Giant cattle skull, Amado, Arizona.
Giant cattle skull, Amado, Arizona.

Mirages in the Desert

Sooner or later, your road trips take you across the desert.

It's hot, bleak, inhospitable. But few modern vacationers parch out and croak on US desert highways -- in contrast to Sahara tourists, who still occasionally end up drinking stranded SUV battery water. If you don't trust your GPS and smartphone maps too much, the American desert is at worst an inconvenience -- a flat, well-paved stretch with less per mile amusement than lush tourist avenues of more temperate zones (excepting Las Vegas, the greatest oasis ever. But we'll leave that for another rant...).

Desert View Tower.
Desert View Tower.

Still, the rare desert attraction is rewarding in its own way. Mile after mile of roasted nothing... then in the distance, heat and light interlace, resolving into a staircase to nowhere, or a giant cattle skull (Amado, AZ). For arid thrills, here are a few tips . . .

1. Remember: Ice the cooler

Always plan summer desert crossings carefully -- once there, you'll only become confused and irritable. Best to head in one direction, rather than driving in circles until out of gas. From Southern California, speed east onto a delusional desertscape peppered with wind turbines, the World's Largest Thermometer, or the big dinosaurs of Cabazon. You can knock all you want on the door at the Center of the World pyramid. No one is home. Where is the mayor? He won't be back until it's cool again in the Fall.

Demon from Imlay.
Demon from Imlay.

Further out, even more intense personal visions appear.

The Desert View Tower, Jacumba, CA, is a solitary, 70-foot tall structure of rough stone, built in the 1920s. It is next to a patchwork of weird animal carvings in sun-bleached boulders. They were made during the Depression by a W.T. Ratliffe. Why? We don't know. It's too hot, get back in the car...

Leonard Knight's painted Salvation Mountain glistens west of the Salton Sea in Niland, CA, thought by some bureaucrats to be more toxic threat than work of art. Personally, we'd like to see this entire region given a fresh coat of Day-Glo paint.

Rhyolite, NV, is home to an odd assortment of mirages. There is a house made of bottles, and a creepy abstract version of the Last Supper sculpted into shrouded white figures. "Lady Desert," (AKA Venus of Rhyolite) is a 25-foot tall nude woman made from cinder blocks.

2. Drinking blood only makes you thirstier

Thunder Mountain Folk Art Park may still be home to "Naked Man Greets the Day," if vandals haven't carried him off. This gritty folk art assemblage is next to I-80 in Imlay, Nevada, easily accessible to both visitors and vandals in the early 1990s. Later it became a Nevada State Historic Site, which meant they had spent money roping it all off, and you couldn't go in anymore. Still, there are many naked concrete women.

It was built by Chief Rolling Mountain Thunder in the late 60s into the 70s.

3. Last rational thought: Who put those tennis balls up there?

Perhaps the strangest apparition we've seen is on the salt flats of western Utah, near the Nevada border. It is called Metaphor: The Tree of Utah, an 87-foot tall sculptural mutation that is, well, idiotic-looking.

Metaphor is a big metal pipe sticking in the air with giant striped spheres stuck on to it. Visible from I-80 about 25 miles east of Wendover, the state doesn't want people stopping, and have plastered "Emergency Parking Only" signs along the highway.

The desert is fickle. Some attractions, like Metaphor, may last for years and anger visiting star travelers in the distant future. Other attractions wither and blow away after a season or two. What's that? Thought you saw Biblical scenes sculpted in sand, celebrities painted on toilet seats?

Poof! Like mirages, they are gone.

Also see: Casa Grande | The Thing?

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April 8, 2020

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