March 16 - When we lived in Las Vegas in the late 1990s, the Valley of Fire became one of our primary getaway spots. Only an hour’s drive from the city, it allowed us to leave behind the tawdry, manic energy of the city for the peace, comfort and naturalness of the desert. So here I was once again, waking up to a honey-colored dawn flowing over the cliffs and crags with memories of family walks when my daughter Lindsay was still a toddler.
Buzz, the campground host, had told me the night before that I should check out “Wash #5” on the upper road to White Domes. “Be sure to go upstream”, he said. “You’ll be surprised.” I wasn’t sure what he meant by that as I’d been downstream in Wash #5 many times and while it was certainly spectacular, it was not much different from Washes 1 thru 4. But I learned long ago that one should always listen to campground hosts. They almost always know the territory and are willing to share good information.
So I lit out for the upper road just as the sun was rising above the lower cliffs. No one else was even out and about yet so I had the White Domes area all to myself. I spent a good deal of time photographing that first meeting of sunlight and sandstone along the rim. Then I parked at Wash #5 and headed upstream, walking through soft sand and prickly mesquite. When I’d gone about a quarter of a mile, I came to what I think ol’ Buzz was talking about. The wash was suddenly squeezed in by curving canyon walls resulting in a sinuous, shadowy slot. I was hemmed in on both sides by marvelous swirled and banded sandstone resembling pulled taffy and glowing amber with that first morning light. There were places were I had to crawl on hands and knees to get through but the photo ops were well worth it. The place was truly magical.
I spent a good deal of time in that little paradise but knew I’d have to move on if I were going to invade the heart of the Mojave. So I reluctantly left Valley of Fire behind me, taking the scenic North Shore Drive into Las Vegas to avoid the ugly interstate. That still left much of ugly Vegas to traverse but I took a short break at a Trader Joe’s on the west end of town where I bought some feta cheese and french roast, drove a few blocks to look at our old house on Copperleaf Lane, then continued on through the scenic drive of my old work place, Red Rock Canyon (filled with hordes of tourists enjoying the balmy weather). I kept thinking back to my quiet morning in Wash #5.
My original goal for the day had been Afton Canyon, just west of Baker, California. This is one of the few places where the Mojave River surfaces, creating a riparian habitat in what some call “the Grand Canyon of the Mojave”. I endured the long drive on Interstate 15, dodging drivers in a hurry to get back to L.A. after some fast times in glitter town. West of Baker, as advertised, I found the road to Afton Canyon, a typical graded dirt track that wound for several miles to a nearly-deserted campground, an intrusive railroad trestle, and the anemic Mojave River. I was Immediately put off by the stark campsites, pit toilets and lack of shade. Furthermore, the road continuing into “the Grand Canyon of the Mojave” was under about four feet of water at the crossing point. So I got out and wandered a bit along the waterway, took a few pictures, then realized that I be happier in a decent motel room. So I drove another 30 miles to Barstow where the east Indian fellow at the local Travelodge had a room for rent.
While I hadn’t completely decided it yet, I was feeling pretty strongly that I just might forge further west the following day to reach my ultimate goal....the place I had been curious about for the last several years, a lonely piece of California’s great Central Valley known as the Carrizo Plain.