Ah, the glories of Interstate 15 to Los Angeles! Two-hundred-and-seventy high-speed straightaway miles. Should be enjoyable for someone driving a big, fast car with a loud stereo. But I hate it: Four-plus hours of soul-sucking white-line fever. By the time I hit the Cajon Pass, my eyes hurt, my back hurts and my brain is dead.
But there is another way. Fifty miles out of Vegas, I turn left at Nipton Road and within a few minutes, I’m in the middle of nowhere—also known as the Mojave National Preserve. No roaring 80 miles an hour, but also no dodging multiple lanes of semis and Hondas. Just me and my Chrysler 300 winding through the desert. No phone signal. The only hints of civilization are the occasional battered signs reminding me to watch for floods or tortoises, and a row of electric power lines fringing the horizon like eyelashes. As I slowly climb, the scrub twists up into Joshua trees, and the scenery becomes fantastic—giant rocks as eerily smooth as the surface of an alien planet or rows of craggy boulders that break through the earth like the back of a long-buried dinosaur.
The view is beguiling, but watch out: The road can break into a sandpaper-rough surface or a patchwork of fading pavement spackled over potholes. And there are parts where you’d best not exceed the speed limit without a lunar rover. Still, hitting a freshly paved stretch is the golden ticket to a personal amusement park. Just wide sky and flat land, the Misfits howling from the speakers, racing down the asphalt and shouting yee-haw every time I take a stomach-dropping dip in the road. Between the pastoral splendor of Death Valley and the raw power of a Detroit engine, it’s an “America, fuck yeah!” moment that puts any halftime display of fighter jets and flags to shame.
The fun stops when the potholes recur, then a sudden glide into a curving, downward slope into an oasis of green. Back in the days of silent movies and jazz trombones, the Kelso Depot station was a bustling stop on the Union Pacific Railroad; today it sits silent and preserved amid shady trees and lush lawns. But in a blink I’m on dusty, desolate Kelebaker Road toward Amboy and Route 66.
Eventually the enormous, acute-angled sign for Roy’s Café and Motel rises up like a retro mirage. “Café” and “Motel” are misleading: There’s no kitchen and no place to sleep. All the same, step inside and sit at the circa-The Wild One lunch counter to drink a soda and write a postcard, or walk across a gravel parking lot to snap photos of the decrepit cabins and preserved-in-amber lobby. (Keys dangle on hooks behind the orange trapezoid counter, a copy of Frank Sinatra’s Songs for Swingin’ Lovers leans against the hi-fi cabinet.) The only other local feature is the Amboy Crater. One-man gas station, abandoned Googie motel, giant cinder-black extinct volcano looming above: The perfect setting for an episode of The Twilight Zone or a drive-in sci-fi movie.
But onward, westward, zooming down 66 toward the endless horizon through a corridor of telephone lines. Train tracks skim alongside the asphalt, then loop away toward the mountains. A train with double-stacked boxcars in pink, green and blue, like an oversize toy, keeps me company for miles. Every so often another vehicle passes by, but damn few. All of them are fairly recent models, well-maintained: The high desert is no place for a fan belt that’s about to snap or secondhand tires. But aside from a recent oil change and full tank of gas, the only necessity required for the road less traveled is time. Time to slow down, whether out of wonderment or caution. Time to go extra miles, to make unexpected stops.
I cruise through Baghdad and Siberia—those are real places in the Mojave, only a few miles apart, though neither of them remains more than a pair of wide spots in the road. I slow down and roll into Ludlow, passing the ghost town version—abandoned café, gas station, metal shop, all roofless and rotting in the sun, hand-painted signs advertising fuel pumps serviced and checks cashed are baked to shadows.
Barely down the road is the current version of Ludlow, which seems to be stuck somewhere in the last season of Mad Men. The Ludlow Motel is a low-slung brick structure with a lurid yellow lamp; the Ludlow Café is an asymmetrical A-frame with a knotty pine and beige Formica interior. The waitress is harried but cheerful, and the chocolate milk shake is thick and cold. The couple at the table next to me is speaking French; across the room two kids chatter in Japanese; the family I snapped a photo for in Amboy was German—strange how the people I find amid all of this archetypical Americana are from somewhere else.
A few hundred yards out of the parking lot, I hit the ramp to Route 40. It’s still nearly three hours to Los Angeles. An hour lost, and worth every second.
Lissa Townsend Rodgers talks Great Drives on 97.1 the Point. Listen to the broadcast below.