The Slower Desert

By Chris Clarke

Chris Clarke is a journalist, writer, activist, and co-host on the new podcast, “Ninety Miles from Needles.” Clarke has been interpreting the desert for more than 30 years. He is joined by co-host, Alicia Pike, a talented co-conspirator, and by the community of activists and others working to keep the desert whole.

I admit it: I’ve become one of those “older” guys who drives more slowly than other drivers would prefer.

Don’t get me wrong: I’m still a Californian and a South Westerner, which means I consider five or ten miles above the posted limit a reasonable rate of speed for most conditions. And I commit that habitual traffic infraction in the right-hand lane, unless there’s a good reason not to. When Google Maps tells me it’ll take me an hour and a half to get somewhere in the desert with no traffic, I usually figure that means I’ll be there in an hour fifteen.

But Einstein tells us that speed is relative, and the other drivers on the road are often outpacing me by 20 miles per hour and more. And so, I become the slow-driving old guy by default. It’s not usually a big deal, but every now and then I’ll pass a semi at a safe and sane 68 mph and someone will zoom up behind me all impatient-like and flash their brights into my rearview, then generally hang on my bumper until I can move back into the right lane. I usually tell myself they have merely made bad life choices and are in a huge hurry to get to their vacation rental so they can relax. Not that it’s just visitors who speed through the desert.

Us locals commit our share of infractions. Nowhere is that plainer than when people from the vicinity of Joshua Tree decide to head to Vegas. Their path takes them over Sheephole Pass into Mojave Trails National Monument, and from there into Mojave National Preserve, whose north boundary at Nipton Road is just 45 minutes from The Strip (or eight hours if there’s traffic).

All but that last stretch is on two-lane roads. That’s where I get cranky about people speeding.

The part of that route that goes through Mojave National Preserve has a posted 55 mil speed limit, for a couple of good reasons. First is that the roads through Mojave Preserve are famously bad, the result of years of desert weather and underfunding. The Park Service is doing what it can to address that situation, but in the meantime, it means that six-inch-deep potholes are not at all unheard of. Hit one of those at speed and you might end up like the young Marine I stopped to help a few years back, who had corkscrewed his Trans Am into the desert soil between a couple Joshua trees.

The other reason: the desert is losing way too much of its wildlife to fatal vehicle collisions. Morning Star Mine Road in the Preserve is a tortoise mortality hotspot. California’s state reptiles evolved in a desert without motor vehicles, or indeed any vehicles. The tortoises aren’t able to deal with speeding traffic. Neither are the rosy boas, or the September tarantulas. Speed fast enough, and you could even take out critters that are fleet of foot, like desert kit foxes, or coyotes, or desert bighorn sheep. You do NOT want one of those hitting your windshield at a hundred miles per hour.

Even without the prospect of creating native creature roadkill, I find it’s in my interest to slow down a little. You just don’t see things when you speed past them. The faster you go, the more your field of vision limits itself to the blacktop. Slow down and your world expands. Why not drink in the awe-inspiring landscape as much as possible? Pay attention to the colors of the sky, the shapes of the hills outlined in shadow as the sun moves, the patterns in the local geology and changes in the vegetation. Your trip may take a little longer, but you won’t find it nearly as boring or aggravating.

Besides, what better way to make more time in your life to listen to podcasts? My bud Alicia Pike and I host the perfect desert driving podcast, 90 Miles from Needles, where we talk about protecting the desert. It’s available at 90milesfromneedles.com. So please don’t drive recklessly. We need all the listeners we can get.

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