The roar of gasoline and metal woke me as a nameless rider bolted through the middle of the Mojave Desert. A mile from the nearest road, I could still hear the blast of the motorcycle’s pipes echoing through the night. A quick glance at the moon told me it was just around midnight—January 1, 2018.
For what felt like an hour, I shook images of this ghost rider from my brain and shivered through a cold desert night. When I woke again, a new year was dawning over the shadowy mountains in the distance.
Leni and I had the unmarked camp to ourselves. A stone fire ring, some empty bottles and a scattered grove of joshua trees were our only company. We’d planned it that way: a getaway from civilization on one of the busiest nights of the year. Instead of countdowns and fireworks, we had a campfire and fairytales. And, as the old year faded, we strung a set of Christmas lights to one of the joshuas.
It kept a glowing vigil for most of the night.
Aside from the raucous rider, the night passed by in silence.
The Mojave is like that. I can say that now for sure. Though I’d driven through here once before in one of my first forays into the West, I’d never stayed for long. In 2015, I caught a purple sunset over I-40 and a jet back to Memphis. I’d cut through this remote and desolate part of America for only a few hours, but I never forgot the sunset. And, I never forgot the solitude.
So, after pounding nearly 2,000 miles of highway in the five days between Christmas and New Years, we’d arrived at this place: the Mojave National Preserve. It wasn’t the first park we’d been to—we’d battled crowds at the Grand Canyon and cold mountain nights above Death Valley—but this little slice of desert might have been the best. Where we had to shake the Grand Canyon crowds by hiking at night, and grit through 20-degree nights at Death Valley, the air in the Mojave was notably warmer, and the people were altogether missing.
Unlike the other parks, this place is empty. Mojave National Preserve is a mostly overlooked stepchild of the National Park System. It exists as a sort of sandy hermit’s rest between Barstow and Las Vegas, lumped smack in the middle of one of the most unforgiving landscapes in the country. The nearest major towns are hours away. For that matter, so are the kind of one-horse, single gas pump sort of villages that dot the Southwest from San Bernardino to Dallas.
You won’t find bears here. Only the rambling desert tortoise and occasional coyote call will remind you that you aren’t the only critter with legs within earshot.
Yet, in this emptiness we found what I think is probably the best way to bring in a new year. You don’t need to get wasted and fumble through a sea of neon and confetti. You don’t even need to be around other people. All you really need is the one thing we’re so anxious to be rid of every December 31st—time.
It takes time to reach it, but there’s something special out here.. There’s something surreal about watching the desert skies turn orange then purple then blue. There’s something about knowing the closest living creatures to you are either growing out of the ground or living in it.
And there’s something about hearing that ghost rider echoing past the remnants of 2017, the roar of the engine fading away like a bad dream that leaves only a crisp morning light in its wake.
I don’t know what 2018 will bring. No one does. But, I do know that if you’re tired of the usual New Year’s Day hangover and you want to start fresh, you could try by getting souled outside. You start the new year by getting lost.
You might just like it.
Happy New Year.