Dead Cows and Sand Dunes

We’re barely inside the Mojave National Preserve when I see the cow. Actually, I smell it first.

The town is called Cima, though town is a pretty generous word for it. There’s a general store though, so we pull over to see if it’s open. It’s not.

I roll down my window to take a picture of a rusted old train car near the store. That’s when the smell hits me. Sort of a sewage smell, but unlike anything I’ve experienced before. I look around and there’s the cow, hanging by its feet, stripped of skin, and in the process of being butchered by three men who look way more comfortable in Mojave than I ever will.

Train car in Cima

Here’s the thing: I was raised in a city. Sure, I love to spend time away from civilization. And yeah, I have fantasies of living on a little farm in some forgotten corner of the world. But that doesn’t change the fact that I was raised in a city. I get my meat from the grocery store. I’m sort of transfixed by the whole thing. I’ve never seen an animal being butchered, let alone stumbled onto an animal being butchered in the middle of the desert.

Oh man, the smell.

Not a blood smell. Not the smell of a dead animal that’s starting to rot. Those are smells that, while not exactly familiar, at least I could recognize. This is different. Pure sewagey awfulness. Steve, my fiancé, says they must have just opened the bowels.

Fascinating and horrifying.

You know in books or cop shows or whatever, people walk into a house where a massacre just happened and there’s all this talk about the smell? I always assumed it was the smell of rot that hit them. But I guess there are all sorts of smells that come with death. I file this away in my mind in case I ever need it for a scene I’m writing.

And so begins my adventure in the Mojave National Preserve.

I’ve explored so much of the area around Vegas that it’s odd I haven’t been to the preserve earlier. I didn’t even know about it until I started seeing it pop up on the abandoned places forums I frequent. Supposedly the Mojave National Preserve has lots of abandoned mines and old shacks. I know I’m not going to find the secret haunted mansion of my dreams, but I live in the desert, I’ll take what I can get.

The first thing I get is a dead animal. Also, Joshua trees.

What must it have been like for the people who first settled this area? People coming from the lush green forests of the east. To see a Joshua tree for the first time… They’re so twisted and harsh looking. They could be from an alien planet. When I’m out in the desert I love to imagine what it would have been like to cross it in a covered wagon. Starting a new life in the west. The landscape letting you know you’ve left everything comfortable and familiar behind. Long behind. Of course I’ve seen roughly a billion Joshua trees in my life, but not like this. The Mojave National Preserve has a Joshua tree forest. I didn’t even know they could get so big. Towering over the car, reaching their spindly arms across the road. The Joshua trees I’m used to seeing on my desert adventures don’t even come close to this.

The ghost town of Kelso is about half an hour away from the butchered cow. Unlike most ghost towns in the area, Kelso wasn’t a mining town. It was a stopping point for the railroad. The cool thing is that the train station is still standing and in shockingly good condition. The less cool thing is that the station now houses a museum. I don’t have any issue with museums. I just would have preferred an abandoned train station.

We wander the three floors of the Kelso Depot and it’s all dark wood and creaking floors. I’m reminded of how much I love being in old places.

First, there’s the smell. That musty old building smell. You’d know you were someplace old without having to open your eyes. And the way the floors creak, that’s something else I can’t get enough of. Probably not many people dream of living in a house with really creaky wooden floors, but I do.

The best part is feeling all that history pressing down on you. Running your hand along a bannister and knowing how many people before you did the exact same thing. Women in long skirts and men in dusty boots. Knowing that every single one of those people had stories of their own. They had lives. Lives just as rich and complex as my own. I wish I could know all of them. Unlock all the stories of all the people who came before me. We’re separated by decades, we can never even begin to know each other, and the only thing we have in common is that we’ve stood in the exact same place, touched the same window sill or doorknob or stair bannister. In old buildings all the stories and lives pile up on top of each other.

After Kelso we drive to Baker because that’s the only place to get food. On the way there we see a dead tortoise in the road.

So that’s two dead animals. In Baker we get alien jerky because it’s practically a requirement. They’re restoring the “World’s Largest Thermometer” which makes me happy. It reminds me of summer trips to California when I was little, when you’d drive into town and see the temperature creeping past a hundred degrees.

Will I ever be able to love another place as much as I love the desert?

Back in the preserve we head to the Kelso Dunes. Steve sees a vulture, but I miss it. I wonder if it was swooping down on yet another dead animal.

The dunes are at the end of a long dirt road. There’s a moderate hike after that. I’ve never seen sand dunes before. They’re different that I imagined. Larger, for one. More spotted with brush. But the sand itself is perfect, a fine as beach sand. There are ripples in it from the wind. I look for the sidewinder tracks but don’t see any. I’m slightly disappointed but remind myself I don’t really want to encounter a rattlesnake.

Hiking through sand is pretty brutal, but awesome. If you step a certain way and balance just right you can prevent yourself from sinking. Sort of like using snowshoes. Not that I have any experience with snowshoes, though it’s something I’d really like to try.

The sun is hot and the wind is blowing gritty sand in my face. It’s not annoying though. It’s perfect. I’m in an adventure. I’m Roland chasing after the man in black. I’m a survivor of the apocalypse. I’m Clint Eastwood.

How can anyone not find beauty in the desert?

We spend some more time exploring, then head back to Vegas. No abandoned buildings. Not the type I was hoping for, anyway. I didn’t even see a single mine (probably for the best since I always have the urge to go in them despite knowing how very stupid that is).

I guess next time I go to the preserve I should have a plan. Actually find out where these little desert shacks are instead of hoping to run into one. There are so many dirt roads, after all. It’s impossible to drive down them all or anticipate what might be at the end of them.

Not that the trip was a waste. I saw some things I hadn’t before. Really, what more can you ask from an adventure?

Kelso Jail


Kelso Post Office

Kelso Depot

Kelso Train Station

Abandoned Mojave National Preserve

Kelso Dunes