Mojave Road

Like Carey McWilliams, I believe in Californian Exceptionalism (The Great Exception, Carey McWilliams, 1949). The State is exceptional because of its history, natural bounty and geographical situation - but Southern California, in another McWilliamism, is also An Island on the Land (McWilliams, 1946).

Bounded by ocean, mountain and desert this land is discontinuous with the mesic north, with the desiccated and trackless Great Basin to the east (beyond the Colorado River) and with the south by virtue of the Treaty of Guadalupe-Hidalgo. The fifth article of this document, which ended the Mexican-American war in 1848, mandated that the boundary line to Mexico should begin on the Gulf of Mexico and follow the Rio Grande, then down the Gila River until its confluence with the Colorado and thence track west to the Pacific.

Neatly girded within these parameters, the region has occasionally chafed against its inclusion within the larger statewide boundaries. Wikipedia notes that there have been at least twenty seven serious proposals to partition the state. The most popular dividing line, historically, has been the Tehachapi Mountains, initially because of the difficulty of traversing the rugged range (eventually achieved by the building of the Ridge Route in 1915 which morphed into U.S. Route 99 and is today Interstate 5). The Pico Act of 1859, which would have created the new southern Californian state of Colorado, passed the state legislature and was approved by the Governor.

Only the Seccession Crisis of 1860 prevented its consideration in the U.S. legislature. Another chunk of not quite so desirable real estate, where the Colorado River has its source, shortly assumed that name in 1876, to become the 38th state. A little over a century later, in 1965, the California state senate again voted to divide California along by then familiar lines but the legislation stalled in the state Assembly.

I am re-visiting this history because a couple of weekends ago I was in the south east corner of the state, with friends Will, Joe and Mike in the Mojave National Preserve, where the Mojave Road and Route 66 played significant roles in the unique development of the southern half of California.

The first night we pulled off the 15 and headed for Owl Canyon campground where the massive batholith that under girds the Mojave emerges, in spectacular fashion, from the hardpan. Bent downward by compression, it has formed a basin in which sedimentary rocks have formed and now under further compression, are themselves deeply folded. It was within this antic moonscape that we enfolded ourselves, lying beneath the night sky on sandy terraces that stepped down to a wash. Only the lights of Barstow’s premium outlet mall, which irradiated the sky with a pale bloom, reduced the septillion stars potentially visible to us to a prosaic 2000 or so.

The next morning we met up with the rock-art crew led by John Bretney who had variously motored up from Orange County and the South Bay, at the Lenwood MacDonald’s. While we toyed with our sausage biscuits and scalding coffee, John laid out the plan for the day.

When humans first arrived in the Mojave (with absolute certainty 12,000 years ago, but perhaps even before then) they found a temperate lacustrine environment with lakes and wetlands interspersed with rich grass lands where mega fauna played (newly interrupted by heavy Clovis points arriving atop crude spears). But within a few millennia the climate became less wet and the lakes began to shrink. Some gauge of this process is evident in the succession of stone fish traps that were built at lake’s edge - horseshoe shaped piles of rock that can still be found on the parched desert floor - reflecting the shrinking shore lines. By this point, perhaps because of over-hunting, the megafauna had long gone. Between 6,000 and 3,000 B.C. desertification accelerated as the climate became still warmer and drier and the land became largely depopulated.

Today’s slightly cooler climate has been in place for some 5,000 years and the characteristic low-land vegetation of creosote bush, Joshua trees, cholla and barrel cactus established. Will and I were excited to spot a lone chia bush on the desert floor lending credence to the notion that this super-food may have fueled the Mojave runners reputed ability to run a hundred miles in a day (Bretney). At higher elevations there is pinon and juniper. All this we observed as our caravan of 4-wheel drives and my soft-road Audi careened from rock pile to cave and canyon in search of rock art that is now the only remnant of the spiritual visioning of pre-historic human life in the desert.

We had begun by driving east on California State Route 40 which parallels the Sante Fe Railroad and the old Route 66. All these arteries cross the desert south of the Mojave Road - along which we would later travel - which faithfully tracks the original east-west trading route of the Mojave people and which was first traversed by a European in 1776 when Fr. Francisco Garces made the epic trek from Yuma to the San Gabriel Mission. Fifty years later, Jedediah Smith was the first of a series of mountain men to pioneer this southern route to coastal California.

When Mexico ceded much of the southwest to the U.S after the war, the government initiated exploratory expeditions with a view to developing rail links to these newly acquired territories. While Congress vacillated on the best route, contractors moved ahead to create a wagon trail for the expected hordes of emigrants along this desert track. The U.S. cavalry built Fort Mojave on the banks of the Colorado where 500 troops were stationed. Other forts were established at springs along the route and local Indians banished from this by then vital land-link to the far west.

In 1883, a rail line was finally completed from Needles to Barstow and subsequent wagon and then auto-routes cleaved to the railway rather than the older trail. In 1913, in the dawn of the age of the automobile, this route was confusingly designated as The National Old Trails Road as a link in an ocean-to-ocean highway and in 1926 became a part of Route 66.

Our day proceeded amidst these braided arteries, across a palimpsest where we were seeking pecked and painted images on sandstone, granite or basalt – the faint remains of vibrant pre-historic cultural complexes – and where the ghosts of the Mojave people (and the Kawaiisu, Paiute, Kitanemuk and Serrano), mountain men, the U.S. cavalry, prospectors, homesteaders, cattle ranchers, Okies fleeing the Dust Bowl and carefree Post-WWII Americans getting their kicks on Route 66 still haunt these dusty roads and sandy washes.

Conveniently located between the major populations of Los Angeles and Las Vegas, the highest calling of this land of “singing sand dunes, volcanic cinder cones, Joshua tree forests, and carpets of wildflowers” is now, according to the National Park Service which administers the Preserve, to provide “serenity and solitude” to tourists “from major metropolitan areas”.