Into The Big Empty

May 2, 2004
Outside Magazine
Outside magazine, August 1991
Into The Big Empty

On a roll to nowhere in California and Nevada
By Phil Garlington

The roads that take you there are shoulderless, straight as yardsticks, black as tar, and skunk-striped. They're narrow and seemingly endless, these two-lanes through the desert. And they're beautiful. Consider Highway 50 across Nevada; or California 127, which skirts Death Valley; or Nevada 160 out of Pahrump. Drive one of these roads on a hushed afternoon--the horizon flat as a windowsill, the car gliding across this dry and empty land--and you'll remember the moment forever.

What is it about these roads that always conjures up some nameless nostalgic yearning? Crossing the Bullion Mountains out of Twentynine Palms, California, on the way to Amboy Crater, the road takes you through a vast, craggy, and unspeakably lovely world. It's no wonder advertising agencies use this stretch of Mojave asphalt in their TV commercials. All it needs to become heaven is a few handsome people and a brand new soft drink.

And who can resist leaving the paved ease of old Route 66 to wander up a canyon track in the Old Woman Mountains outside Needles, California? Round a bend and there you are, looking down at a natural spring. Sit tight and maybe you'll spy a coyote or two slinking down for a quick slake.

But the all-time best spot for a few days of aimless desert cruising is the Big Empty of Nye County, Nevada, a vast stretch of sage and sand along the California line, where the Sonoran, Mojave, and Great Basin deserts converge. Coming from the population tumors of Los Angeles or San Diego, the quickest way to find the Big Empty is to head east on Interstate 15. Somewhere beyond the town of Victorville, you'll start to feel strange, then realize: You're the only one on the road. Let your foot nudge the accelerator, and by the time you turn north on Highway 127 at the town of Baker, California, only desert awaits.

From here, directions become unnecessary; this is a place made for aimless driving. Yet as you cruise these highways and washboard backroads, you'll notice that the desert's monotony is only an illusion; the country contains an endless array of bizarre road notes. Perhaps, while following some unmarked dirt track leading God knows where, you'll stumble onto a happy surprise--a miner's shack; the rusting hulk of an ancient car; a natural rock basin, called a tinana, brimming with a few frothy cupfuls of water. Outside Shoshone, California, at the junction of Highway 127 and Jubilee Pass Road, I once ran across a warren of old caves dug by long-gone tramps, depression-era hobos who'd chiseled a rent-free city from the soft sandstone.

Though road directions may be forsaken in Nye County, there are still a few rules to follow. First, the conveyance has to be just right. What's wanted here, for both mythical and practical reasons, is a venerable half-ton, short-bed pickup. Not too old, but not too new, either. Preferably Ford or Chevy. Second, fill the gas tank before rolling down any back roads. And since most gas gauges lie, always turn around when yours falls to half-full. Once away from the main highways, never search ahead for the next gas pump--most likely, it isn't there. Also be sure to have extra water with you at all times, both for yourself and for your radiator.

It's good to keep in mind some quality-of-life tips, too. Whenever I drive the desert, I follow the example of the scorpion and the sidewinder, seeking cover in the afternoons. During the furnace hours, while the critters are snoozing in their burrows, I leave the truck and tote a cushioned pad up the shady side of a canyon to perch in the rocks. I'll read or doze there until the heat begins to ease. By then it's time to start thinking about lodging. The beauty of crossing the desert in a pickup is that you can camp almost anywhere, and you can haul lots of stuff with you--a tent, a cookstove (not much firewood in these parts), a cooler or two or three, a sleeping pad, a light sleeping bag...maybe a lawn chair.

But the best thing about road tripping in Nevada isn't the camping or the exploring--or even the driving. It's the twilight, a nightly revelation: the violet sky, with its stripes of orange and red, the chiaroscuro of every gully, the dark, spidery limbs of the greasewood brush. Even as night closes in, there is still that airiness, that feeling that the desert goes on forever.

Can life get much better? Hurtling down Highway 95 in the warm summer twilight, moon rising, elbow stuck out the window, radio tuned to the static-free clarity of C&W megawattage--that's the ticket, huh? In the distance there's a red-and-green neon smudge. It's the town of Beatty, Nevada, and on this purple night I'm heading for the hot springs a little east of there, more or less across the road from Fran's Star Ranch, one of Nevada's legal brothels. I'll lower my dusty body into a steaming pool and gaze at the mob of stars revolving overhead. After driving the Big Empty all day, the stars are only another reminder that here in this desert dominion, I'm the King of Infinite Space.

Copyright 1991, Outside magazine

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