantly extended my hand to shake his when the name rang in my head…Dennis Casebier? “You mean the guy who wrote THE book on the Mojave Road?” He was one and the same. We got to meet a living legend!
We were elated at our luck in scoring this campsite and meeting Dennis and the other travelers. The site was quiet, clean, and at a mile high, it was some of the best star-gazing we had on the trip. We’d finish the road the next day, but tonight was a time for good conversation, a photography lesson, and good food. You couldn’t ask for anything better.
Editor’s Note: Stay tuned for the third and final leg of the trip to come!