The Compensations of the Desert

In the way that good ideas sometimes suddenly appear in front of you, without an obvious cause or inciting incident, one day someone in the Rapha North America office suggested that we should ride across the Mojave Desert. The idea’s appeal had something to do with getting to CrossVegas and Interbike in an interesting fashion, and something to do with the mental respite afforded by being out of cell phone signal for two days, but more than anything it appealed to our curiosity. We don’t often get the chance to ride road bikes in the Mojave.

So, in the early hours of the morning before CrossVegas, nine of us stood in the parking lot of a motel in 29 Palms, ready to ride across the desert. We were primed for sunshine, heat, and inhospitable conditions – although the conditions were tamed by uncharacteristic cloud coverage and several spells of rain.

The Mojave Desert has a few hallucinatory tricks up its sleeve, and when you ride across it you become fully acquainted with all of them. The first is the way the desert landscape plays with distance, making every desolate outpost seem like an enormous and distant city even when it’s just a small collection of abandoned buildings three miles down the road. The second is caused by the Mojave’s interminable false flats, which collect 2,000ft of elevation without ever seeming to become ‘a climb’, and are so long and grinding that they make you question whether you’ll ever ride downhill again in your life.

And the Mojave’s third trick has to do with the desert’s ribbon-like roads, which seem to float a couple of feet off of the sand, rising and falling steadily every couple of meters. The sight is almost impossible to describe, aside from saying that the roads’ ripples and folds make them look like a tablecloth that hasn’t been set right.

The combined effect of these tricks is to make you feel as if you’re never quite as certain of the basic facts of your ride as you normally would be. Everywhere seems impossibly far, until suddenly you’re there. The climbs look flat, until you look over your shoulder and realize that you’ve ridden your way to the crest of an enormous valley. With its isolation, sweeping vistas, and deprivation, the desert is meant to hold the promise of sweaty transcendence – but if that isn’t quite within reach, then at least the Mojave can give you the feeling of being mildly out of sorts.

We headed north, linking up dirt tracks with paved roads, aiming for the halfway point of a roadside campground in the Mojave National Preserve. The phrase ‘roadside camping’ undersells the experience a bit, as if the campsite was made for weary drivers who need somewhere to catch a few minutes of shuteye. Instead, the campsite was an unexpected gem, nestled between two mountain peaks and dotted with enormous boulders, hundreds of gnarly cacti, and at least a couple of small scorpions. It was the sort of place that makes you vow to return and fully enjoy its beauty, maybe when it’s not raining quite so much.

This part of the world is littered with abandoned buildings and small ghost towns. The moment people leave, the desert starts reclaiming its land – sand creeps up to the walls, paint bleaches in the light, and over time every structure begins to look the same, like blocks of forgotten beige concrete. The exception to this rule is Kelso Depot, a town almost directly in the middle of the Mojave National Preserve, which shines with restored mid-century charm. Kelso started as a shed to house the helper engines needed to push steam trains up the long, grinding climbs of the desert, and a tap to refill their boilers. By the late 1930s, Kelso housed 2000 souls, and in the center of the town sat a well-appointed hotel and restaurant, built out with hardwood stools polished to a gleam and a bar cut from cool marble.

Modern diesel trains did away with the need for Kelso’s helper engines, so the town has been deserted, preserved and repurposed as the visitor center of the park. Part of the main building hosts a small exhibition about life in the desert over the years, with suitably inspiring quotes on the walls for sun-struck visitors to appreciate. The best of the bunch is taken from Mary Hunter Austin’s The Land of Little Rain: “For all the toll the desert takes of a man it gives compensations, deep breaths, deep sleep, and the communion of the stars.”

Las Vegas sits in a bowl, enclosed by mountains, so if you ever ride into the city you’ll more than likely spend the last hour clipping along a descent that leads directly into an abyss of bright lights and tall buildings. The speed of the transition is discomfiting – one moment you’re dragging yourself through the sand, dealing with the desert’s tolls and compensations, and suddenly you’re just a sweat-stained cyclist in the lobby of a Las Vegas hotel, looking entirely out of place and making the most of the air conditioning.