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Midnight in the Mojave.

By the time you read this, my husband John will probably have forgiven me for last year's Valentine's weekend in the Mojave desert. He's not the kind of guy who holds a grudge, but sitting in a smoky tent cabin bundled in a sleeping bag and eating Doritos and bean dip isn't his idea of a romantic getaway.

In theory, it seemed like a good idea. The National Park Service website claims that the Mojave National Preserve is the place "to escape the crowded visitor centers and campgrounds found at other parks." They have that right: we're the only people here. Who can resist the romance of the desert? Everyone, apparently. It doesn't help that Valentine's Day was smack in the middle of southern California's second wettest winter ever, or at least since meteorologists started setting up weather stations on top of buildings in downtown Los Angeles. And evidently everyone is smarter than I am about traveling in the desert in the rain.

We start out in what had become normal weather conditions: a deluge, the clouds heavy sponges wringing themselves out over southern California. Despite the weather, we surf out the 1-15 from Los Angeles, our little Toyota Celica a bobbing speck floating between the big rigs and the Lincoln Navigators bound for Vegas. Geysers of rain splash on the windshield faster than our wiper blades can sweep them away, and it is a relief to turn off the interstate at Baker, where for once the world's tallest thermometer has a reading shivering around 40 degrees.

In Baker, we stop at the Desert Information Center and learn from the park ranger that most of the dirt roads in the park have been washed out. He is cheerful about the rain, anticipating a great wildflower display coming in the spring. Never mind that it took him an hour and a half driving over muddy roads to get to work. Rangers have a different perspective on convenience than those of who live in cities. They also have four-wheel drive vehicles.

We cross into the park in early evening, but can't see much as we drive in. Although the rain has let up, low pockets of fog swath the Joshua trees. Spatters of drizzle bloom upward on the windshield, and it's tempting to watch their crazy SpinArt patterns instead of the road. It's nearly dark when we get to Nipton, and we stop in at the Nipton Cafe Not a moment too soon--the cafe closes at 6:30. We hurry over and the cook concocts hearty and welcome bowls of pasta primavera.

Nipton is a cluster of small buildings and trailers, originally built to serve local ranching and mining outfits. Nippeno Camp had been established in 1905 to serve the San Pedro, Los Angeles, and Salt Lake railroads, and its name was changed to Nipton in 1910 when the railroads consolidated with the Union Pacific. Today the hamlet functions as gateway to the Mojave and a place where local people buy their lottery tickets.

The Nipton Hotel was completed in 1910, restored in 1986, and refurbished in 2004. It has five small bedrooms, a large common sitting room, and two bathrooms down the hall. On a chilly, damp February evening it is a comfortable and welcome spot to stay.

All night long we are reminded of Nipton's historic connection to the Union Pacific by the trains slowing at the road one hundred yards away and blasting their horns. It's a sound you get used to by about 3 a.m., and after a while it's soothing to feel the building shaking and the air rumbling. I thought so. John didn't.

It is a relief to see that it has stopped raining when we get up and take a look around. The air is heavy with the smell of wet creosote. The sun shines in patches on the gentle rise and swelling of the Cima dome, stretching for miles uphill from the hotel. This granitic plug--considered "the most symmetrical, natural domed feature in the United States," according to one guidebook--accounts for the hard slog trains and trucks take up the slope. One passing train has four locomotives.

A sign for land for sale in front of the hotel says the parcel is Class I desert tortoise habitat. The cashier in the market confirms that tortoises are a common sight at the federal sanctuary at Ivanpah nearby and that they'll have a great year, come spring, with all the wildflowers expected. But now the tortoises are all asleep, snug in their burrows.

There's an E Clampus Vitus marker by the tracks. Clara Bow stayed here and entertained friends, it says. I can imagine a Clamper winking at "entertained." A coyote yips a little after 7 a.m., whooping it up after a late night. As I check out the marker, a train rattles by heavy with container cars: Hamburg Sud. K Line. Maersk. The train is lit by the sun, yellow locomotives, red containers.

I see the tent cabins and am attracted by the way they glow in the sun. We look inside one, and I impulsively ask if we can switch our hotel room for a tent cabin. We can--and before we know it, we have two sleeping bags to use as covers and a box of damp tinder and park service newsletters to burn in the wood stove. John hates tents but he goes along with me because the tents are set a little farther back from the train tracks than the hotel. Perhaps it will be quieter.

We set out to explore the preserve. Because most of the internal roads are closed due to flooding except the main road that connects the 1-15 to the 1-40, we find ourselves driving the long way around the outside of the preserve to get to Mitchell Caverns, a state park inholding.

The rain holds off and the skies are spectacular, setting off the jagged ridges of the Providence Mountains and other ranges. The caverns were developed as a tourist attraction by entrepreneur Jack Mitchell in 1932 and became part of the state park system in 1954. We arrive around noon and hang around to wait for the tour and enjoy the walk to the cave, where it is a warm 54 degrees on this chilly and breezy winter day.

The outbuildings at the visitor center include Mitchell's idiosyncratic take on rustic architecture, incorporating chunks of slag glass, painted faux turquoise, and petroglyphs that he'd collected locally. With the wet weather and the green vegetation, the Mojave seems to hold promise for a hunter-gatherer.

We begin to think about our own next meal. Because we have to skirt the outside of the park, we have a long drive back to Nipton--and the cafe shuts early in the evening. We drive through Searchlight, Nevada, hoping to find a pizza place, but all we find are casinos that make only the barest efforts at food. Being vegetarians makes the search for food that much more problematic. We check out the convenience stores, being grimly willing to heat a burrito or frozen pizza on the wood stove, but find only pepperoni pizzas and beef burritos. We buy a bag of Doritos and a can of Frito-Lay bean dip, which is much more like spackle than it is like food. Thank heaven this isn't Utah. At least we can buy a six-pack.

The tent cabin is cold. The wood stove smokes. The toilet is outside in a shed. The trains are relentless. The sleeping bags are satiny and slick and slide off us in the night. John completely loses his sense of humor and is ready to drive back to Los Angeles, but we can't face driving back in the rain, so we stick it out.

After a breakfast of Doritos and spackle we pack up the car and head out by way of the Kelso Dunes. The sun has come out for the first time in weeks, and there isn't a cloud anywhere. The dunes gleam in the sun. There are no other cars in the parking lot, and we have the sand to ourselves. Ordinarily walking through sand can be rough, but today the sand has been packed by the rain, which has also washed away other visitors' footprints. The sand feels like cool confectioners sugar filtering into my boots.

We climb up to the highest ridge of the sand dunes, which is as narrow as a knife edge. The sand is firm and doesn't sift away under our feet. From the top of dunes, which rise six hundred feet above the desert floor, we can see mountain ranges stretching for miles to the north and south. A tiny train pulls up to the grand Kelso depot, built in 1923, still being renovated by the park service. From our vantage point we look down on a raven wheeling by and watch the progress of a train making its way slowly and silently up the Cima Dome. John concedes that it's beautiful up here and makes the trek and the bean dip worthwhile. We promise to come back soon now that we know what kind of preparations we need to make. But tent cabins? No, John says. Never again.

RESOURCES

Darlington, David. Mojave: Portrait of the Definitive American Desert (New York: Henry Holt, 1996).

Houk, Rose. Mojave Desert: An American Deserts Handbook (Tucson, AZ: Western National Parks Association, 2001).

Jaffe, Matthew. Mojave National Preserve (Tucson, AZ: Western National Parks Association, 2004).

Wuerthner, George. California s Wilderness Areas: The Complete Guide. Vol. 2: The Deserts (Englewood, CO: Westcliffe Publishers, 2004).

Hotel Nipton Whistle Stop Oasis and Cyber Cafe Nipton Trading Post http://www.nipton. com/lodging2.html Five-room hotel and Eco-Lodge tent cabins hotel@nipton.com information: 760.856.2335

Lodging is also available in Baker, Barstow, Ludlow, and Needles, California, and Primm, Nevada

Groups and individuals may camp at the Black Canyon, Hole in the Wall, and Mid-Hills campgrounds

Mojave National Preserve, National Park Service website: http://www.nps. gov/moja/index.htm

Providence Mountains State Recreation Areas (Mitchell Caverns): http:// www.parks.ca.gov/defauk.asp? page _id=615
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Title Annotation:CALIFORNIA JOURNEYS
Author:Talley-Jones, Kathy
Publication:California History
Geographic Code:1U9CA
Date:Sep 22, 2005
Words:1692
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