Almost every evening, we sit on the edge of our wading pool and watch the sunset. Summer in 29 is brutal, but the end of the day is magical. To the south we see the Pinto Mountains of Joshua Tree National Park in layers the light plays off. To the north are the Bullion Mountains, lower, browner, and off limits because they belong to the Marine Base. Basically, it’s a bombing range.
Beyond the Bullions, several valleys further to the north and east, are the Mojave National Preserve and Death Valley. We had never been that way, but last month, before our road trip was cut short by illness, we plunged in. It was amazing.
Driving in the Mojave in summer is lonely—there are almost no cars on roads that float like thin gray rails above an ever-changing desert landscape of brush, rock and mountains. Every turn brings new vistas that shock: crags of black, red and white, conical volcanos, diagonal layers of frosting that look like earthquakes and colliding continents thrust them skyward just yesterday, vertical stripes, horizontal stripes, flat valleys, and, every now and then, a green oasis. In the National Preserve, one side of the road was skeletons of burned Joshua trees for miles, while on the other side a lush forest grew, with dense undergrowth. We were lucky in our timing—summer monsoons have now washed out many of the routes we just traveled.
We stayed at the Amargosa Opera House in Death Valley Junction, on the east edge of the Park near the Nevada border, to see the murals of ballerina Maria Beckett. She was neither a great dancer nor painter, but her vision and drive produced something impressive. It was worth the uncomfortable room, with a very hard, hot bed and window AC unit from another era (I was frozen on top and sweating on bottom). Heartbreaking to realize the entire building is adobe, and her murals can’t be saved--the walls are slumping into the ground. But wild horses come every morning to feed behind the hotel, and you can feel the ghost of the artist and her lovers burning in this god-forsaken little junction.
In the morning, we decided to peek inside Death Valley before traveling on to mining towns in Nevada (where we would contract Covid). Driving to the border of the National Park, we were stunned by how grand it is. Like Grand Canyon grand. Our little Joshua Tree National Park is a child compared to this place. We will return with better planning since we are not campers, and need a decent mattress, AC, and a dog-friendly policy.
Death Valley also got hit with monsoons, and the Park is completely closed now. We are enjoying rain in 29 about three times per week, after several years of almost nothing. Make your plans now for spring wildflowers, it’s going to be a bumper season in 2023. As for us, we are figuring out how to get back to Death Valley.
Anna does most of the writing. Ted does most of the photos. But sometimes we switch. We are repairing a distressed property in 29 Palms, California, and eventually hope to run an artist residency there.