It's tradition with many families in this part of southern California to head to the desert for the Thanksgiving holiday, so when we were invited to spend the long weekend with Bill's friend John and his family "somewhere in the Mojave north of Barstow" where they had been spending Thanksgiving for the past twenty years we eagerly accepted despite the weather forecast that was calling for record low temperatures. I was even more excited when I found out (24 hours before we were due to leave) that we'd be at Cuddeback Lake, a six-mile long, two and half mile wide dry lake bed that is a favorite spot for filming car commercials. Surrounded by the Almond Mountains, Red Mountain, the Lava Mountains, the Black Hills, the Gravel Hills, Rand Mountains, Fremont Peak, two wilderness areas - Golden Valley and Grass Valley, plenty of old mine sites, and old gunnery range and landing strip, there is plenty to explore in this area.
Cuddeback Lake is managed by the BLM and is probably best known to the OHV crowd. Its proximity to Spangler Hills and the Rand Management Area make for endless miles of trails through various terrain and Cuddeback is a great location for families to set up base camp with the motorhomes and trailers. I know, doesn't sound like my typical location, but despite the large number of people there it didn't feel the least bit crowded and it was nice to share camp with John and his extended family (I think we had 8 motorhomes at our camp). Base camps were well spread out and although the main trails get a lot of motorcycle and ATV traffic, especially during the Thanksgiving holiday, once we were off the beaten path we felt like the only ones out there.
After setting up and camp and going on a short get-acquainted with the entire group of trucks, bikes and ATVs to a nearby smaller dry lake bed, Bill and I set out for the opposite of Cuddeback to explore Grass Valley and pay our respects at the Husky Memorial. Originally a memorial for Jim Ericksen created by his family who buried his bike and scattered his ashes to the wind in this remote location, it now contains memorials for many who have died riding in the desert and is a sacred place for desert riders. We didn't see many people on the trail so we were surprised to see how many people had made the pilgrimage to the middle of nowhere to pay their respects. It made sense once we realized that most of them were the family and friends of the people memorialized, spending Thanksgiving in the desert like they always do.
While we there we met the widow of Phillip Dunn, one of the men memorialized who died while riding with family Memorial Day weekend 2006. She told us that his was the second one placed and how much it means to her that others have followed suit, and to see all of the people coming out to pay their respects. Some of the memorials really are works of art but it was tough to get any photos because it was wall to wall people. This site has a lot of info.
After more exploring and dinner back at camp, someone got the idea to do a night run up Fremont Peak to the Monarch Rand Gold Mine and the adults packed into the vehicles. The moon wasn't up yet and racing across a dry lake bed in the pitch dark for the first time is a surreal experience but our friends knew the area well and soon we were climbing up Fremont Peak. There is a parking area for 2WD vehicles, but 4WD can continue right up to the mine shaft. When we reached the top we watched the most beautiful red three quarter waning moon rise and we all stood in silence watching. I debated setting up my tripod and camera for half a second, but I knew that by the time I had everything set up the moment would be over, and some moments are meant to just be experienced.
Grabbing flashlights we entered the tunnel in the side of the mountain (watch your head!) and I had only a momentary flash of wondering if there were bats inside. Way back in the tunnel the mine shaft is a wide opening that goes straight down 2500 feet (or so I've read). Hold on tightly to the little ones because there is nothing to keep you safe here except common sense. One of the guys told us about the time he came up to find a couple stuck in the hole in the wall behind us. They had thought that was the best approach, got stuck and scared with that deep gaping hole in front of them, and had to wait for hours until someone came to help them out.
We took a more technical route back to camp and I don't know how we found a steeper, rougher climb when we were supposed to be going back down, but there was one spot on the trail that had John thinking twice. He eventually decided to tackle it and it wasn't as bad as it looked. That night run was an awesome experience and the highlight of the trip for me.
Back at camp Bill announced that our thermometer read 19 degrees. Thanks Bill, I wasn't cold until you said that! Everyone had to confirm for themselves and sure enough, 19 degrees across the board. After a few warming drinks, our friends settled in to their warm sturdy motorhomes while the two idiots with the only tent for miles around (us!) settled in for what would be the coldest night of camping we've ever experienced so far.
That's all for now, gotta run...more later!