Godforsaken and gorgeous, the Mojave repels, attracts Desert: Hot, dry and harsh, the Mojave National Preserve inspires some to drive faster, others to linger and learn.


MOJAVE NATIONAL PRESERVE, Calif. -- Most people know this place from the air-conditioned comfort of their car as they speed along Interstates 15 or 40.

It can appear a godforsaken wasteland of blowing dust and bleached bones. But it is not. And that is one point upon which all sides of the California Desert Protection Act debate agree.

"They try to say that we don't want to protect the desert," says Sandy McIntosh, a desert act opponent who lives 70 miles northwest of Needles inside the new Mojave National Preserve. "That's not true."

Her front yard melts into an uncluttered vista of desert floor, mountains and mesas. "Why would I want to do anything to destroy this view?"

The Mojave National Preserve, the centerpiece of the act, has subtle attributes, says Norbert Reidy, a policy analyst for the Wilderness Society in San Francisco.

"For me, the openness and spaciousness of it is awesome and inspiring. To be able to travel through the desert at slow pace is incredibly enriching. The human diversity. The Native Americans who lived there for thousands of years and still live there. The old mining camps. The old Cavalry posts. The old railroad towns.

"It is something special to go out in the middle of that and spend a few days contemplating the human past, the human present and nature."

With terrain varying from sun-baked ancient lake beds at sea level to pinyon pine and juniper forests on 7,900-foot-tall peaks, the Mojave has flora and fauna that eke out an existence on a few inches of rain a year.

Springtime wildflowers can paint a palette of colors among multihued rocks.

When the mercury tops 120 degrees along the preserve's

freeway edges, it can be a more comfortable 95 higher up.

The preserve includes the state's Mitchell Caverns, a collection of dried stalactites and stalagmites, and the world's largest forest of Joshua trees, with their cient volcanoes created rock cliffs that appear to hold a thousand pock-marked faces in a ghostly frozen state. Hikers descend into a narrow canyon that can shut out all noise.

Five miles away at Mid Hills Campground, the wind sings a desert song as it passes over mountain tops and through tree branches a mile above sea level.

And at Kelso Dunes, shifting hills of sand rise nearly 700 feet and spread out on 45 square miles.

"You can come out here, put up your umbrella, and it's just like the ocean," says Kristen Talken, a park service interpretive ranger. "Except for the smell. It smells really different here."

A dry wind carries scents of sage, creosote bush, juniper and pine, and cracks the tender skin on the inside of your nose. Even on a cool day, your lips can crack and bleed.

Despite harsh conditions, this was never a no-man's land. The Mojave has shaped the lives of people for thousands of years. Earlier this century, millions flocked to California along old Route 66, passing through many towns that have all but blown away since I-40 opened.

The first inhabitants, however, were Native Americans. They used the Mojave as a supermarket, drug store and spiritual place, and left a spectacular gallery of art drawn on rock walls.

Indian guides led Spanish explorers through the Mojave on their first trip from Mexico to San Francisco in 1776 along the ancient path now called the Mojave Road. They were followed by countless settlers.

Four-wheel-drive enthusiasts can still travel a 140-mile section of that same path between the Colorado River and Camp Cady near Barstow.

Sue Hickman, a rock and gem collector from the Barstow area, appreciates the timeless character of the Mojave even in areas traversed by Jeeps.

"There have been literally thousands and thousands of four-wheel drives that have gone down the Mojave Road, and you feel like you are following the last wagon train."

If you go...

How to get there: Via interstate 15 or interstate 40 out of Barstow, 500 miles from the Bay Area. For a speeding trip, to fly Las Vegas and drive an hour or two southwest.

Where to stay: Motels in Baker, Needles or Barstow: hotel-casinos in Stateline, Nev.; bed and breakfast in small Nipton adobe hotel. Plenty of camping.

Attractions: (Light) Kelso Dunes, cinder cones, 62-year-old Kelso train depot (it's slated to be restored as a visitor center); Hole-in-the-Wall volcanic formation; Mid Hills Campground; Mitchell Caverns state park; Cima store; thousands of Indian petroglyphs.

Desert dangers: (Light) The region is rugged and remote, with extreme weather conditions in both winter and summer. Acquire desert survival skills. Take good maps. Carry plenty of water, extra food, a shovel, tools, flares, a blanket and sunscreen. Keep gas tank full. Watch for scorpions and poisonous snakes.

For more information: Desert Information Center, Barstow, (619) 255-8760; National Park Service, Baker, (619) 733-4040.

Good reading: "Walking the East Mojave," by John McKinney and Cheri Rae.

Pub Date: 7/21/96

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