Oil fields, wind farms and some off-road fun
31.08.2011 - 31.08.2011 42 °C
It’s a driving day. Our plan was to get up early, drive to Red Rock Canyon National Park (NP) for a quick snoop around and then head south to Joshua Tree NP. With the motel not offering any breakfast, we set off down the highway real early.
The landscape was initially not that exciting and only little varied. Large scale irrigation systems converted the normally barren and flat-ish land into an enormous patchwork of fruit plantations in green, cattle farms in brown and the odd mile or two long flowering hedge thrown in as a separator. This went on and on and on …. until we came over a little hill close to Oildale. This is where the TV series Dallas should have been filmed.
Hundreds of oil pumps are dotted around the landscape with hardly anything else in sight. Actually, dotted around doesn’t quite describe the views, it is more like a forest of different sized steel installations happily pumping away. It’s probably the first time we just stopped on a motorway to take pictures, but we couldn’t resist. Wandering around, it was eerily quiet. One would expect noise like in a big factory but with everything being powered by electric pumps, all you could hear was the odd car on the highway. I love engineering feats and whilst there was nothing that spectacular here, the sheer volume of these little puppies slowly churning away made this a fantastic ad hoc stop – or at least the boys in our party thought so. After a few minutes, we spotted (probably) a maintenance guy in a pickup truck approaching. Not wanting to get shot for trespassing and remembering we were parking in an awkward spot, it was time to keep going. Sad as it sounds, I thoroughly enjoyed driving for quite some miles more looking at this bizarre mix of desert and steel in motion.
Not long after the oilfields we passed through Bakersfield and headed along highway 58 back to the mountains. Around this time the reality kicked in and the lack of breakfast made it to the forefront of our thinking. M just doesn’t function without food, so to avoid completing the rest of our Californian adventure solo, a decent breakfast was urgently needed. We ended up in a Subway next the first Tehachapi exit. Quite nice, but probably not the best choice given the number of opportunities in the area. Still, time was of the essence. Needless to say, once we rejoined the highway there were lots of traditional diners where I could have had another fix of blueberry pancakes. But hey, at least we got M fed and watered some 5 minutes earlier.
Moving along the highway to the other side of Tehachapi (at the mountain pass of the same name) the whole hillside was covered in wind-turbines for a change. They were not particularly large, i.e. probably quite old already, but what they lacked in size they made up in numbers – it seemed as if there were thousands of them covering the mountain rim as far as we could see. A nice contrast to the oil fields we passed earlier in the morning and for me, equally interesting. Happy to have marvelled at some technology, it was time to get back to nature.
Red Rock Canyon state park lies at the edge of the High Sierras and is the total opposite of Yosemite national park in almost every way. Firstly, the facilities are very basic - a simple visitor centre close to the main road. That’s what we though initially. Soon we found out, it was worse. This very visitor centre was closed due to unavailability of funding. Battling the treacherous heat wave and midday sun, we made a run for it across the car park to a notice board, grabbed a photocopied leaflet with a map and some history and park rules and fled back to the car. Even though we always look for some solitude when we visit US parks, this might have been a little bit too quiet.
Secondly, the woodland and wildlife are also rather different. To start with there are no trees. Actually, coming to think about it there was very little vegetation altogether. Animals in this barren landscape, on the other hand, were not as elusive as you might think. Ok, Lizards are not that much of a surprise in a hot and desolate land, but the large numbers of wild hares with massive ears was quite unexpected.
Finally, every US park has lots of opportunities for hiking – not so the Red Rock Canyon. Although the map’s legend had a symbol for hiking trail, they somehow forgot to capture them on the actual map, with the exception of the two minuscule paths around the closed-down visitor centre. It was not all lost though. Right next to the underutilised hiking trail sign, we were pleased to see symbols for “Paved Highway”, “Dirt Road (primary)”, “4 Wheel Drive recommended” and “Serious 4-Wheel Drive Route” – and apart from the highway running through the middle of the park, these were all over the map. So we decided to go with the flow and do a little offroad tour. With me driving at the time, M selected the Iron Canyon track past the 'scenic cliffs' and the 'red cliffs'. Mostly dirt road with only a short section of 4 wheel drive recommended. Or that was what the map said.
Glad we had picked an SUV for our holiday and not the Mustang they tried to tempt us with. Our Ford Escape was generally good enough vehicle for this, if you don’t count the rough stretches where we wished we had a bumper truck. And it didn’t help Ford Escape is only a pretend 4x4. Undeterred, I confidently steered of the highway onto the dirt track. The scenic cliffs were really scenic and we had plenty of photo stops along the way. It had a feel of Bryce Canyon in many places. The track itself was also fun to drive, partially along a dried out river bed that probably is full of water in spring when the snow in the High Sierras melts. However, as I already suggested, the ‘4 wheel drive recommended’ bit was a bit more hardcore then we expected. At one place, M had to get out of the car to show me a way across massive boulders, in a quest to keep our oil tank, exhaust pipe and spoilers in one piece. It was a little leap of faith going down into the ditch, hoping that the road ahead was not getting any worse as it was questionable if we would get back up the ledge again, were we forced to turn around. Enjoying the views, after half an hour or so we hit the highway again.
Having had all the off-road driving fun so far, I suggested swapping drivers and doing another little dirt track detour. M hesitated for what seemed like half a millisecond and before I knew it, materialised behind the wheel. She loves going off-road and I was already puzzled that she let me drive until now. Now being the navigator, I picked a little longer route along the Opal Canyon road and later past 'Nightmare Gulch'. It also had a more of the “4 wheel drive recommended” track, the better rally driver needed a better challenge.
Only a few miles away from the first track, the landscape was totally different and heaving with hares. Unfortunately, they are quiet hard to photograph. When they are close and not moving they are inevitably obscured by some spindly shrubs, and as soon as you manoeuvre yourself into clear view they jump off and by the time one grabs the camera and point in the right direction they are gone.
Despite going down the Opal road, we didn’t actually see any Opals. One of the reasons, maybe, was that we weren’t really sure, and truth be told we are none the wiser now, what unpolished Opals would actually look like. There were plenty of little dusty stones around everywhere, but were any of them Opals? We shall never know.
Navigation became a little bit trickier about half way into this journey. Whilst the map was so far quite accurate, suddenly there were plenty of additional junctions. With road signs being rather sparse, it was inevitable that at some point we would pick a wrong turn. After climbing up a precariously steep and awkward hill, the track suddenly seemed to turn into a “serious 4 wheel drive” terrain. Serious meant serious and the clearance of our car was nowhere near high enough to even attempt this stretch, never mind missing the true 4 wheel power.After a short break to enjoy the fantastic views from where we were, I did a little foot patrol and spotted the real path down in the valley behind us. M did a great job getting us and the car down the hill again, although at one point I had to get out and give some steering hints to avoid dangerously large obstacles. Something that I repeated several times on the next couple of miles long stretch, in addition to occasionally deploying brute force, moving some of the high pointy rocks out of M’s way.
For a while, all went well and we avoided all the wrong unmarked paths, having fun tackling the challenging bits. And then we hit the Nightmare Gulch. Initially, we were congratulating ourselves that according to the map, we were at the right side of it i.e. the not so serious 4-wheel drive. This was almost immediately confirmed by a rare sign proving we indeed were on the right track. However, after further few hundred meters, a couple of confusing signs and a not so clearly signposted trail closure, I hate to admit it but we were lost. Briefly consulting the map to see if there is a danger of hitting a non-Ford Escape friendly track, I decided to ignore the map altogether and go back to basics - we navigated by compass! “Compass?” - I hear you ask. “Where did you get compass?”Actually, it was one of the few remarkable features of our rental beast of a car. It had it built in. Even more remarkable though, is that we spotted these occasionally changing letters “S”, “NW” etc displayed on the dashboard quite early on into our journey, but didn’t quite pay it any attention. After a week of driving we finally worked out they were compass bearings, and a day after this amazing discovery we put it to practical use. As you read this blog today, you guessed right: it actually worked and we made it back.
Safely back at the highway, the temperature reached 107 °F, the highest we encountered in California so far. Thanks to our exciting but impromptu detour, it was getting late in the day and so after a brief discussion about the practicalities of sticking to our original plan, we decided to skip Joshua Tree National Park and head straight to the coast instead. Whilst this cut our planned holiday itinerary even further, it also marked the start of M planning our next US trip sometime next year. Starting in San Diego, driving up to Joshua Tree, Mojave Desert and Death Valley past all the sights we missed this time, on to Las Vegas and then a bit more exploring of Nevada state parks. But for now the reality was a long drive to the coast – engage cruise control and go.