When I was young my grandparents took my brother, sister and me on a road trip from our home in the Victor Valley, California to their home in New Mexico, spending a night in Laughlin, Nevada on the way. My exposure to the desert up until then was limited to the parcels of undeveloped private land scattered across the Victor Valley and surrounding its edges where my brother and I would play, spending most of our time in a 90 acre plot across the street from our home. At the time, that corner of the desert seemed to offer endless opportunity for exploration, riding our bikes, finding lizards, identifying different wildflowers and insects, before even that lot was bulldozed for a new housing development.
I remember staring out the window of my grandparent's car on that trip as we traversed Interstate 40, and eventually cutting up Highway 95 in Nevada to Laughlin, taking a dirt road that I think may have been Christmas Tree Pass. I remember feeling endless amazement as the landscape unfolded. Valley after vast valley, interrupted only by the desert mountain ranges that seemed to beckon one to climb them and enjoy a long gaze upon the majesty of the desert.
My view of the desert then was uncluttered by the knowledge I have now. I was not burdened by the names of mountains and valleys, by our maps of different jurisdictions and land use designations, of grazing allotments and areas of critical environmental concern. I didn't know about the studies that show how the highways isolate wildlife populations, of invasive plant species, or of proposed mines and energy projects that would one day threaten to undo the remaining landscape's wildness. I could just stare out at the desert and imagine what creatures and wonders existed across that big space, extrapolating from my knowledge that even the small desert lot by our home offered so many surprises.
I remember stopping to marvel at lava rocks, probably near the Pisgah lava flow and Route 66. I remember being confused by plants that looked like stunted Joshua trees that I would later know to be the Mojave yucca - common in the desert but not found in our 90 acre desert playground in the Victor Valley. And clusters of cactus, probably the dense Bigelow cholla along the highway before reaching Needles, California. I would let my imagination drift in the sweeping desert vistas.
We took this trip in the late 80s. Unbeknown to me then, conservation groups had been working with Senator Cranston, and then Senator Feinstein to designate new wilderness areas and national parks to protect parts of the landscape. That effort would eventually culminate in the California Desert Protection Act of 1994, protecting places that I would eventually enjoy visiting after college. Watching sunsets, photographing wildflowers, and listening to the coyotes sing. But the desert's offering of solitude and wildness remained in harm's way as energy companies proposed industrializing large tracts of the desert. My favorite campsites in the Mojave National Preserve, for example, could overlook valleys full of wind turbines and solar panels if action was not taken to protect this treasured landscape.
On February 12, 2016 - over two decades after that road trip introduced me to just how grand the desert truly is - the President designated the Mojave Trails National Monument, Castle Mountains National Monument, and Sand to Snow National Monument. The monuments tie together years of previous conservation work, and protect the rhythm of nature and the soothing contours of the vast desert landscape that stretches beyond the horizon. I will always enjoy the memory of that road trip with my grandparents, cruising by places I would later explore as an adult. And with a newborn daughter, it's good to know that she too will be able to experience the California desert as I have.