“We were somewhere around Barstow on the edge of the desert when the drugs began to take hold. I remember saying something like “I feel a bit lightheaded; maybe you should drive. …” And suddenly there was a terrible roar all around us and the sky was full of what looked like huge bats, all swooping and screeching and diving around the car, which was going about 100 miles an hour with the top down to Las Vegas. And a voice was screaming: “Holy Jesus! What are these goddamn animals?”
Then it was quiet again.”
from Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas – Hunter S. Thompson
Heading into the desert.
We were on assignment. Katy had received a request from home office to write a collab piece about the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument about 500 miles northeast of Joshua Tree, twisting through the Mojave desert, Nevada, southern Utah, and northern Arizona. A red-Mars fever-dream of desolation, nuclear test sites, and UFO abductions. A dangerous haul for sure, but we were goddamn professionals. Mutant space aliens and desert cultists weren’t going to thwart what might be the last long push of our year-long amble. So we loaded up our trusty VW Rialta Winnebago, turned north just past 29 Palms, and headed into the lava and crater pocked landscape with sunny dreams of sand dunes and high adventure. Katy preened her new swap-meet sun-hat with the careful pride of a child with a new born chicken. “Not today, sun,” she thought, “not today.”
Day 1 was 200 miles through the heart of the Mojave to Las Vegas. The black heart of the American Dream. Tonight we would be sleeping in the arms of neon and cheap liquor.
Amboy Crater and Lava Fields
Unlike the LA fuck-boys and hard-luck weekend casino vermin who speed mindlessly down the multilane congestion of I-15 glittering like a metallic red and silver snake sunning itself on the desert floor, packed ass to nose with metal parasites slipping first into the anus near San Bernardino and being regurgitated back out stinking and bleary-eyed, hungry for commercialized electric sex and banquet-trough food, into the mesmerizing maw of Vegas, we steer directly into the heart of the Mojave desert. Bouncing down the crumbling two-lane Amboy Road into an endless nothingness where a flat tire could leave your baked corpse quick-mummified by the dry air, to forever rest like a road sign, your impotent thumbs-up hand still begging for someone to come and save you. About an hour in past salt flats, the ground turns black. A massive 250 foot cinder cone in the distance surrounded by a jagged field of volcanic rock. The Amboy crater. Once a popular stop on the historic Rt 66, the area is virtually deserted since the newer Rt 40 was opened in 1973.
The Kelso Dunes
From the volcano we turn right onto the old Rt 66 and pass Roy’s Motel and Cafe, a neon nowhere dinosaur of the mythic 66. Then another left onto Kelbaker Rd, eschewing the newer highway 40, and then straight into the heart of the Mojave National Preserve that regularly reaches temperatures over 120 degrees in the summer. Basically hell’s anus, if it were made of piles of sand and jagged rock, which it probably is.
We wanted to hike the dunes. And we got our wish. For better or worse.
Slipping through a pass between the Granite and Providence mountains, the landscape flattens out into a barren valley of yellow sand framed by the blue and grey granite mountains. A left onto a dirt road, the Rialta creaking and jangling over washboards and potholes, we drive a few miles until we reach the outskirts of the Kelso Dunes. At first, a benign playground of soft sand and dry dead grasses. In the distance, the dunes rise over 600ft from where we started to the highest peak.
As we start to hike, I realize hiking in sand is like hiking in peanut butter. Each step sinks into the ground and your hips struggle to swing the next step. The flats are fun but as we ascend the dune foothills, my body starts to mumble and by a half mile in it’s really telling me to fuck off with this hiking nonsense. I’m sweating and out of breath and my hip injury from our scooter adventures in Austin asserts itself and I tap out with the view that I have. In retrospect, I probably should have stopped much sooner.
Katy, however, being the lunatic that she is, was determined to summit the dunes and set off on her own for the 3 hour hike, her lovely hat protecting her from the sun. I watch her slowly shrink into a dot on the horizon, and slowly inch up the massive dune. I could still make out the dot of her silhouette as she neared the top.
Halfway up, the winds hit. Even from where I was, I had to hunker down and wait a bit, but higher up, Katy was knocked around and abused by the gusts. Her beautiful hat ripped from her head, out into the grey and bleak nothingness, never to be seen again. Farewell swap-meet sun-hat. May you shade another pretty head soon.
Descending into the Hell of Las Vegas
After a brief recovery we continue north and connect up with 15 just before the Nevada border and then it’s no time before we’re in Vegas. I’ve been here before as a youth making a similar round country amble living in a car and discovering the dark and beautiful secrets of America. Only to be greeted by Vegas with indifference and prejudice. A literal Pinocchio’s Pleasure Island, where everyone it seemed, everyone, was already a hawing jackass with no hope of salvation. Fat families with fat children, blowhard executives, gawking drunkards with Walmart shorts, an explosion of frat parties and Jersey Shores bachelorette parties. The fucking cancer of America, I thought, America as a cancer. The black gland of consumerism and self obsession jizzing bile and regret over a stolen landscape.
I came back a few years ago with more money in my wallet and better clothes and I got to experience the other side of the coin, great restaurants and great floor shows, but I’ve never been able to shake my first impressions.
Katy had discovered an RV park right off the strip at Circus Circus, so we pulled in after dark and headed out to the strip to grab a snack and get a drink. It was still the height of the Covid pandemic so we assumed the city would be deserted, but that was absolutely not true. Circus Circus was packed chest-to-ass with more pandemic deniers and anti-maskers than you could care to imagine. Clustered into airless neon spaces, masks perched somewhere just below a bottom lip or off completely, children sneezing and running laps past old cowboys smoking cigars and, I imagine, reminiscing about the days you could slap all the waitress-ass you wanted without getting thrown out, aww, the good old days before the damn liberals fucked it all up with consequences.
It took a while to navigate through the MIT level maze design to find the exit, and exhausted, we finally hit the strip, which was basically 30 blocks of construction and half missing sidewalks. But finally after a series of disappointing attempts at finding food the snack gods smiled on us and we discovered Tacos el Pastor just before the intersection of East Desert Inn Rd. A bubbling cauldron of barely identifiable pig parts and snouts, hastily chopped up and tossed on a taco, white onions, cilantro, salsa verde. Perfect.
Fortified I tried to get into the spirit of things and after winding our way through an endless honking Trump Parade / funeral procession, we hit the liquor store for some road drinks and I bought the most apt beverage I could find, a 24oz can of sour grape Four Loko at 14% alcohol, and chugged it while snapping pics of the Circus Circus neon and front statue that had been vandalized and doused with something sticky. The place was not in great shape. Half of the neon Circus Circus signs had letters missing and there was a general worn apathy about the place. A hopelessness that can only be found at discount family destination casinos. We were both happy to be back into the welcoming comfort of our little Rialta.
By first light we were off again towards Zion National Park. To be continued . . .