Kurt Bell

A life of courage, joy and independence.

Life Like a Babbling Brook

I always leave the engine of my motorcycle running for a bit after arriving at night at the desert ghost town of Siberia. In a way, I need to screw up some courage to kill the bike, and bring on the silence and the deep dark of a place so far removed from the warmth and help of humanity. Those first few seconds after the engine stops are utterly dark and silent, while my eyes adjust to starlight, and my eardrums seemingly grow taut and retune from attendance to the sounds of our civilized world, to the empty silence of the desert night. In a few seconds, the wilder me takes over, and I lower my heavy backpack to the ground before slowly turning 360 degrees to ascertain the darkness, and consider my next steps.

If I’m going to camp beside the bike, then the tasks are easy, and performed by rote muscle memory: switch on the flashlight, unload the bike, set up my tent, and prepare dinner before going to sleep. However, if I’m going to begin hiking immediately, then my chores are much simpler: strip off my riding gear and put on my hiking clothes, secure the bike and stretch my legs, hoist the 50-pound pack onto my back and begin walking.

The motorcycle is lost in the darkness within seconds of setting out. Within minutes the last signs of the ghost town are vanished to dark. Shortly thereafter I cross over the railroad tracks and carefully slide down a gravelly flash flood berm onto open desert. From this point forward, it’s wildness in every direction. I carry and use a small penlight to spot rattlesnakes while hiking at night, though if the moon is out I can sometimes turn off the light and navigate carefully by the stars, and the black, mute hulks of distant mountains. At moments like this, walking alone by starlight across a trackless waste, the hesitation I felt before turning off the motorcycle is utterly lost. This fear seems to vanish once I’m away and walking alone into the open desert. Fear then has a strange, inverse way of diminishing with every mile traveled alone at night. My confidence is bolstered as I stalk among the soulless beasts, becoming every bit their equal in both vulnerability and mortality. It’s curious how this sense sometimes stays with me after returning home.

The quality of wilderness solitude I bring back with me to civilization bolsters my movements, tightens my thoughts and firms up my speech with an immediacy and decisiveness my more civilized self can rarely muster. This strange, wild quality shows up in such things as an easy smile under otherwise stressful situations, a peaceful frame-of-mind during a challenging meeting at work, or a relaxed calm when life goes all wrong, as it is sometimes prone to do. I enjoy these alien qualities while they last, which they rarely do; and though I know the worth and value of going to, and returning from, the wild alone, I still always hesitate at that last moment before turning off the switch that connects the animal I am, with the man I must be.

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Snakes are hardly the most dangerous thing in the desert. The great emptiness which can be encountered when going alone has the capacity to rob us of our soul, and leave us to wander our remaining days as hollow vessels, consisting of little more than our animate flesh and whatever spark of thought we might muster before our time is up. It’s not a bad life, if you can take the initial sting and pain of losing everything but what really matters.

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I rarely encounter snakes in the desert, though when I do they nearly always take me by surprise. This, despite the great caution I take with every foot placement to ensure I don’t unwittingly expose my foot and lower leg to a strike from a rattlesnake coiled and camouflaged in the shade of a bush, or along the crack or ledge of a rock. I’m especially careful when hiking alone in the desert at night during warm months, which is when rattlesnakes come out to hunt. A desert old timer once told me I could easily find snakes at night by searching along the sandy banks of flash flood arroyo. He explained that snakes come to such places to hunt rodents emerging from burrows in the soft sand, and that the snakes will often creep slowly along the edge of the wash in search of prey. The snake tracks I find in this video are in precisely such a place, and the number of tracks suggests one or more large snakes use this route frequently. I once followed such a snake track for some distance before the track went into a large bush. When I peeked into the bush for a closer look I was met with the loud and harsh rattle of a coiled sidewinder staring me down while flicking a forked tongue at me. Ever since that encounter, I’ve taken snake trails seriously, and do everything I can not to accidentally cross tracks with their owners.

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Fear lays claim where it can, sometimes with good reason, often only until reason wins out.

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It took me three visits to muster the nerve to summit a small, mountain I’d found in the eastern Mojave Desert. The first time I made it only to the base, where I lingered for a while, screwing up the courage to scramble up the steep and slippery face. I wound up retreating without climbing, walking away under cover of an excuse that the slope was too steep, and the volcanic rocks too loose and sharp. Sometimes it’s better to heed caution when you’re alone in the wild, though that doesn’t mean I can’t try again another day.

The second time I came I’d timed the day poorly, and had to leave quickly in order to make it back to base camp before night. This was possibly just another excuse, though I’ll humor myself and allow the label of necessity; after all, it’s not a good thing to be caught alone in the desert without shelter when darkness falls hard on a cold winter night.

I finally climbed the mountain on my third visit, which was a victory hike of sorts to celebrate completion of a much more difficult and challenging hike to a distant black volcano. Returning past this nameless mountain after that longer hike felt almost like coming home, as I’d been here twice prior, and knew the route back to camp fairly well. On a whim I climbed the mountain, and discovered a lost trace of humanity at the summit, and enjoyed a lovely view of the quiet and empty landscape where every success goes without recognition, and every life is forgotten upon the moment of its passing.

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The phrase “end of the line” has much relevance and meaning when exploring California’s forgotten desert ghost towns. Unlike the ghost towns of Japan, which are currently in the process of dying, there’s often not even bones or shadows of past lives in the desert, where wind and neglect quickly erase anything which cannot be sustained on its own.

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Today’s motorcycle ride included a nine miles stretch from the juncture of Kelbaker Road and Route 66 to the railroad ghost town of Cadiz. I had to bypass barriers east of Amboy which were put in place to prevent tourists having to backtrack ten miles from the point where the road was washed out by a summer flash flood. It sometimes takes years to repair flash flood damage on old Route 66, as there’s little money to maintain this seldom used historic road.

Five miles from the barriers I stopped briefly at the desert community of Chambless Junction, named after James and Fannie Chambless, who settled the place and ran a gas station and store here. James Chambless was a veteran of the Spanish-American war, and he used his war rights to claim 640 acres of desert land, upon which he founded this small town in his own name. The building we gaze at briefly while stopped was built by James Chambless at a cost of $7,000. There was no electricity here, and James rigged the place with wiring which he powered by an old Chevrolet engine he kept out back. James also dug a well to the water table at a depth of 580 feet. At Chambless Junction we’ll resume our journey by turning south on Cadiz Road.

My final stop is three miles south of Chambless Junction where the blacktop of Cadiz Road gives way to dirt at the old town site of Cadiz. Though originally nothing more than a railway siding, Cadiz grew into a little town which featured a US post office, railway office, telegraph post, and homes for the families of railroad workers who serviced the tracks between Cadiz and Needles. Nothing at all remains of Cadiz today, besides the hulking trunks of salt cedar trees which were planted a hundred years ago by residents to act as windbreaks along the tracks. Few desert ghost towns of the Mojave are as desolate and forsaken as Cadiz. Even the ghosts must surely have given up any ambition of haunting this place.

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To discover a dead mountain is to find a thing so old and so far removed from comprehension as to reveal the true depth and challenge of facing down the fact of deep time.

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I’m walking through the skeletal remains of a desert mountain worn to almost nothing by millions of years of wind and rain. This landscape has no name. No humans come here since the Native Americans and the gold miners left. There are no tracks or roads, no human boot prints, or even the remains of old mines. The only sign I ever find so far out in the desert, of my species so distant and removed, are the occasional rumble and trail of a jetliner moving slowly above the clouds, or the dim dot of a satellite gliding silently below the stars. Sometimes I find (and collect to take back) Mylar balloons blown into the wastes from civilization hundreds of miles away. “Happy Birthday”, or “Congratulations” or the deflated image of SpongeBob or a one-eyed Minion rest torn, crumbled and tangled in a thorny desert shrub; a failed messenger and ambassador to a place incapable of either comprehension or care. The contrast is marked then, between our human capacity to love and create, and the desert’s more permanent capacity to simply exist.

You can get to this place by making your way to Siberia ghost town, and then by walking north-east until you begin to worry you might get lost. Turn back if the fear is genuine, proceed further if you’d rather face a deeper and more real sort of fear. When you come to the place of deep sand you’ve almost arrived, just go a little further now. Soon you’ll be in a place which has and deserves no name—after all, some places are better left unnamed and unmarked on any map. Keep walking now, but watch your footing, as a fall on this slippery, crumbly granite would be a bad thing by any measure.

To discover a dead mountain is to find a thing so old and so far removed from comprehension as to reveal the true depth and challenge of facing down the fact of deep time.

~

In 1883 the Atlantic & Pacific Railroad created a series of watering stops for steam-powered locomotives travelling across the eastern Mojave Desert. The stops were in alphabetical order, from west to east, with strange sounding names designed to help telegraph operators more easily communicate place names: Amboy, Bristol, Cadiz, Danby, Essex, Fenner, Goffs and Homer. Communities developed around these watering stops, which disappeared utterly when the railroad switched to diesel locomotives in the 1930s and 40s, removing the need for coal and water stops. The sight and sound of these great trains is a familiar part of any adventure along Route 66 between Barstow and Needles, and I never tire of watching these giants gliding swiftly downhill or grinding their way powerfully uphill along the sloping Mojave Grade. It’s especially moving  to watch the trains pass from one of the aforementioned ghost towns, and to try and picture how these trains provided both life and livelihood through work, as well as and food and water delivery to several generations of strong families who once called this harsh landscape home.

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My routine return to civilization after backpacking alone in the desert is a stop at the Route 66 picnic area near Amboy Volcano Crater. I rarely see anyone here, which is good, as it takes time to recover my social sense after a few days wandering alone in the wastes. The picnic area’s large pavilions are the perfect place to escape the sun, cook up a hot meal, or even take a nap. This is also the place where I reconfigure my gear from backpacking mode (everything in my backpack) to moto-touring mode, in which my gear is distributed out to the bike’s aluminum pannier saddle-bags. It’s 193 miles from Amboy Crater to my home in Irvine, which is a good three to four hour motorcycle ride depending upon stops (I usually make lots of stops). Even in the dead of winter it’s so warm here during the day that you can ride nearly naked in shorts and tennis shoes, enjoying the play of warm sunlight and stinging wind upon bare skin slathered with sunblock, feeling more than just water evaporate off the skin. The desert always robs me of more than I had before I came, and the motorcycle trip home from Amboy to my family solidifies the loss in ways which can never be reclaimed. In some ways, it’s the best part of the trip.

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After two years of research I’ve finally pieced together the desert location of a twenty mile stretch of abandoned Route 66. I’d read about the lost road, which was given up to the desert almost 100 years ago when the old highway was realigned to avoid flash floods, and I’d even encountered the road several times while hiking without knowing what it was, though I do recall scratching my head over the discovery of what appeared to be a fairly well-used road smack in the middle of nowhere. Just now, the pieces came together when I read a US Geological Survey report from 1921 which spelled out clearly, not only the location of the road, but the exact places where this old highway diverges from the current Route 66 alignment. I suspect there are many old traveler’s camps at the side of this forgotten highway just waiting to be discovered by anyone with a backpack, lots of water, and a good pair of hiking boots.

~

200 miles east of Los Angeles there’s a small forgotten desert place called Saltus. Years ago, Saltus supported salt mining activity on nearby Bristol Dry Lake, where residents once reported a summer high temperature of 142 degrees Fahrenheit (61 degrees Celsius). This event was not formally recorded, as it was simply registered on an outdoor thermometer by the astonished locals who were struggled then to simply survive the event (a newborn baby boy did sadly die, and is buried in an unmarked grave somewhere in the surrounding desert. His young parents were newcomers to the desert, and left quickly after their first terrible encounter of the Eastern Mojave’s summertime extremes). I visited Saltus on the first day of December 2017, when heat waves formed shimmering mirage here and there in the distance, and I rode my motorcycle alone and nearly naked, in shorts and boots, through the refreshing winter heat along abandoned stretches of one-lane desert road.

Stopping for lunch at the site of the Saltus railroad siding, I discovered remnants of the railroad facilities which were once here, as well as the community’s old water well which is located roughly one hundred yards out in the desert. The large-diameter well shaft was covered with a heavy piece of rusted iron, which grated loudly when I pulled it back to have a look into the dark. When I gazed down, I was surprised to see water reflecting sunlight far below. I was startled, as I knew that desert wells in this area often required several hundred feet of drilling before reaching water, while here at Saltus, the water table was clearly less than thirty feet below my feet. One day I’d like to come back with a rope to lower my waterproof GoPro into the well with a flashlight to have a good look at what’s inside. I had a good lunch at the Saltus water well, thinking of the hard lives of the people who once called this place home, and the desolation which is now the only inhabitant.

 

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