The sun had already set long ago. In the moonless night, trying to see through the darkness was made even more difficult by headlights lighting up the thick cloud of blinding dust enveloping myself and three other hapless victims of the desert. Our intended campsite was up there. We were down here. A mountain of deep sand at what felt like a 45-degree upward angle stood in our path. As any sensible group would do stuck in a situation like this in the depths of the night, we started to push our machines upward, with only moderate success.
Aside from the lone Suzuki DR-Z 400 ridden by our photographer, our ragtag group was aboard three Royal Enfield Himalayans. The Himalayan is a bike which, the more time you spend aboard it, the more it feels like something you could ride around the world. Caveat: you might find yourself pushing it up extremely sandy hills from time to time. Why were we doing this? Because it’s fun. That, and pitching camp at some point was also in mind, as shelter in the high desert is important.
I’d camped on this exact same sandy hill previously. This terrain is relatively easy to ride on any modern dirt bike or adventure bike outfitted with knobby tires. The fun in navigating familiar terrain aboard a more understated machine, set up for a long-distance journey, is perhaps comparable to the idea of racing Class 11 (stock VW Bug) in the Baja 1000. Arguably masochistic, there’s something to the idea of successfully crossing difficult terrain with a machine that’s less-suited for it than more race-oriented rides. Once SCORE or BITD announces the “Himalayan only” class, I’m sure I’ll sign up, just so I can say I never want to do that again.
Fortunately, we weren’t racing this evening, so while the waypoint for the intended campsite was just a bit further up the hill, the appealing silhouette of a rock forming in the darkness, slightly illuminated by the headlight of a mostly-buried motorcycle, made “right here” seem like a great place to camp. So we did.
Exiting the 15 freeway at Rasor Road and heading south serves as one of many gateways to the vast Mojave National Preserve. Even from a satellite’s perspective, this place is huge. From ground level, other than a sandy path through the emptiness, all traces of human involvement largely disappear within moments of leaving the tarmac. Setting up camp on a moonless night next to motorcycles parked on their hubs in the sand, all traces of pretty much everything else disappears as well, until you can dig out your headlamp.
Endless Miles of Sand and Rocks
While making coffee and a light breakfast, a baby desert horned lizard elected to join us. Aside from being a very cool desert creature, this minuscule reptile served as a reminder of the almost bizarre amount of life hiding in this seemingly desolate landscape. Endless miles of sand and rock somehow supports all sorts of things running around both above and below the dry surface. For our part, the goal was to get these motorcycles back above the surface of the desert, so we could ride on.
Getting back on the “road” doesn’t necessarily mean the sand will lessen in depth. Headed south from camp, our route takes us toward Rasor Dunes. Anything with “dunes” in the name usually means the surrounding area is likely to have some challenging bits to ride through. This was absolutely the case here, until the brief reprieve of Soda Dry Lake put us onto a hard packed surface to a brief break stop at a large pile of rocks roughly in the center of the lake known as the Traveler’s Monument.
The Traveler’s Monument opens the door to the subject of the unusual monuments in general, found scattered here and there in the desert. Like this pile of rocks in the middle of Soda Dry Lake, their origins and purpose (if any), are often unclear. In the case of the Traveler’s Monument, tradition holds that wanderers along Mojave Road are supposed to carry the largest rock they can to deposit on the pile. Hypothetically, there could be a navigation marker aspect to this. Given the relatively clear path and numerous other landmarks in the form of mountains and valleys, a more likely hypothesis is someone left a rock here one day and it just turned into a thing.
Where our route made a sharp left to link up with Mojave Road headed east, had we continued south from that point for another seven or eight miles, a much more quirky monument of sorts can be found, perched 100 feet above the desert floor, atop an extremely rocky hill. Theories abound, but no one is quite sure what the Mojave Megaphone is for, nor how it got bolted to two rocks on this hill in the desert. Bearing resemblance to some part of a rocket booster, it’s been suggested this was once part of a siren to warn locals of military exercises happening in the area. When I visited here, there was a drum skin attached to one end. Was there some dedicated percussionist way back when who one day decided to weld a bunch of thick strips of iron into an eight-foot conga and haul it up a little mountain? Out here in the desert, that theory might be as good as any.
However, we turned left and headed off along Mojave Road, across Soda Dry Lake and past the Traveler’s Monument, then beyond. Fortunately for us, there had not been any significant rainfall in the days leading up to our trip. This normally dry lake turns to an impassable mess as its alkaline surface begins to absorb the rain. Imagine filling a football field with baking soda and just enough water to make a wheel-stopping paste. That’s exactly what Soda Dry Lake currently was not, much to our thanks. Our brief reprieve of smooth terrain ended the moment we reached the opposite side of the lake, and dived back into the sandy and rocky two-tracks.
The vast and mostly empty Mojave is punctuated with evidence of human attempts to scratch resources out of it. Less than five miles from the Traveler’s Monument, Green Rock Mill is little more than a small collection of structural remains, currently serving as a reminder of the harsh nature of this desert environment.
Apart from serious research into why they exist, many of the roads through the desert are a complete mystery to the casual traveler. The occasional power line road or access to some long-abandoned mine make sense. However, many of these routes are endless ruler-straight lines to nowhere, or circuitous twisting paths over mountain passes which hold nothing of significance other than the mountain itself. Someone clearly spent a good deal of time building and traveling these routes. The more time you spend in the desert, the less you find yourself asking why, and simply enjoy the ability to experience this environment through mysterious and scenic access points.
Many of the ruins found in the Mojave Desert date back to when early explorers and fortune-seekers began to make their way west as word of riches in the form of natural resources began to spread among the more populated centers in the eastern part of the fledgling United States. This boom-and-bust cycle’s collection of structures in its hall of fame has much more recent inductees as well. Roughly 20 miles south of the Halloran Springs exit off highway 15 is the Mojave’s cinder cone field. Dozens of these huge volcanic structures dot this section of the desert, and radiate black basalt lava flows like huge rocky rivers. The Aiken cinder mine is a massive operation nestled in the middle of this huge field, many miles from the nearest paved road.
To provide an idea of how active this mine was at one point, by some sources, 70% of the cinder used to build the sidewalks and walkways of the Las Vegas strip came from Aiken mine. That level of activity continued for many decades, until the mine was abruptly shut down in 1990. In fact, the cessation of activity was so abrupt the mine’s operators simply walked away and left all the equipment on-site, and in-place as it was once used. Visiting the site today makes for a unique experience, as you can get a feel for what an active cinder mining operation looks like. Aside from the crushers, conveyor belts, and huge engines still looking ready to go, 7.8 million tons of cinder is still laying in piles, quietly waiting to go to market, as if it didn’t get the memo that the place is closed. For our part, the recently-quieted machinery serves as backdrop to rip around on three Royal Enfield motorcycles in a volcanic motocross park.
Into the Chasm
Where the numerous cinder cones and lava flows in this section of the Mojave provide clear evidence of the area’s volcanic activity above ground, evidence of these same catastrophic events can be explored below ground as well. As the crow files, less than two miles away from the abandoned industry of Aiken mine is a much older natural wonder.
After a short hike along a walking path, visitors to the Mojave Lava Tube are greeted by a metal staircase poking up from a dark chasm. Climbing the stairs down into this desert plumbing, and crouching to ease through the initial part of the passageway, this underground environment opens up into a cavernous room, complete with skylights in the form of natural holes poked through its vaulted ceiling.
An Ancient Field Of Lava Flows
Following a valley tucked between a large cinder cone and associated massive lava flow, we make our way toward the back of this ever-narrowing canyon, near to the point where it dead-ends at a lavafall. The unique texture and structure of the canyon wall where we pitch camp clearly indicates it is volcanic in nature.
The massive scope of this particular flow isn’t readily apparent until climbing up the cinder cone in the distance, to take in a bird’s eye view of this gargantuan basalt accent mark in the desert. The only foreign elements in this picture are the dots of three Himalayans parked next to small tents in the volcanic valley. This scene’s vast scale serves as a reminder that this backdrop has existed for an extremely long while, and our presence will be forgotten just as quickly as we’d arrived.
In a series of steps, the desert guides you through a lavafall of landscapes which all seem to be in competition with each other over which is the more spectacular. A mostly uniform color palate is highlighted with unexpected and always breathtaking details. I think I’m quoting Treebeard from The Lord of the Rings, but traveling north-to-south through the Mojave Preserve somehow feels like going downhill, even when you’re pushing bikes up a sand mountain in the middle of the night.
Moments of work, and sometimes outright suffering, are rewarded by waking to views which postcards around the world would be envious of. Clear mornings are blanketed by a deep azure blue sky, which extends beyond the horizon in all directions, to where your imagination might take you that day.
Photos by Stephen Gregory, Jon Beck and Rob Dabney