LOS Angeles is a desert (or almost), but sometimes you want even more desert. What you do then is get in the car and take the 10 to the 405 to the 5 to the 14, or the 55 to the 91 to the 15, or some other combination of highways heading roughly northeast from the city, and after an hour and a half or two hours the expanses of pavement have narrowed, the sky is a bright blue tinged with smog, and empty, unmistakable desert is all around. Brown hills dotted with small bushes as regularly spaced as beard stubble rise on the horizon; low brush beside the road holds shreds of fluttering trash. A canyon is filled with boulders heaped up like paperwork you'll never get to. Then comes a broad flat plain of nothing but gray sand and rocks, with a single anomalous object -- an orange traffic cone, the hood from a barbecue grill resting in the middle distance, as if to aid perspective.
If you stay on the 15 toward Las Vegas and night falls, the four lanes of headlights and taillights become a string dwindling far across the darkness. Suddenly, at the Nevada border, the lit-up casino town of Primm appears, as gaudy as a funhouse entrance. I don't go that way, though; for some reason, Las Vegas does not interest me. Instead I take the 14 north through the high-desert town of Mojave. Just past there a field of wind turbines hums in the wind, the long, propellerlike blades on towers eighty feet high throwing giant shadows as they turn, some clockwise, some counterclockwise. Across the highway from them, to the west, an airfield full of used passenger jets bleaches in the sun. The map shows the Los Angeles Aqueduct as a blue line running nearby. In fact the aqueduct here is an imposing white pipe eight feet across that wanders the contours of the dirt-bike-furrowed hills like a garden hose. From 14 I cut across on a two-lane road to the old mining town of Randsburg, and from there continue to Trona, a lakeside town whose lake dried up 20,000 years ago, leaving a bone-white salt flat that is said to contain half the natural elements known to man. IMC Chemicals, a sprawling enterprise, now mines the flat; Trona smells like sulfur and is windy, gritty, and hot. Past Trona, over some hills and across another vast and shimmering desert flat, is the western boundary of Death Valley National Park.