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Grand Canyon to the Mojave, via the DMV

November 16, 2013

in Other Travel

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America is gorgeous. GORGEOUS. I already knew that, but I’m refining my understanding. America’s Southwest is nothing like the lush forests, soft beaches, and blossoming springtimes of the South and East, nor the silky golden grasses and misty redwoods of Northern California. Rather it’s a rugged vastness that fills you up, even as it proves your diminutive relation to the world.

Grand Canyon: The vast bisection of earth by water is staggering. Layers of rock are laid open like a historical autopsy of the last 1.5 billion years. I hike a few miles along the Rim Trail at sunset, with occasional vertiginous forays out to rock precipices that dangle over canyon. Tourists mill about, but it never feels crowded. I don’t know if that’s because of the magnitude of the landscape or because mid-November is light on tourists, but it’s easy to find space to absorb the sprawling tiers of rock. In the early morning, the sky like a mood ring warms from pink to blue while shadows creep down the carved millennia of sediment and stone. A family of big horn sheep walk 20 feet in front of where I sit. Spectacular. I take a run along the Rim Trail in the opposite direction today. Woodpecker, sheep, blue jays, squirrels, chipmunks–everything seems full of morning energy.

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Time to hit the road west. I cross what remains of Arizona and am momentarily elated by the words “Welcome To California,” until they are closely followed by “Speed Limit 70.” The road signs have bullet holes, and the radio has five Christian rock stations, one classic rock station, and one conservative AM talk radio show broadcast on FM also. Good thing I brought speakers and an iPod.

If this road trip is the best idea I’ve had in a while, the second best idea was stopping at the Needles DMV office just over the California border. The San Francisco DMV is a Kafkaesque labyrinth of paperwork, waiting lines, and sour officials. I had a very entertaining visit there when I got my driver’s license earlier this year, but one visit this year is enough. At the Needles DMV, there was exactly one person in line ahead of me when I walked in. The friendly and efficient DMV clerk handled all my paperwork, loaned me a screwdriver to change out the plates, and…(wait for it…) offered to mail the old plate back to the prior owner for me. Whaatt?? I picked my jaw up off the ground, said “Yes, thank you,” and walked out the door in under 20 minutes. My tax dollars at work. (I can say that without a trace of sarcasm or displeasure, for once.)

North of Needles is the Mojave National Preserve: another artistry of rock and earth and scrub. Same ingredients, completely different outcome. Like the petrified forest absent of tourists at dusk, the Mojave’s silence is equally unfathomable. It’s not just the lack of city noise or planes or machinery of any kind, but rather the stillness disturbed by only an occasional small bird. I meditate at sunset, boots burrowing into soft golden sand.

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Baker, CA–on the edge of the Mojave–is a town that likes kitsch. Alien Beef Jerky glows in the dark night. This store is the #1 gimmick I’ve seen. Aliens everywhere–including the car parked out front.

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Can you see this? Look carefully: it’s 3 aliens in a car with a ray gun on top. They sell snacks and delicious overpriced beef jerky here. What’s the connection? Absolutely none. But I was standing there buying beef jerky, wasn’t I? Next door was the Mad Greek cafe, which must be the brightest fluorescent lit restaurant ever. Blinding white light and decent Greek food, surrounded by Greek goddess statues and Ionic columns trailing ivy vines. Add a baklava please. In a land of Dennys Arbys McDonalds, you have to accept some odd decor if you eat elsewhere. I’m perfectly okay with that, but slightly blind when I walk out into the night.

Last stop this side of Death Valley: Tecopa Hot Springs. A room and a soak please. Was I really running at the Grand Canyon this morning?

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