No one wake up before noon in this town, which means the scarce cafes and locals-only breakfast spots are blissfully empty, or at least relatively quiet. I delight in this, especially on a morning after listening to the hotel’s DJ set in the courtyard the night before. Gold Spike hired some yahoo out of the parking lot’s valet service to spin avant-garde electronica in the courtyard patio. But when no one showed up, he plugged in his phone into the stereo and turned on a Spotify playlist. How do we all know he used a Spotify playlist? He didn’t pay for his subscription, so the ads were broadcast at full blast. At least, I’m pretty sure that’s what I remember. I was getting stoned on the roof, looking at pictures I took.
Vegas streets in the morning are a symphony of muted golds and overcast grays. After a red eye, a donut, a banana, a handful of raw almonds, and a nice stretch in the parking lot of the 7-11/Citgo, I’m hitting the highway. I-15 takes me south, then bends west, careening into the great, wide nowhere.
The Ivanpah Solar Power Facility is the first landmark to pop up on the horizon. At first, I think the sun is playing tricks with my windshield; from fifty miles away, the massive heliostat array looks like a multitude of silver-winged, glowing angels have descended on the Nevada-California border. The central tower’s refracted beam cuts through the clouds overhead like a skyscraper-tall blade slicing through acres of cotton candy.
This isn’t the first “other-wordly” sight on the drive to Mojave, and it’s certainly not the last. Deserts are by and large pretty surreal places, especially for those who grew up on the suburban east coast of the United States. Driving across the foreign landscape is like riding a moon buggy on the surface of an alien planet; some far-flung, sun-scorched rock, orbiting alone, endlessly in the void.
The Mojave National Preserve is the third-largest unit in the United States’ system of National Parks. It is roughly 1,600,000 acres of protected, public land. Due to its vastness, the preserve features a widely varied terrain. Technically, Mojave is all inside “rain-shadow” region of the High Desert, but the landscape has infinite standout features. There are mountains, valleys, sand dunes, cinder cones, wildlife, sunsets, and significantly more Yucca Brevifolia than the National Park named after it. It’s also the driest place in North America, which has me chugging water behind the wheel for the hundred miles between Vegas and the converted Kelso Depot, in the heart of Mojave National Preserve.
The ghost town of Kelso sits a few miles from the newly-renovated visitor’s center. It’s quiet, and full of debris typically found in ghost towns: electronics stripped of their copper, plumbing stripped of its zinc, engine parts missing anything valuable or useful, and the odd horse or mule wandering aimlessly through the brush. An ancient Union Pacific Railroad boxcar shell sits on the abandoned rails that once carried gear to the United States military during WWII. The car hasn’t moved since it was uncoupled from the engine decades ago.
The Kelso Depot is an elegant Spanish Mission-revival style structure, but looks a little too new for the landscape around it. Between the bright paint, the un-sunbleached roof tiles, the newly-paved parking lot, and the freshly watered lawn, the scene here is almost cartoonish. It looks like Yosemite Sam might come walking out of the gift shop at any moment, or like Bugs could pop out of the dirt, saying, “I knew I should’ve taken that left turn at Albuquerque.”
The town’s decline began with the new series of diesel-electric trains rolling through the depot, quickly replacing the steam engines. The upgraded line of trains didn’t require a many personnel to keep things running, so the railroad laid off a significant portion of their staff. By 1964, the railroad discontinued service to Kelso Depot. The adjacent Lunch Room stayed open for another twenty one years.
The 80’s and 90’s saw significant revitalization and renovation efforts for Kelso on a number of fronts: Union Pacific pitched outright demolition of the depot in 1985, but was met with immediate local pushback to save the building. The railroad handed the building and the land around it to the Bureau of Land Management in 1992. With the passage of 1994’s California Desert Protection Act, Mojave National Preserve was established, and incorporated into the system of National Parks. The depot was finally converted into the central visitor’s center for the park in 2005. Despite the million-year-old geological features, this park is brand-new.
It’s considerably larger than Joshua Tree or Death Valley, with three separate mountain ranges cutting through the Preserve. However, the vastness here is somewhat undercut by the varied terrain. To the East of Providence Mountains sits the lush, green, and shrub-covered Clipper Valley. To the West, the Kelso Sand Dunes roll on forever into the sunset. The New York Mountains feature natural springs at Gavanza, Keystone, and Willow Wash. The dried-up Soda Lake on the far Southwest edge of the preserve has a five-mile-wide alkali endoheric basin, brilliant and white, shimmering from the thin layer of salt spread across the surface. But what I came to Mojave to see sits at the very center of the preserve, at the heart of the volcano range that once blasted Mojave with smoke, ash, and liquid rock.
The Great Ivanpah Uplift began some 11,000,000 years ago, wherein magma pushed upwards against the surface of the Earth from miles underground, ripped open a gash in the crust, and exploded into the air. The pyroclastic fragments from the eruptions settle into often symmetrical low, conical hills called cinder cones. While dating the most recent lava flow at Cima Lava Field is somewhat difficult, geologists note the flow itself (y’know, a literal river of lava) may have been directed by millions of previous eruptions. The exact number of cinder cones is impossible to determine, but it’s evident from the topography and soil content that this was a volatile area for millions of years.
As Garry and Bleacher mention in their work, volcanic activity works pretty much the same way throughout our solar system, so far as we know. Studying cinder cones and other geological features like the ones at Mojave not only sheds light on the formation of our own planet, but other rocky celestial bodies in our immediate stellar neighborhood.
This might sound like a geological wonderland for some of us, but the series of dormant volcanic cinder cones isn’t the main attraction here. At some point, a bubble formed under the surface of the lava flow at Cima. When the volcanic rock cooled, the negative space remained, leaving a sealed chamber underground. After millions of years of erosion, earthquakes, mining, railroad demolition, and very little rain, the resulting lava tube is a football field-length cave under the Cima Lava Field.
The cave is accessed by a rickety, steel step ladder, stretching steeply into the cavern below. Just before leaving the old depot, a park ranger remind me in his flattest monotone that “although the lava tube is within the borders of the Mojave National Preserve, it is not maintained, operated, or monitored by the Park Service, GSA, or any other branch of the United States Federal Government.” After thanking him, and heading for the door, he calls out “just remember to be careful down there, son. You’re on your own.”
“Thanks!” I tell him. “I’ll try not to die.”
Despite the ominous harbinger of doom in the khaki shorts, the drive to the lava field was almost pleasant. Driving a Nissan onto a desert gravel-and-sand road isn’t terribly unsettling, but I’m cringing every time I hear something “plink” against the undercarriage. Sure I bought the insurance for the the car rental, but words cannot express how much I don’t need a cracked windshield.
The cave is a little smaller than I thought it would be, particularly around the entrance. I like to believe I don’t have claustrophobia, but I’m less than at-ease crawling on all fours to get inside the tube. Once I’m in, and my eyes do their best to readjust, I’m greeted with a grey cavern of igneous rock, with a few shards of sunlight cutting their way into the dark.
I stay underground for a little too long, almost losing track of the daylight. The trouble with traveling through beautiful landscapes on this side of the globe during the last months of the year is the waning daylight hours. The sun starts to set at 4:30pm in late November, which means I have to move my ass at considerable speed across the Mojave to catch the sunset. And in this stretch of National Park, there’s only one place to see the sunset in its fullest, most vibrant colors: the Kelso Sand Dunes.
The white dunes, comprised largely of eroded granite from the nearby San Bernardino Mountains, refract light, just like the solar array at Ivanpah. Only, instead of a focused beam of sunlight pointed at a water tank, the Kelso Dunes refract the dying light, sending vibrant colors all over the sky. Crimsons, tangerines, golds, fuschias, lapis blues, smoke blacks, and brilliant whites tumble over each other, wrestling for their corner of the sky. As the sun dips farther below the crumbling crest of Providence Mountains, crags look like an enormous beast, breathing fire into the sky. By 7 p.m., it’s pitch black, and I’m freezing.
The drive back to Vegas is quiet, with only the sounds of the wind whipping against the windows of the Nissan, screaming out of the desert, into Sin City.