Each year, as temperatures drop in Southern California, desert lovers flock to the surrounding sandy regions with hopes of discovering not only something new in the landscape but within themselves. Anyone that says there’s nothing interesting about the desert isn’t looking close enough, especially in the winter months. This vast landscape undulates through the valleys and rises up to the mountains as if piercing the clouds for much-needed water. Water that not only brings life to the local flora and fauna but enables traffic of the wheeled variety to traverse the many washes and sandy roads snaking their way like a sidewinder through the land. Roads that in the summer are thick with sand, making them difficult to even cross by foot.
Many of these roads are the remnants of a once burgeoning mining era in the Eastern Mojave, where people struck it rich in the mountains, via tunnels that were dug by hand and blasted by explosives. Many of these tunnels still exist today, just as they did in the gold rush era, as intravenous passageways to the desert’s precious minerals. Exploration here is something that could easily take a lifetime, especially when considering the temperatures in the summer reach the point of “completely unbearable” daily.
Circling back a bit, when the winter months come, Cari and I often find ourselves packing up the truck and driving a few hours into the Mojave Preserve. This year, like last, we decided to ring in the New Year in our favorite landscape. Unlike last year, however, we brought bicycles along, knowing that we wouldn’t be spending any time in National Park land.
Armed with Michel Digonnet’s book Hiking the Mojave Desert, we began to plan out specific routes in the Eastern Mojave, ranging from riding washes to vast Cinder Cone fields, to circumnavigating the Cima Dome, an extremely symmetric granitic formation before exploring vacant mines in the New York Mountains.
Because the night temperatures drop into the teens here nightly, we sought refuge in a small town called Nipton, on the Nevada border. One of the land owners in this town has a few cabins on a plot of land with individual wood-burning stoves. Each of these have access to the Nipton Cafe, and general store. Be forwarned though, it’s best advised to bring your own supplies, as this outpost is slim pickins.
Staying in Nipton for New Years meant we could hang out with the locals at the annual bonfire and shindig. Baked beans, white lightening and tall tales were consumed, until we all reached the point of exhaustion and the outside temperatures beckoned us back to our cabins. We woke up in the morning, with an agenda, even if time was already dwindling away. That’s how it went each morning. We’d awake with the sunrise, warm up, cook food, pack up our trail necessities and head out into the desert.
Our plan each mornign was to pinpoint an attraction, ride for as long as we could until the trail would become unrideable, forcing us to ditch our bikes and take off on foot. Since we weren’t in a National Park, all the hiking trails were open to cycling and since we were in the literal middle-of-nowhere, we had many of these backcountry trails and tracks all to ourselves.
I cannot describe the feeling of isolation that comes along with these experiences and it isn’t until you begin to play out the “what ifs” in your head that you realize how vulnerable you are:
-What if one of us falls and breaks a bone?
-What if Max gets attacked by a mountain lion?
-What if a mineshaft collapses?
-What if we get caught in a landslide?
-What if Hanta Virus?
-What if the truck breaks down?
Luckily, having a backup plan for each of these scenarios is just part of the journey.
There are numerous metaphors to be had with ringing in the New Year in such a landscape, especially as winter rains roll through the valleys and engulf the mountain tops. For Cari, Max and myself, this trip further solidified our love for the desert.
Happy New Year, y’all.