I've discovered something over the years, in the course of my travels: if you are a lady who can in any way be perceived as "girlish," you will come across certain people who will find your solo voyaging charming and brave. such was the case at the rental car counter in palm springs, where the sweet middle aged rental agent, after hearing my plans to wander through joshua tree and to go solo camping, lowered her voice conspiratorially and said, "you know, we have a mustang convertible. I could give you the friends and family discount -- it would cost you $11 more a day than you're spending now."
"so ...$22 more? that's it?" she nods.
and that is how I end up cruising around the california desert in a 2014 convertible, listening to 90s music on the satellite radio, with a folded up tank top wrapped around my forehead to keep my face from getting too horribly sunburned. from palm springs to joshua tree, where I turn off the radio in reverent silence, and then through box canyon, my head swiveling in every direction at the rocks all around me. down country roads dotted with arid farmland, and finally to salton sea, the sea that isn't really one.
my new friend from vancouver was horrified when I told her where I was camping. "but ... you know you can't swim in it, right?" I explained that yes, I knew that the beaches were made of dead barnacles and fish bones, casualties of the increasing salinity of a body of water with no incoming rivers or streams. I knew it was speckled with ruins of buildings from a time when there were resorts all along the coastline, and that it might smell funny and wasn't very popular. I reassured her that those things were totally my bag. she did not seen convinced. in all honesty, her reaction secretly worried me a little. was I about to camp at the cali equivalent of onondaga lake -- a toxic dump that smells, well, like a toxic dump?
but she was wrong. or maybe she was right about the sea, but wrong about the camping. it smells like the ocean -- the saline level is somewhere between the pacific ocean and the great salt lake -- and it's surrounded by coastal grasses, full of the sounds of birds. The campsite is just occupied enough to make me not feel nervous, but not busy enough to be loud. herons stand gracefully at the banks; pelicans fly overhead. a nice paved path, obviously newly built, meanders through the brush for half a mile, ending at a small quiet stretch of beach. (admittedly, a beach made of dead barnacles.) in the morning I run up and down the banks and then walk over to the tiny camp store for $1 coffee. I inquire about the kayak rental sign but decline in the end -- "I've kayaked twice. will I drown?" I ask. "I've been kayaking for 25 years and I probably wouldn't go out today." okay then.
I pack up my gear and toss it into the trunk of my MUSTANG CONVERTIBLE and I slather on sunblock, put the top down, turn on the radio, and set off. it's just before 9 am. the roads are mostly empty, as is all the surrounding land. I make my first stop 8 miles down the road, at the ruins of bombay beach, formerly a little coastal hamlet. now it's something between trailer park and ghost town, some of the houses completely gutted, others very ramshackle; the occasional one has a car parked out front, which I guess means it's still lived in. there is incredible graffiti. the beach is strewn with the beams and foundations of old buildings. the skeleton of an abandoned pier is overrun with seagulls.
then I drive for a long time, realizing in amazement (because I am hungry) that this is the longest I think I've ever driven without any sign of fast food. I get preoccupied with the joy of being in a convertible in california, driving through the desert with my ponytail and my coffee, flipping between beachy tunes on the radio. I completely forget my next stop -- like, I completely forget that I am even supposed to be aiming for a next stop -- until I'm thirty miles past it. I've stopped to eat a cheeseburger when I look at my map and realize. But it's 11 in the morning and my goal is to be in san diego at 7, and that is such a hilarious amount of time to drive the distance (not even 200 miles) that of course I turn around.
salvation mountain is a huge ... art installation? building? shrine? built by a man named leonard knight after he had a vision from god. I can't really even describe it. it's paint and adobe and bales of straw and tree limbs and old telephone poles, and everything says "god loves you" or a variant thereof. it's big and colorful and weird. art cars decorated in a similar style dot the nearby landscape. behind it is slab city, a sort of hippie commune of RVs and tents, people living off the grid. you may have read about it in jon krakauer's "into the wild." the mountain is manned by volunteers (knight himself died this past february). today's caretaker is quick to offer to take your photo on the mountain the moment he spots you with a camera. when I walk back to the car I overhear him cheerfully giving directions: "so, you get to this place where there's no rail between you and the canyon, then you drive past two or three 'no trespassing' signs, and at the end you can see the whole coachella valley."
the rest of the drive is more or less comprised of trying to figure out the prettiest and most out of the way route to my destination, and then of driving through canyons on long empty snaking roads. I listen to a lot of 90s music. I drink water out of a gallon jug because my one water bottle is dirty. I stop once at a county park and hike 3 miles in my flip flops.
when I arrive at my sister's I have been driving for 10 hours and am coated in a mixture of sweat, sunblock, road grit and dirt but she hugs me anyway because she's my sister.