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Tuesday, December 25, 2012

My Solstice Jaunt into America's Outback... Again!

Sunrise in Death Valley
December 21st, 2012
Everybody who knows me knows very well that I love the deserts of the American Southwest. I guess you could call me a bit of a desert rat. No matter how many times I drive out away from Las Vegas I am in absolute awe at the big clear skies and arid landscape before me. The desert fascinates me for everything that it is; it colors, its textures, its heights, it very harsh nature that beckons the cries of the coyote in the distance. The Southwest is raw earth where the spirits of the past roam freely without obstruction and only the hardiest of living things can survive, this is Mother Nature at her best. The desert is not a place for the weak but a place for the strong who brave the harsh climate to find their future. If you can survive the Mojave you can survive anywhere.

I was born in the Mojave Desert and it has been an integral part of my very nature as a human being. Its sands run through my veins and its fauna are my essence. I venture through it knowing very well that one wrong turn can mean my demise. But I am fortunate enough to have earned enough desert cred that if I get in a pickle so-to-speak I can hopefully get myself out of it. That's why the desert does not scare me too much. If I give her the respect she deserves I know that she will return the favor if it ever comes to that. Hence the reason I venture out as often as I can just to remind myself that life is a precious and delicate thing that needs to be reset or recharged. And the desert is the perfect place to do it.

The Solstice Recharge

On December 21st, two days after I came back from my yearly pilgrimage back east to visit my mom I woke up exceptionally early, well before the sunrise, to get in my trusted little MINI and venture out to Americas Outback. I knew well in advance that I wanted to see the sunrise out in the desert on the Solstice. This solstice was going to be different, a time of great reflection and of change. Both spiritually and emotionally. I knew that the next coming era that the Mayan's call the 14th Baktun, would be a time of great spiritual growth and a time for new and exciting beginnings. Not the end of the world as the media and Hollywood portrayed. I knew better. In either case I pointed my car North and headed to my favorite national park; Death Valley. I have written extensively about my adventures in Death Valley. It is a place that I never get tired of visiting and one that I always go back to re-energize.

Previous Outback Blog Posts -

The best way into Death Valley is through Beatty, Nevada at Hell's Gate. It is by far the most dramatic of the entrances into the park. Once you get through the mountain pass and pull over at the pay fee station this spot will present you with your first glimpse at the valley. It is one of the most dramatic vistas you will ever encounter. The valley floor is below sea level despite the fact that you are at about 3000 feet above looking down. Every time I gaze at it I am poetically reminded at what nature can create. If there is any place on earth that proves there is a higher power it is right here. Its simply breathtaking. For me it was the best place to see the sunrise just shortly after 7am at a brisk 29 degrees. The best time of the year to experience Death Valley is during late fall through early spring when temperatures are cooler. I would NOT recommend that you venture here in the summer months. With temperatures reaching 125 degrees you travel at your own peril.

Bad Water Basin Death Valley
Though I arrived in Death Valley early to see the sunrise I did get a chance to see the newly remodeled visitors center at Furnace Creek that had just reopened a few month earlier. All the exhibitions have been updated and a fresh coat of paint definitely spruced up the vintage Mid-Century Modern building. After walking around for a minute and getting my national park passport stamped I headed on the road again towards Bad Water. At 282 feet below sea level Bad Water basin is the lowest point in North America.

For more information about Death Valley National Park - http://www.nps.gov/deva/index.htm

Shoshone and Tecopa

After leaving Bad Water I headed South out of the park. The drive is dramatic with really awesome winding roads that hug the side of the mountains. My tiny little car hit the curves without hesitation and made the ride so much more enjoyable. I even stopped a few times along the way just to enjoy the scenery which is even more amazing at every turn. Just looking up at the mountains, that you can literally walk up to, leave you in splendid awe. Death Valley is definitely a plein-air artists wonderland ready to be painted at every moment.

After exiting the park I headed towards the little hamlet of Shoshone, home of the world famous Crowbar Cafe and Saloon. Though I only stopped by for a second to grab a candy bar at the general store, Shoshone is a great place to unwind after a day in the park. The Crowbar is a popular pit-stop for motorcyclists travelling through the area and the Shoshone Museum is also well worth the visit.

As I headed out of Shoshone towards Baker, California home of the worlds tallest non-working thermometer I passed the junction to Tecopa. The small town of Tecopa is also well known in the region for its hot springs. Within a few miles of Tecopa is also a great point of interest worth visiting the China Ranch Date Farm.

For more information about Shoshone - http://shoshonevillage.com/index.html
Death Valley Chamber of Commerce - http://deathvalleychamber.org/
Tecopa Hot Springs - http://www.tecopahotsprings.org/
China Ranch Date Farm - http://www.chinaranch.com/

Baker and Beyond

Mojave National Preserve
from Kelbaker Road
As I parted the Amargosa River area and made may way to Baker I passed the Dumont Sand Dunes. The dunes are a paradise for off-road enthusiasts in need of a little adrenalin rush. You can access the dunes either by going through Route 127 out of Shoshone or take the I-15 from Las Vegas to Baker, California. The only reason I mentioned the dunes is the fact that I passed by them as I made my way out of Shoshone and saw a gaggle of people all suited up and ready to take their ATV's for a ride. It seemed like fun, enough for me to pull over and see what all the fuss was about, but my heart was set on seeing the natural beauty of the Mojave National Preserve which lied just a few miles ahead.

After fueling up in Baker, also known as the Gateway to Death Valley, I kept following the 127 which turned into Kelbaker Road that leads directly into the park. I had been wanting to hit the preserve since I was a little boy just because it seemed like a cool place to go. It was one of those places that my parents and I would drive past often on our way to Los Angeles so my child curiosities about the area never ceased to draw me and the fact that the preserve is also home to the historic Kelso Train Depot which caught my curiosity when I saw a photo of it.

As I made my way deep into the park I was astonished by the huge extinct lava fields and cinder-cones that popped up out of nowhere. A testament to the areas very active and very recent geological past. Who knew that Pele was so active in Southern California! Though I didn't really stop, being cognizant of the time and the fact that I only had so many hours of sunlight on the shortest day of the year I drove past them. With the preserve only a two hours from Las Vegas this is a place I can easily return too any weekend. Though I do want to point out that Kelbaker Road is in desperate need of repaving. Not that it has huge pot holes, well maybe a few, but it is like riding on a cheese-grater. It looks like there was an attempt to resurface the road some time ago but it did not hold up very well.

For more information about the Mojave National Preserve - http://www.nps.gov/moja/index.htm

The Kelso Train Depot

There is little doubt that the historic Kelso Train Depot is a treasure of the high deserts of Southern California. Built in 1924 by the Union Pacific Railroad as one of several whistle stops between Salt Lake City and San Pedro California, the depot played a major role providing a much needed respite from the hot desert summers. It was originally part of the Salt Lake, San Pedro and Los Angeles Railroad that was built in 1905 by Montana Senator William Andrews Clark. Clark is credited as the founding father of Las Vegas and is the namesake for Clark County Nevada.

The Kelso Train Depot
Though the original 1905 depot was moved and later demolished the new Kelso depot built 19 years later still stands as a testament to the importance the railroad played in the American Southwest. The Kelso depot is strikingly similar to the depot in Caliente Nevada that was built just a year before in 1923. When you arrive into Kelso it is a bit of a challenge to find the depot since it faces away from the road and rightfully so. The depot actually faces the railroad tracks so you see the back before you have to walk up to see the front. Once you walk up to the depot you are immediately mesmerized by its beauty. Built in the mission revival style common in the southwest the depot is a handsome building. The entire ground floor is surrounded by an arched portico and the second floor windows have awnings. The grounds are covered in grass, date palms and several other trees. A veritable oasis in this harsh climate that is the Mojave National Preserve.

Today the depot is no longer used by the railroad, it has been fully restored to its former glory and houses the preserve's visitors center, a museum and a cafe'. My time at the depot exploring its galleries, talking to the park rangers and of course having lunch was a great experience. As a seasoned museum attendee and critic, heck I am a curator after all, the depot was a sight for sore eyes. Just a week before I was in New York City visiting the American Museum of Natural History (AMNH), which was a major disappointment. I have been going to the AMNH since I was a little boy and not much has changed in the past 38 years. The hall of minerals looked like an old 1970's B-Movie with grimy carpets, dark dingy galleries and kids running around as if it was a romparoom! For goodness sake at least dust the gems every once in a while! And don't even let me tell you about the moisture damage inside the Meso-American exhibits! But I digress... In either case the Kelso Train Depot and its amazingly friendly staff, great exhibits and good sandwiches make it a must see when in Southern California. Best of all its free!

I am already planning my return in the next couple of weeks!

For more information about the Kelso Train Depot - http://www.nps.gov/moja/planyourvisit/visitorcenters.htm

Mid-Century Modern Marvels and a Joshua Tree or Two (million)...

Roy's Motel & Cafe
On Route 66
Upon leaving the Mojave Preserve I headed south towards Twentynine Palms, home of the Joshua Tree National Park. The hour or so drive to the park was pleasant with lots of desert and architecture to enjoy. If you are a Mid-Century Modern architecture aficionado you will definitely enjoy So-Cals back country. Along the old National Trail Highway, AKA Route 66, you will find some great examples of this architectural vernacular that has been seeing a resurgence in popularity over the past several years. Since many of the communities in the Southwest built up during the 1950's and 60's there is plenty of Mid-Century to go around especially in places like Palm Springs and Las Vegas.

Oh and bit of advice when you drive in the area keep an eye out for the California Highway Patrol for they tend to lurk in all the nooks and crannies of the high desert. Luckily So-Cal drivers are kind enough to flash their headlights to give you some advance warning to slow down. And goodness knows for someone who drives a little red car the warnings are much appreciated!

With barely an hour and half of sunlight left I finally made it to the Joshua Tree visitors center in Twentynine Palms. My choice of seeing the sunset on the Pacific Ocean was easy to make. I would never make it to the beach on time so I just stayed in the park. The park that borders just north of the San Andreas Fault is a dramatic landscape with every hue imaginable; from Joshua Tree's and Cholla Cactus to Ocotillo's and natural rockpiles there is plenty of visual stimulation to entertain you for hours. Most of the easily accessible areas of the park are to the West though the area South towards I-10 is a great drive and the dramatic drop in elevation with eye popping vistas make it tantalizing candy-land. Sadly my brief time in the park did not afford me much time to enjoy it and by the time I hit the parks exit it was already dark. As night descended in the desert I knew right then and there that I would be back. Only a few hours away from Las Vegas it would be well worth the drive to explore the park further and to really take on its beauty.

For more information about the Joshua Tree National Park - http://www.nps.gov/jotr/index.htm

759 miles and some great memories

Looking back I have to say this was one of the most fulfilling road trips I had ever taken. I had hit two amazing national parks and a national preserve, I drove the back country of Southern California and Nevada and came within a hop, skip and a jump of Arizona. In the end I covered 759 miles in 18 hours traversing the high deserts of the Mojave. Not just was the trip the highlight of my two week vacation which began in New York City it was one for my personal record books.

If you are from Las Vegas and or are going to be visiting Las Vegas consider a road trip to America's Outback, the Mojave Desert, for it is a land of contrasts that will leave you spiritually and emotionally fulfilled.

Happy Motoring!

Map located at the Kelso Train Depot

(Photos taken by Brian Paco Alvarez)

Brian Paco Alvarez enculturating Las Vegas into the millennium...

posted by Brian Paco Alvarez, Curator and Chronicler of Culture at


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