Enjoy the Journey: The Less Traveled Road to King of the Hammers
Too many times, we are in a hurry to get from point A to point B. Driving becomes a task instead of an adventure. Interstates and chain restaurants become mile markers. The goal becomes to just “get there” or “survive the trip” instead of a journey that drives a sense of wonder and excitement. The King of the Hammers race is such a unique experience that I wanted my road from Arkansas to Johnson Valley, CA, to be more than mundane. When using Google Maps to plan my trip, I selected “Avoid highways,” “Avoid tolls,” and “Avoid ferries.” It added a few hours to my travel time, but it charted a backroad adventure across Oklahoma, Texas, New Mexico, Arizona and California.
The FJ was packed, the Nitto Mud Grapplers aired up, the route selected, and the only thing left to do was to keep an eye out for things I would normally miss when blowing across country on the interstate. Moving through Oklahoma, it became easy to see the impact of boom times on cities. Next to a new Walmart, I found an old Five-and-Dime that had been abandoned a decade before. Broken windows, ancient cash registers, and an old console TV were the only inhabitants. The beauty of wandering across the country is that you can stop when you would like and check things out. Sometimes, I can be like stepping into a time machine. Take the time to stop.
I continued wandering across the US though Texas and across wide open plains filled with cattle and windmills. As the sun was setting, my world became a complex tapestry of desert, mountains, trees, and wide-open spaces. I eased into New Mexico and soon came upon Roswell, NM. You hear the stories, you want to believe, but you just feel odd going through there. Just when you feel you have survived, you go through a little small town. At first, I thought I was just tired. I had been driving for 16 hours at this point, but I thought I saw the lights pulsing on every single porch in town. In unison. Aliens indeed! After I cleared town, I pulled over to clear my head.
Looking up, I had to stop and take a look at the brilliant display of stars in the sky. Until you are out in the middle of nowhere, without any city lights and no moon, it's hard to remember how they seem to go on forever. Despite the severe desert cold, I broke out the tripod and tried my hand at some night photography. You just don’t get experiences like this at a truck stop in Tucumcari. In the quiet night air, I just took time to think, look, and exhale.
Morning broke bright and cold and I pushed on through the White Mountains and into Arizona. Did you know there is a city called “Pie Town?” They have multiple diners. They all serve pie. They have a pie festival. They have the Pie Town News posted on a bulletin board in the center of town. After Pie Town, you feel like you are in the old west. Two lanes cut through barren land scape as you start to get into high desert, and you forget that other people exist. Your mind starts to play tricks on you. You imagine traveling through there on horses or in wagons. You stop at some ruins and discover art on the backside of the blocks. The time machine factor is strong.
Then you happen across the VLA. The VLA (or Very Large Array) is what you see in sci-fi movies with all the giant satellite dishes pointed at the sky listening for alien iTunes. As it disappears in your rear-view mirror, you wonder if it really happened.
Departing from Arizona after having dinner with friends, my journey continued into California, again taking backroads through Parker and Joshua Tree and experiencing wide open spaces. There are so many stories along the side of the road. One of the most fascinating to me along the way was the Shoe Fence.
You are cruising through the desert with train tracks on your right, when you do a double take. There is a fence. It’s covered in shoes. You have to turn around. There is a story behind it, but you need to discover it yourself. That’s the point of the journey. While you are there, look for the Dusty Gnome sticker at the gas station.
Dropping into Johnson Valley, it still takes my breath away at the sheer size and scope of this very special place. Right in the middle is Hammertown, a gypsy city that has sprung up out of the desert for the event. I’m ready to see people, but not yet. First, I need to do a little more exploring and enjoy the feeling of freedom that comes from a loosely planned road trip that intentionally includes random stops. Despite being in the desert, it is possible to find mud. I was happy to get to actually use my Nitto Mud Grapplers!
Was it worth it? You bet. Take the time to wander, plan a little extra time in your trip to not have a plan, but instead to have an experience. I was never more than a short drive back up to the interstate if I needed to speed things up, yet I was in a completely different world for two and half days. We all need to unplug. We all need to escape.
Sometimes all you have to do is take a backroad and your soul will feel better. Next up: the strange and wonderful world of Hammertown. I’ll see you on the Lakebed!
Be sure to watch the King of the Hammers live, right here!