A bed of pine needles in an open forest of Ponderosa Pine, spread out through a closed campground in the Coconino National Forest, a few miles off the freeway near Flagstaff. I will sleep here behind a low fence which shelters the campground host’s site from the road so that I have the best chance of being undisturbed.
My road trip to Southern Mexico, about 3,600 miles (5,800 KM) each way, began inauspiciously. I had hoped to head east from Alameda, across the Sierras on one of the beautiful two lane roads that make this trek, built during the depression, and travel down the East side of the Sierras to the Mojave Desert. This side of the range is high, dry and rugged and feels much less domesticated than what you see closer to the Bay Area.
In the event, Tioga Pass had been closed for the winter – I had forgotten how late in the year it was. And so I headed South down the Central Valley to Bakersfield and then East, over the Tehachapi Pass to a campsite in the dessicated pan of the desert, close into some rocky hills, near the town of Barstow. Joshua trees dotting the plain, the setting sun catching the hilltops. An open sky with high clouds, criss-crossed by expanding jet contrails.
An absolute silence that makes my urban ears quietly ring. The evening was mild and the full moon so bright that it cast my shadow as I went for a walk.
The next morning I stopped at a Starbucks for Internet access and a coffee in Barstow, which feels like that scruffy cousin who shows up at occasional family events. He started out strong, faltered and now his best days are behind him. Empty storefronts, dollar stores, faded strip centers, mom and pop motels whose time warped amenities (“Free Cable TV!” “Fresh Ice”) capture a more prosperous time. A restaurant whose sign says simply “Mexican Food” in Futura type. Let’s not get carried away with too much branding, keep the message simple.
The Starbucks is busy – small oasis of in an otherwise spent-feeling townscape – frothy drinks being called out, the drive through backed up. Three younger women – local I think – line up to order drinks, dressed impeccably. Manicures, makeup, discreet tattoos. Urbanity in the desert.
Along the freeway farms of picketed wind turbines slowly turning with a certain grace. Gas fired power plants, fields of solar panels and spidery networks of high voltage lines connecting this infrastructure to Los Angeles, a few hours West. Mobile homes, some abandoned, winking in the shimmering desert. Water tanks, broken down trucks. In the distance, a mile long load of shipping containers slowly snakes its way across the desert, pulled by several locomotives.
That snake is mirrored on the freeway by a continuous flow of semi trailer trucks, loads being born East and West. Much of our lives may be digital but we still need lots of “stuff”. Logistics rule.
Motorhomes, RVs, travel trailers with names (“Four Winds”, “Carefree”, “Roam”, “Voyage”, “Spirit”) that speak to the restlessness that I and many of my compatriots feel. The road beckons.
At a truckstop where I stopped for gas and water, I camp out for a bit in the seating area of the store’s fast food area. College basketball on a flat screen TV. An earnest older woman behind the counter (what brought her here, what stories does she have to tell?) A sad looking fellow with a weathered face and a handsome mustache like a furry caterpillar mounted above his upper lip – his coveralls said his name was Mike – watching a cooking show on his smartphone, loud enough I could hear the ingredients being used. Then he switches to Judge Judy and I hear a grandmother getting in trouble for letting her 14 year old daughter drive her car to another state. Judge Judy will straighten her out.
Heading East toward Flagstaff the land changes steadily as it rises, still dry but as the road rises the scrabbly desert gives way to more vegetation and open grassland. Further East closer to Flagstaff, a forest develops – I assume because the rising surface (Flagstaff is at 6,900 feet (2,100 meters) captures more moisture from the atmosphere.
It is going to be a chilly evening; I’m already bundled up in a puffy down jacket. I’ll soon be bedded down like a hobo, avoiding the prying eyes of rangers and state troopers.