Once upon a time Baker, CA was a thriving junction town famous for the Mad Greek diner, full service gas stations, hotels for the weary, a gateway into the Mojave Desert Preserve, and center-point between L.A. and Las Vegas. Today however, Baker is beaten up and casts a sad shadow, reminding all who can remember that it once did have a heyday.
The town’s most prominent feature is a 134-foot “teller of temperatures”, dubbed “the world’s tallest thermometer”. Visible for miles, and recently restored, its height commemorates the hottest day ever recorded; 134 °F. Let’s hope we don’t see 135 °F anytime soon!
Baker has a population of 735 but it’s dwindling.
We rolled into Baker from the north which is a route few take as it’s the back of the town. We drove past a mirage we thought was a lake, fields of desert grass, and an impressive new school on the towns outskirts. On first impressions Baker seemed to be doing just fine.
Main street runs parallel to the highway and was at one time the road used by many to scoot out from the coast to Vegas looking forward to a weekend of gambling in Sin City. Today it is a hub of fast food eateries, old unused buildings, and vacant lots; traveled only by those who exited the interstate in need of fuel for themselves or their car.
The urban decay we think of as having sole ownership of inner cities is alive and well in Baker. If it weren’t for the mega gas stations there would be little reason to stop here, unless you had a hankering for spanakopita with a hearty Oompa!
The desert towns of the Mojave are being reabsorbed.
Our intention had been to find a hotel for the night and rest up. It had been a long day which had come on the heels of a long night; see Box Beetles. We had seen the sun rise and now all of a sudden it was 6pm. One of the great things about the desert, besides the oven-like heat, is the length of the days. They go on and on. We had another four hours left in this one.
There was nowhere to stay in Baker.
The remnants of hotels lay as roadside economic wreckage. We wandered through one; Arnes Royal Hawaiian. In its day it must have been proud; it had the look of a 50’s Vegas hotel complete with a cluster of heart-broken palm trees that swayed out from the neon sign displaying its name.
The inside courtyard looked more like a battle zone from a sci-fi movie. The swimming pool was empty apart from a brackish puddle in the deep end. All the room doors were smashed open and windows had suffered the same fate. Misspelled graffiti degraded the place even more with words like “Pigs Fuch Off” and another giving homage to the Shining stated “RedRum” on the wall of a wood-paneled room.
It was fascinating in a macabre kind of way.
We decided to keep moving and after a fill up we headed south towards a road all others were veering away from. We entered through the gates of the Mojave Preserve in the early evening and for the next two hours we saw almost no sign of life.
We did see a sign that warned us to “Watch for Tortoise” but we never saw him.
We were in the heart of the desert again and if I drove on the left of the road, the right, or down the middle it made no difference to our safety. We saw only one other vehicle in the two hours we were on that road and I spotted him about 5 minutes prior to us passing by.
The preserve was different from other parts of the desert we had driven through. It was more tundra than sand, more seared than burnt, more greenish than brown. It gave off the appearance, true or not, that it was more survivable if your car were to break down.
After two hours we reached Route 66 and swung right. Our destination and place of rest for the night was to be Barstow. Driving Route 66 is, and I know this is a cliché, a step back in time to an era of road travel that was casual, unhurried, interesting, and peaceful. Of course this was all enhanced by the fact that we were the only ones on the road.
Seems amazing that you can still drive for hours in the US and see no-one else.
We stopped briefly in the down of Daged and watched a military train go by loaded with tanks, missiles, armored cars, and other weapons of war. The train must have been two miles long; its slow pace making it seem even longer. Where it was heading was a mystery.
What struck me though was not just the sheer size of the shipment but the fact that it coursed its way through the figurative backwaters of America; out of sight, out of mind was the expression that rang in my head.
We entered Barstow as the sun set. We had a gorgeous meal of Mexican food, looked forward to our trip tomorrow as we would explore more of Route 66, and crashed out praying the box beetles had been left far behind.