Driving the Desert at Night

The trip to California was far more fun than I thought it would be. The hosts were friendly and open, the spaces were perfect for teaching, the participants were warm and welcoming and eager to try new things.  The weather was. . . well, it rained, but that was fine, except one of my windshield wipers didn’t work.

For that reason, I decided to drive home after class on Sunday. With more rain predicted, I didn’t want one wiper not working. After class, I packed up, grabbed a sandwich from The Great Harvest Bread Company across the street (told them I was driving and they wrapped a huge sandwich so I could eat in the car).

Desert towns at night, NASA

My goal was to be through the San Bernadino Mountains before nightfall. I love the trip between L.A. and Phoenix. Coming home, you drive L.A. traffic till it thins out. You then curve through foothills, until you get to Redlands. Suddenly, you are in the mountains. The San Bernadinos tower over you, capped with snow. The sun was setting and the snow was orange and pink while I drove through the bunny-gray twilight below. What you don’t notice in the gathering dark is the shift from green, lush plateau to the desert. By the time you are in Banning, you are in the desert. It was dark. I smiled at the signs that said, “Indio and Desert Towns.” It sounded mysterious. It was night.

There aren’t any lights along the freeway, but the road has reflective stripes and markers, so you can feel your way along the path. Trucks make up about 80 percent of the traffic; you follow a string of red lights, and across the space between the East and West-bound lanes, you see headlights topped by rows of amber truck lights.

The Milky Way on a clear night, NASA

It’s a driving experience like no other. The average speed is about 90 mph, despite the signs that say 75 mph. You are driving through a tunnel of darkness. There aren’t many exits, and in addition to telling you that you are exiting at Indio or Bermuda Dunes or Wiley’s Well, the signs tell you it’s 65 miles to the next exit. There’s not much out there except mountains you don’t see.

You drive through a tunnel of darkness, hooked into a line of lights. The road climbs and at the top you see a scatter of sparkling lights in the distance. A town. The air lifts away from your car as it gets brighter, but you press on and the dark settles close around your car again.

Finally I pulled over into the break-down lane. I got out of the car and stretched. And looked up. What you don’t see when you are driving is the heavy sky, spangled with stars. So many it was breath-taking. I haven’t seen the Milky Way in 20 years, but it is still there. I didn’t want to get back into the car, but I was still 200 miles from home.

And then, like counting the beads on a rosary, I was back in a line of trucks, pushing ahead, sliding through the few towns that manage to exist in the desert. I wonder what those people do for a living, a hundred miles from a hospital or airport. It was quiet, no answers.

The dark comes right up to the edge of the road on those drives. You don’t see the mountains, although you can feel them.

You slide into Blythe, clinging to the banks of the Colorado, and then you are back in Arizona, on the way to Quartzsite, Pioneer and Hope. You know when you are in the farming communities of Tonopah and Buckeye by the feel of the air. Less dry, more green. You speed on through the night.

And then, just as you begin to think there isn’t an end to this road, the horizon turns from black to brown. There is a distinct color band that signals a big city before you see the start of the freeway lights. And then you are back on freeways with exit ramps every mile, and you feel a little relieved and a little sad to leave that enormous space of dark unknown behind.

Quinn McDonald lives in the Sonoran Desert. She is a creativity coach and teaches what she knows.