July 04, 2009

I Have Complete Control of the Vehicle...

In my attempts to completely explore the area around Joshua Tree, I started researching what there was to do in Barstow, CA. I knew that it was a major stop along Historic Route 66, but I was looking for something beyond a museum or two and a greasy meal.

It's an interesting area because it's still the Hi-Desert, but as a major pitstop between LA and Las Vegas, it's also been built up as quite a town. Two major highways - I-15 and I-40, which split off and run parallel on either side of Mojave National Preserve - converge there, leaving two smaller and now-defunct freeways - Old Highway 58 and Route 66 - in their wake. There is a sense of continuous building up and tearing down, so much so that their "Old Town" probably only dates back to the 1950s.

Still, being the desert, it's surrounded by mountains and canyons and dry lakes. One of the most rewarding experiences of my entire trip thus far - since I first came to California - was my visit to Rainbow Basin, a natural attraction less than 10 miles north of Barstow.

On an early morning, unshowered goose chase down Ft. Irwin Road which led to a dead end, I finally found Rainbow Basin on Irwin Road going towards Fort Irwin.

This is one of the weird little natural wonders that the Bureau of Land Management oversees - which I think just means providing information for potential visitors and installing signs. You never see anyone from the BLM at any of the sites, which are usually far more remote than national, state or regional parks. And sometimes - as in the case of Harper Dry Lake - their interpretive signs along the trail have been dismantled and no one noticed. Or, perhaps they were never installed at all, leaving empty wooden and metal posts in the ground with nothing to display?

Still, Rainbow Basin is so gratifying. There's not much you can do there: you have to go to a nearby campground to stay overnight, and you can't picnic or hike or even view wildlife. The main attraction here is vehicular tourism: a four-mile one way loop dirt road around the batholith, which gives you views of the rainbow-colored striated rocks that rise up around you. Stripes of green and red rise out of the rocks in stunning patterns, still subtle and blending in with the desert palette, but remarkable nevertheless.

The best part is how harrowing the drive is. I'd gotten such a little thrill out of the narrow rock passageway leading up to Palm Canyon, but this was a thousand - no, a million! - times more thrilling.

No wonder this road was one-way: every twist and turn required speeds of less than 20 mph, and vehicles shorter than 25 ft long. It dips and rises, sloping sideways and bumping you along like the chug-chug-chug of a rollercoaster. I felt a similar impending doom, and the same rational relief that I was safely strapped in and nothing would really harm me. Even an impact with the surrounding rocks would only be 5 mph strong.

As I drove along, the twists got narrower, drawing squeals of delight out of me and a low, steady, "Eeeeeeee...." as I rounded every bend.

I was grinning, scared, skillful, elated, and anticipating all at once. I was both in control and out of control. The challenge was not unmanageable. It was just right.

In a way, Rainbow Basin felt like a condensed, compressed version of this entire trip. At one moment nervewracking, at another it was fun, new, and exciting. With a narrow focus, you could say that all I was doing was driving through some rocks. But I can't stop thinking that there was something bigger happening as I emerged onto the Service Road and continued to giggle nervously, ready now to start my day.

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