I'm back. It's kind of a long story. You can check out the pictures, though.
As you, Faithful Reader, already know, on Wednesday I made it to Barstow. (I can never hear "Barstow" without thinking of an A-Team episode where George Peppard explains that he's hidden the stolen Russian MiG outside of Barstow. It was completely meaningless to me at the time and is now an irrevocable part of my memory.) Barstow is a grubby, friendly little desert city, containing one of every low-to-middle-income retail chain store; I didn't see a Home Depot, but that may be too upscale. At any rate, there was Kragen and AutoZone (important since in the rainstorm over Tehachapi Pass I'd noticed my wipers starting to come off), and Denny's and Carrows (important because I didn't bring any breakfast food and never feel like camp-cooking in the morning anyway). So far, so good.
I stopped by the Park Service Mojave National Preserve administration office to get some maps and such, and decided to head for the Kelso Dunes, the only thing in the park I really wanted to see. The nice ranger woman said there were "backcountry" (which just means not marked off, not that you can't drive there) camping sites cleared past the Dunes trailhead. After an uneventful drive down I-40 and Kelbaker Road, I reached the trailhead, put on my daypack, and started walking. It was windy, but livable.
Speaking as someone who has done a fair number of physically difficult things in his life, I don't think I have ever done anything quite as hard as climbing up the face of a 650-foot high pile of fine-grained sand. Heaving for breath, legs burning, having to stop every few minutes--craaaazy. And at the top, you get some nice views, but mostly you get mouthfuls of sand, because you climbed up the leeward side and then the wind hits you. But of course I did it anyway.
I set up my tent at the backcountry sites, and figured the sand inside was just from moving the tent around. But no: once I got the fly on and saw yet more sand, I realized the sand is fine-grained enough to get blown through the tent's mesh windows. Seeing no way to avoid waking up covered in sand, I packed up and headed over to the Kelso Depot, which has been restored with lots of historical and nature exhibits. After weighing my options, thinking of gasoline and time available before sunset, I settled on the Hole-In-the-Wall campground, maybe 40 minutes away.
It was cold. With winds in the 20-30mph range, blowing hard over a wall of hills. A nice guy named Ernie, out from Needles for a few days with his wife and RV to escape the family, said that I'd picked a better night, because it had snowed the night before. I pitched my tent, using the car as a windbreak; got my stove lit with the wind lighting a vision-encompassing whoosh of propane right in my face ("No pain, okay; both eyes work, okay; nothing burned or melted--all set"); steamed broccoli when you're cold and didn't eat a proper lunch is a real treat.
It was pitch dark by 6pm. Having constant access to light, we forget how short the days really are, and killing four or five hours in the cold dark by yourself is nontrivial. It ended up being too cold to read inside the tent, so I figured I'd snuggle into my sleeping bag and work on manipulating my headspace until I fell asleep. This was good work, until...my feet got cold.
I have spent exactly one night being truly cold. Not the night on the street in Guanajuato--it was the night I spent up on Lassen Peak with a crappy sleeping bag. It dipped down to the high 30s, and I woke up every 15-20 minutes from the cold. It was miserable, and long, and I woke up exhausted (though more glad for the sun than I have been before or since). So I know from experience that if you start out cold, it's not going to get any warmer; and exactly how miserable it is to be cold when you want to be asleep. I'm not into physical suffering for no purpose, so I determined that I'd stay there, curled in my sleeping bag, long enough to feel a little rested, and to get something of what I'd gone on the trip for, and then I'd just go back to the motel in Barstow. And I did that, got myself into a headspace I could work with, and back to the motel I went. The woman realized I was a repeat customer when I asked for a room away from the trainyard's loud whistle.
Since the trip was now essentially about driving, I decided to take Route 58 straight out from Barstow to San Luis Obispo. Sadly, I didn't get to try out my new windshield wipers over Tehachapi Pass, but droning on and on I made it to Route 99 and I-5 in surprisingly short time. At I-5/Buttonwillow I considered heading home, but couldn't bring myself to do all that time on a boring highway, just to get home and not really have anything to do except laundry and cleaning out the car. Route 58 west from Buttonwillow goes through cotton fields, and then slows down in a big hurry.
58 west from McKitrick is a commitment. There is a brutal, challenging long section of tight twisties, endless hairpins with a 300-foot drop on the right side of the road, just to keep you on your toes. The favorite trick here is off-camber blind uphill turns, an impressive combination of road challenges. I found the road to be fairly difficult in the Saturn, so I can only assume I would be very, very slow and uncomfortable on a bike. Fortunately the tight twisties end as the road heads up toward Los Padres National Forest, and it's all California forest until Santa Margarita, Atascadero and San Luis Obispo.
It was 2pm when I hit SLO, 5 hours after leaving Barstow, and I decided to meander around a bit and grab some lunch. SLO is a sweet little town; some parts have an upscale-shopping-mall feel similar to Santa Barbara, but someone interrupted the evil plan to give to SLO Santa Barbara's soulless sterility, so there's grit and weirdness floating through the town. I wandered around, drooled at some restored British cars and motorcycles, ate a sandwich, and much to my surprise, saw the Pink Man. I don't know if he moved from Berkeley or was just visiting, but there he was, twirling on his unicycle, flapping his arms, and spreading his vision of Love and Pink. SLO needs him more than Berkeley does, anyway. Berkeley already has a self-sustaining freak going on.
I reached San Simeon just before 4pm; Hearst Castle closes at 5pm, I didn't want to spend the night there, and I decided that it's really not that far and Hearst Castle will be there on another weekend. Highway 1 eventually narrows and twists and turns (but always easier than the hard stretch of Route 58). I balked at the prices at the Lucia Lodge, decided to keep driving, then at the Big Sur Lodge discovered that everything in Big Sur was all booked for the weekend--it hadn't occurred to me, but Big Sur would be a pleasant place to stay with your loved ones for New Year's, and that's what everyone was doing. After some dinner, that more or less committed me to going home, since there's no point in staying at some crappy motel in Monterey, just over an hour from Redwood City. Up Highway 1, to 156, 101, and finally home.
I had this idea of going out to confront the desert, but I really only needed to be there. I'm not equipped for or interested in the big trip to the backcountry, and I'll remember that for next time.