Traveling Through the Mojave Desert

Legends abound about the Mojave Desert and its desert companions The Great Basin Desert to the north, and the Sonoran Desert to the south. From lost Spanish galleons ran aground and now covered by the sands, to lost gold and silver mines, to subterranean rivers with black sandy shores running with gold, to haunted ghost towns, the desert bigfoot, mutants and the ever popular gambler that owes too much to the wrong people who “disappeared” but whose buddies are sure was buried in the desert somewhere. These three deserts that comprise the Mojave Desert Preserve certainly seem to have lots of stories to tell, but they don’t seem to be giving anything away.

Driving from Nevada to L.A. and back we saw a whole lot of desert; mostly Mojave Desert, which I found fascinating as I do most any landscape outside of the one consisting of our ¼ acre lot at home that’s under constant construction. For instance, I learned that the Mojave Preserve is home to the largest and most dense Joshua Tree forest in the world.

What is a Joshua Tree, you ask? I’ll tell you, According to the Joshua Tree National Park website, the Joshua tree (Yucca brevifolia) is a member of the agave family. Its twisted branches seem surreal in the otherwise mostly desolate landscape.

A Joshua tree does not bloom unless conditions are just right and if it doesn’t bloom, it doesn’t branch out. Instead, it looks like a lonely pillar-like sentinel with a spiky green pouf of spiky leaves on top. (if you happened to see the movie Rango, these would seem to be the “walking cactus” seen in the desert near the water pipes). The oldest Joshua tree in the forest is in the Queen Valley Forest. It is 40 feet high and is estimated to be 300 years old. The name “Joshua tree” came from Mormon settlers who thought the tree looked like it had its branches stretched out in supplication. The name stuck and that is what later settlers and prospectors called the trees as well.

As we stopped at a rest stop just off the highway (much of which was the infamous Route 66) I was struck by the interesting contradiction between the palm trees, which I’d really only seen near water of some sort, near what seemed to be an unprotected picnic area amid a vast field of nothing but sand.

I mean nothing but sand. Still, there were signs of life. Birds flitted around the rest area, probably waiting for some unsuspecting tourist to drop a crumb or two. One or two bigger birds circled in the sky, probably waiting for an absent-minded tourist to leave a small pet unattended. There were also flying insects…insects always seem to find their way to me, much to my dismay.

On the road again we caught glimpses of mountain and sand dunes and cinder cones. All of which were rumored to harbor great veins of gold or silver and a great many who went in search of such treasures never to be heard from again.

Some parts of the desert looked more like an abstract painting than a real place with only the different colors of the sand, hills, and mountains making any distinctions in the landscape (no, this photo is not doctored to look like a painting, this was taken out of the front windshield going about 75 miles per hour). Other parts were crowded with Joshua Trees, yuccas, scrub, and the occasional palm tree. Unfortunately we were too far south to see any of the iconic saguaro cacti.

This is the greatest thing about road trips. I’ve flown over this seemingly desolate area of the country a few times. From above it looks like reddish sand, dirt hills, and canyons for as far as the eye can see at some points. From the ground, up close, it is an entirely different story. Traveling down the nostalgic Route 66, through the desert and over the mountains to its end in Santa Monica California was an experience that left me wishing I could have had more time to explore the desert. I would have liked to have seen Death Valley, hiked through some of the lava tubes, communed with some of native wildlife. Perhaps another time, for now, I’m grateful for the glimpses I did get of the Mojave’s austere, and sometimes mysterious, splendor.

Have you ever visited someplace that seemed totally alien to you? What’s the strangest place you’ve ever visisted. I’d love to hear about it!

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