The Mojave Desert

Juniper country ends by mile marker 70. All vestiges of coolness ended at 55, at Kingman. Here you’re 3333′ above the sea. Here I-40 begins descends into the Mojave. Vegetation becomes sparser. It’s all scrub and cholla. Nothing else will grow.

At mm 0, right on the bridge spanning the Colorado River, you’re only 450′ above sea level. This Colorado Valley is hot in summer. It can regularly get to 115. Not too far south of here, at a place called Lake Havasu, Arizona’s all time high temperature of 128 was reached in June of ’94. That’s hot too. (However, California’s Death Valley is hotter.)

“That’s what air conditioning is for, Charlie.”

Yes, it is. But I was driving a ’99 Toyota Sienna. She was 20 years old. Granted, it only had 142 thousand miles, and the engine ran perfectly. However, the AC kinda’ whistled too much in hot temperatures, and, well, what did that mean? So, with a journey of 2000 miles ahead, I thought I’d not tax her. I thought I’d take that swamp butt like a man.

I did. Sweat dampened my car seat for a couple of hours in Eastern California. But no big deal. Things did cool off after leaving the Colorado Valley. The Mojave, west of the Colorado, generally ranges above 2000’. This dropped the temperature to right around 100. Fine. Warm highway winds cooled my hot head enough. And, though I-40 through Eastern California’s not as scenic as Northern Arizona, it was stimulating.

The distances you see are enormous. Black mountains rise in the far horizon, and it’s left to the imagination how far away they are. It’s almost frightening. So little grows here. In some stretches it’s endless sand like the Sahara. It would have been terrifying to cross this land for the first time hundreds of years ago not knowing how long the desolation would accompany you.

It also would have been terrifying to cross it in the Dust Bowl days, as Steinbeck wrote about in The Grapes of Wrath. For those who don’t know, the book is the fictionalized story of an Okie family – the Joads – heading west to California to start a new life. Oklahoma had turned into a constant dust storm because of over-farming in the 1920’s, and the banks repossessed the lands of many families, like the Joads. They’re only hope was the California Central Valley where agriculture abounded. There they’d find work. There they’d find salvation.

They took US 66 west. I-40 is, essentially, the now-gone 66. I-40 is modern and loaded with services a phone call away. This was not so in the 30’s. The danger of jalopies breaking down in the California desert terrified many an Okie and Arkie. Capturing emotions like this in an America now gone is one reason why I found The Grapes of Wrath all right in this 21st century. It’s like a time warp. But all good literature is.

Anyways, west of the Colorado River, the Mojave becomes part of the greater physiographic region called the Great Basin. The Great Basin is huge swath of mostly desert lands, accentuated here and there by tree-topped mountains, subdivided into many different endoheric basins.

What in the world is an “endoheric basin”?