Part I: Colorado River to Government Holes
It was about 9 a.m. on a beautiful Friday morning, and out on the highway I was making great time in a borrowed '06 Hummer H1 Alpha. However, visions of desert adventure quickly faded when the freeway came to a screeching halt. It wasn't going to be a last-minute meeting in the office or the truck-gobbling mud of Soda Lake that was about to keep me from basking in my desert retreat-no, it would be the very L.A. mayhem that I was trying to escape. With a semi ripped apart at the top of the Cajon Pass, it must have been civilization's last attempt to hold me hostage from my refuge and postpone my rendezvous with the rest of the Four Wheeler staff in Laughlin, Nevada.
After a phone call to editor Douglas McColloch, I was assured the troops were still in Laughlin awaiting my arrival (sans Senior Editor Ken Brubaker, curator of our Midwest bureau, who couldn't fathom leaving 12-foot snowdrifts for a weekend trip across the snowless Mojave National Preserve) and would find things to do in the meantime. After all, it does make it hard for them to ditch you when you hold the guidebook.
The Mojave Road is my personal favorite trail, as it is one of the original corridors in to Southern California. First established as a trail by the Mojave Indians to trade goods with coastal tribes, they guided the first white man, Spaniard Fr. Francisco Garces, across it in 1776. Later, such explorers as Jedediah Smith, John Charles Fremont, and Kit Carson would use all, or portions, of the trail in their explorations of the Western frontier, often with Mojave Indians as their guides. This would begin an uneasy history between the white man and the Mojave Indians, who quickly earned a reputation for being a hostile tribe. Fierce battles eventually caused the Army to build Fort Mojave on the banks of the Colorado in 1859. From then on, the Mojave Indian Trail was transformed in to a viable wagon road. Later, the road became a route for U.S. Army movements, U.S. Mail, and countless entrepreneurs and emigrants looking for fortune and new beginnings in California.
Thanks to a group of volunteers known as the Friends of the Mojave Road, today most of the road's original trace can be followed for about 132 miles westward from the Colorado River to the desert town of Barstow, California, where Interstates 15 and 40 meet. There are a few detours-due to Wilderness Area restrictions, private property and the like-but for the most part, when you travel the Mojave Road, you are following in the footsteps of history. While it is not a difficult trail, sudden changes in weather and terrain require that all vehicles travel in pairs and have four-wheel drive. Throughout the road, visitors can expect an elevation change of nearly 5,000 feet, and vistas that stretch for miles to the horizon. Stop at the right time, and you may see a slow-moving freight train tugging a load across the desert floor.
Our first destination would be the ruins of Fort Piute at mile 23.3, which to our dismay had been closed to all travelers due to a careless campfire that raged uncontrollably through the adjoining spring and near many of the historical remnants, such as the wooden corral structures and building foundations. On a journey thick with history, it is a shame to run across such closures. Up to this point, the road had been mostly sand, with jagged rocks taking over closer to Fort Piute.
Around 2 p.m., in addition to Douglas, I finally met up with Feature Editor Robin Stover and good friend Shane Casad from Bilstein (standing in for Brubaker) at the AVI Casino, some three or so miles south of the trailhead. At the AVI, we topped off our fuel tanks before finally beginning our journey. After a few photos, and checking in at 500 feet above seal level, we adjusted our course westward and headed toward the Dead Mountains and Piute Valley. For just having such a wet winter in California, the road was in pretty good shape, if not a little bit sandy, posing no problems for our aired-down rigs.
Due to a Wilderness Area immediately behind the spring, leaving Fort Piute required us to reverse course a couple of miles and follow a different path to the south over the Piute Range and in to the homesteads and cattle country of Lanfair Valley, where we would reconnect with the Mojave Road at mile 31.1, over 3,000 feet above sea level. As the elevation increased, we started to see the storied Joshua trees appear, and for the next 40 miles we would be traveling through a thick forest of them. Joshua trees grow nowhere else in the world outside of California's Mojave Desert and are said to have been named by Mormon settlers who felt that the large plant resembled the prophet Joshua waving at them with his arms outreached toward the sky.