The best highways in America have one thing in common. They are off the Interstate super highways.
Going off-trail, a hiking phrase, is also the purest form of motor traveling. It is not for everyone. You have to invent your rest stops. Two-lane roads can jangle nerves. Particularly when you find yourself driving behind a Model T on a long stretch of double-yellows. Passing skills are required.
Yet, coming back to Phoenix recently from the West Coast, we took a chance.
We decided to forego our usual route, Interstate 10. The 10 is the quickest, busiest and most mind-numbing way to get to L.A from our house. Crossing the drab Mohave Desert, the route is without eye appeal. Instead, we took lonesome California 78.
On my road atlas, 78 is a twisting red line, 215.4 miles in length. It comes out of Oceanside on the west with its lagoon by the Pacific and ends on the east near Blythe, a city on the Colorado River and Arizona border, the last real city going west across the moonscape that is the Mohave. Only the first 17.6 miles on the west is freeway, passing through eye-sore suburbs like Vista, San Marcos and Escondido. The rest is 2-lane.
I had traveled some of this route before. But never 78 east of Brawley. From there, 78 looked to be a no man’s land.
The city of Brawley, population about 25,000, sets 112 feet below sea level and just south of the isolated and eerie Salton Sea. Its citizens are largely of Hispanic blood. Perhaps the most interesting demographic is that more than one-third of the population hales from Pacific Islands. Maybe that reflects the local economy that is agricultural and stock-raising. One of Brawley’s most notable products is Sergio Romo, the standout relief pitcher for the world champion San Francisco Giants. The founders showed pluck and ingenuity. When landowner J. H. Braley refused to lend his name to the town in 1902, a “w” was inserted.
Before taking off on our little adventure to the east, we stopped for lunch at the surprising Aspen in the Desert restaurant. It is an attractive place amid a sea of blandness in the north part of town and serves not only good food, but ample portions. The waitress, Cynthia, tried to explain the name’s incongruity to the landscape. “It was a naming contest on the radio,” she said and shrugged. Our growling stomachs once more at ease, we jumped back on 78.
As the miles began to pile up, I felt twinge of disappointment. The land was covered with irrigated green crops. The Imperial Valley here is one of the nation’s great producers of fruits and vegetables Fine, but I wanted to go natural, to see the land as it once was. It wasn’t until we were 18 miles out, passing the last of the canals, that we saw the welcome signs of the desert. Creosote and sand.
Suddenly, emerging far ahead, was a long stretch of man-made structures. At first, looking on the map, I thought it was the teeny village of Glamis, pronounced Glah-mees. And it was Glamis but not the Glamis I thought it was.
Glamis has no permanent structures other than two stores, I later read. What I had seen in the distance was hundreds of trailers parked amid sand dunes. The two stores exist only to service the hundreds of thousands of visitors who annually visit the Algodones Dunes and Imperial San Dunes Recreational Area.
These magnificent dunes, shaped so precisely by wind as to form cutting edges, run roughly 40 miles in length by five miles width. California 78 cuts through the middle of the dunes. If they are like White Sands, in New Mexico, then they are traveling in the direction of the prevailing wind.
If you don’t have a dune buggy or an ATV in these parts, you are no doubt eyed suspiciously. But there are also rare plants and wildlife. You pay to play here: $150 for the season and $50 for a 7-day permit. The federal Bureau of Land Management estimates 1.4 million visitors drop in each year.
The dunes serve as film locations once in while. “Return of the Jedi” and “Stargate” were some of the recent ones.
Up the road about 12 miles on the left is the New Gold company’s small Mesquite Mine. It extracts gold from ore via a chemical process called heap-leaching. The place looked dead but it was getting late in the afternoon.
Ahead lay some delectable-looking mountains. A soft brown. They reminded me of chocolate. And, indeed, that was their name. The Chocolate Mountains.
Six miles later we ran into an immigration check-point. All cars must stop. Illegal immigrants are a big concern in the Southwest. A male sentry, smartly dressed in green-starched uniform, halted us. We were the only car in line, though to our right, a van with some young people had been pulled off for extra inspection. Since leaving the sand dunes, traffic had dropped off dramatically.
The sentry put up his hand casually, to stop us.
“Are you U.S. citizens?” he inquired, giving us a quick once-over.
“Yes,” said MJ who was driving and closest to the sentry.
“Have a good day,” he said and waved us through.
To be held and searched and humiliated like a few years ago trying to cross into Canada, well, this stop made for a much better day.
Two more “towns” showed on the map. Palo Verde and Ripley, both less than 16 miles from humming Interstate 10 west of Blythe. The smooth-arcing road turned into numerous sharp corners as we neared these places, all intersecting farm roads. Lots of cotton grown here, not far from the banks of the Colorado.
In whole, 78 was an interesting experience. I would like to go back over it some day, particularly to the Imperial Sand Dunes in wildflower season or hiking in the desolate Chocolate Mountains.
We should do this more often, little adventures along the backroads of America.