Post #83: Not quite Mexico

March 18, 2021

It was a dark and stormy night. Actually, it was morning and it was a bit drizzly and partly cloudy but I always wanted to write that. We’d prepped the night before for a minimum two-week trip and we were feeling the excitement of a new voyage. 

Our plan was first to spend time in Quartzsite Arizona, the Mecca of all things boondockery. We heard about the town over a year ago and wanted to see it once we were fully vaccinated. The small town has about 4,000 residents but during the winter, an estimated 500,000 to 1,500,000 people come and RV, camp, vanlife, boondock, bikedock, or just wander in for the season on the nearby BLM lands. As you can imagine, there are lots of characters there (see the movie Nomadland). We hoped to get a taste of the place before the temporary population started leaving for the season. More of Arizona was in the plans, as well as New Mexico, and possibly Nevada and southern Colorado, depending on weather and our moods. 

We left at 9:30 am, assuming we’d drive 4-500 miles and find a place to boondock. Hours later, we pulled off of the interstate northwest of San Bernardino onto a small road that would lead us to a place identified on iOverlander as a spot to camp in the San Bernardino National Forest. 

As we exited the highway, we passed through an agricultural area, replete with locals selling everything from tacos to coconuts to home decor to gasoline (from containers loaded onto a pickup), that could have been a scene straight out of Baja California, Mexico.

Locals selling Mexican food, gasoline, and more in a dusty lot beside a twisted Joshua tree
Little Lost Lake

We then turned down a dirt road into the more-like-desert-than-forest national forest. It was great to be off of the interstate and we enjoyed the hilly, twisting dirt road. Not long after, we found the campsite and it was quite pretty, situated near tiny “Lost Lake.” The lake, fed by a deep underground spring, formed as a result of the nearby San Andreas and San Jacinto faults crossing within a half-mile of each other. The area is so unstable that railroad crews have to come out every six months to adjust the nearby tracks. Unfortunately, the potential campsite was filled with trash and what appeared to be gang graffiti and there were a number of somewhat beat up-looking cars parked in the nearby gravel lot. We didn’t feel comfortable there so we continued.

The dirt road soon emerged from the national forest and deposited us directly onto old Route 66 for a few miles before we returned to the highway. We were driving southeast on CA Hwy 210 when suddenly a few hundred yards up the hill ahead of us a van swerved, struck an SUV (or maybe the other way, it was unclear) and both vehicles ran off the road in a cloud of flying car parts and dust. The van had run off the highway on the opposite side of the road and was still moving as we passed it. We could see major damage and several airbags deployed. We then came upon the SUV, pulled over onto the shoulder on our side. A man and a woman were outside the SUV, the woman holding a small child. They all seemed unhurt, though the SUV was completely caved in in the back. We pulled over and Susan called 911. So much happened so fast it was hard to know how many cars were involved, though we were afraid the occupants of the van, now a half mile behind us on the other side of the highway, probably were hurt. It was a sobering thought that had we been ten seconds ahead, we’d have been in the middle of it. Afterward, we didn’t mind too much when the usual San Bernardino traffic slowed us for an hour until we reached Interstate 10.

We had a distant view of the lights of Palm Springs
It was too dark to know what our campsite looked like. This night-mode photo gave us some idea of what to expect once the sun came up

An hour or so later, the sun went down behind the San Jacinto Mountains and we turned off the interstate at Desert Hot Springs. About 5 miles away from the highway, we turned onto a dirt road where we knew there were some pullouts where we could camp on BLM land. Finally, the truck’s lights found a tiny parking area near a trailhead that was empty and level. A crescent moon barely illuminated some low mountains near us. Behind us were the lights of Palm Springs, above us, stars. After a cold dinner, accompanied by distant coyote howls, we turned in. It was almost 70 degrees, the warmest camping we’d experienced in a while, and we expected to sleep well.

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