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.
Strangely enough, it was almost these revered Joshua trees that would halt the forward progress of the mighty H1 and our small caravan. With a vehicle so wide, and ancient trees that had every intention on staying right where they set root, there were many close calls as the H1 squeezed past Joshua trees lining both sides of the trail. Fortunately, if we can take an H1 through the whole stretch of the Mojave Road relatively unscathed, just about anything narrower (which is just about anything) will make it.
At mile 41.3, we stopped to add a penny to the famous Penny Can, which dangles on a wire from the arm of an elderly Joshua tree. This is just one of many traditions that travelers embrace while on the Mojave Road. Since we were in the middle of nowhere and feeling a bit spiritual with all the surrounding beauty and such, we also chanted and did a nifty Four Wheeler dance to ward off evil spirits and vehicle breakage, although at least one of us was sure we got it wrong and instead did something requesting the comeback of the Daihatsu Rocky.
Passing through mile 49.3, we encountered the steep slope into Watson Wash, which was the first section of the road to require low-range for easy going. The only difficult part of this short section of rutted downslope is choosing a good stable line along the narrow path. Just across the wash lies Rock Spring (4,800 feet), which over the years has hosted an Army camp, homesteads, and a stop-off for travelers looking to hydrate in this stretch of desert. Rock Spring became historically important, mostly due to its placement along the trail, and shared its water equally with anyone who needed it.
After 50 miles on the trail and the sun settling in for the night, we attempted to post camp at Rock Spring, where we were greeted by a father-daughter campout, featuring over-protective off-duty police officer dads who immediately informed us of the guns they were carrying, evidently not buying our story that we were magazine guys looking for a place to relax for the night. We decided it was best not to mix sarcastic off-duty magazine editors and smores, so we headed down the trail about two miles, where we found the historical site of Government Holes vacant.
According to the Mojave Road Guide, Government Holes is where, on November 8, 1925, one of the last classical gunfights of the Old West took place between Matt Burts and J.W. "Bill" Robinson, who ended each other's careers by emptying their .45s into one another. First drilled for water in 1859 by Phineas Banning (the namesake of Banning, California, and the man credited with creating the modern Port of Los Angeles) and enlarged by U.S. soldiers in 1860, Government Holes was an early camp spot for travelers and used as an operations point for the local cattle industry, and is still used for such things.
With the sun long since clocked out for the day, we had found our little piece of paradise for the night. As soon as we threw our rigs in to park and set up camp, storytelling ensued in front of a small campfire as the chili was warmed on the stove. It was all of the things I had been thinking of while stuck in the traffic, so many miles earlier in the day. The first half of this trip was about camaraderie, good times and old fashioned adventure-just how it should be when you take a break from it all and unwind in the beautifully slow-paced world that is the backcountry. (Ed. note-You can follow the second half of this staff adventure in next month's issue.)
There are no signs along the route and navigation is purely by rock cairns, carefully placed along the way by the volunteers. For the best experience, we recommend turning to Dennis G. Casebier's Mojave Road Guide, available online, which also fills you in on the historical significance of the area, mile by mile. No other guidebook is as comprehensive for this trail.
While the Mojave Road can be done in two days, it is best enjoyed in three or four, especially if you want to explore the side attractions. Most travelers start out at the AVI Casino in Laughlin, Nevada, where you can both stay the night before and fuel up before the trip. (They even have diesel.)
While the vast majority of the Mojave Road is passable in two-wheel drive, we recommend having four-wheel drive, because of how quickly the terrain or weather conditions can change or vary over 132 miles-especially on Soda Lake, which is encountered on the second half of the journey. Also recommended are recovery gear, five gallons of extra fuel, and enough food and water to last a week. Take note that the elevation change can affect temperatures drastically. During our trip in mid-April, we saw lows in the 40s and highs in the 90s.
Bottom line: Go Prepared.
-Sean P. Holman