Don’t bother looking for the Nipton Road – or the next 144 miles I’ll drive today – in the Rand McNally Atlas. If it’s a detailed map, a few thin lines cross a huge expanse of, well, nothing. And that’s the beauty of it.
Suddenly, you’re in a different world from Las Vegas, with its packs of cars crowding The Strip, or the high-speed slipstream of the 15. (For some reason, Southern California argot demands an article in front of every highway number, as in “the 5” or “the 405.”) Your car is the only one on a two-lane trail with no routing at all, save for oddball names like Morning Star Mine Road or the Kellbaker Road.
This is the locally known Back Way between Las Vegas and Palm Springs, comprised of a series of San Bernardino County roads. And the 144 miles between the 15 and the high-desert town of Twentynine Palms, Calif., offers the best of absolutely nothing.
No police, except for an occasional National Park Service ranger. No billboards. No telephones. No cell-phone service. No rest area or water, outside of a visitor center for the Mojave National Preserve and a cafe in Amboy, Calif., that’s open on an irregular basis. The same goes for the lone gas pump in Amboy, which sat locked for the past four years.
It’s no drive for the squemish. The road lacks guard rails, and the shoulder is graded sand that traps tires with thin treads. A car may come along every 10 minutes or so. Or maybe in the next half-hour. Or ….
Or maybe you travel from road to road, seeing nobody. It’s a lonely cruise, and one that scares some of the bravest people I know. So why go this way, when there’s an interstate and well-traveled state highways that skirts around this barren patch?
Come over a crest, and the Mojave and Upper Colorado deserts show miles of scrub, sand and huge mountains rising out of flat desert floors. Part of the route goes through a literal forest of joshua trees. The Kelso Sand Dunes, covering 45 square miles, seem like a small sandbox in the center of it all.
Most of this is in the Mojave National Preserve, which Congressional Democrats created in one of their last acts of sitting as a majority in 1994. Incoming Republicans kept the area under federal control, but refused to fund any amenities. The result is a place that’s still undeveloped, raw and beautiful in its desolation.
This is also the open road, and one of the last you’ll see. Speedometers sometime point closer to 90 mph than 60 mph, and semis are prohibited along most of the route. You can forget about nutty drivers, cross traffic, stoplights or even stop signs. Instead, you can concentrate on driving, hugging corners and rollercoastering over a series of depressions.
You can stop at any time, roll down the window and hear … nothing. No squealing tires. No perfect chords of bubbling slot machines. No “Wheeel offf Fortune!” Just pure, clean silence.
It’s depressing to finally roll into a town, where the McDonald’s and Motel 6 and Taco Bell offer the pleasures of civilization. Eventually, the road leads home and back to work. But, for a few hours, I get a bit of Highway Zen and decompression from exhibits and giddy gamblers and the stress of the world.
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