The Mars Rover – El Mirage Dry Lake Bed


That’s the Mazda 2 that’s been on loan to me to drive for a week. I took it on an adventure. The story is below. At the very end, are some thoughts about the car. It didn’t quite fit into this tale, so I left it separate. I may squeeze in another adventure soon!

 

It’s as if I landed on Mars.

Just one and a half hours outside of Los Angeles, a world of satellite towns emerges straight out from a David Lynch movie. Drivers not seeing the arches of McDonalds or a chain mini mart gas station pass through in a hurry. There’s nothing to see except buildings from decades past repainted over and over into struggling local shops in towns with names such as Pearlblossom and Littlerock (both really are one word). Where their population of 2000 or so residents live, is a mystery.

One unnamed town featured a preacher on a bull horn and a half a dozen congregation members holding Jesus signs begging you to stop. Their yard sale looks uninspiring. The same town features eateries bragging about their carne asada tacos on hand painted on wood signs.

I’m on my way to El Mirage dry lake bed, a place I’ve visited twice more than two decades ago. The first for a friends Super 8 film, and the second, for my own. Apologies to those involved (I’ll bet I can re-edit that into something).

I stop into Orbit, an aptly named antique store on Pearlblossom Highway. Not just an antique store, it’s actually an off the grid mixture of real junk, as in piles of refuge that gets sun beaten and rained on. “I haven’t paid taxes and I don’t pay rent, so I don’t know if I’m going to be here in a year.” Says, proprietor Dan. He follows me a around his indoor and outdoor “estate” especially since I accidentally left the headlights on. He’s friendly with that small town feel, and he actually has a customer in the back digging through what looks like parts for a refrigerator. I hear the larger set curly haired fella say, “goddamn it” while inspecting what looks to me like a pile of mechanical metal. Sales can’t be high for Orbit and Dan mentions, “the government hasn’t done anything for me.” and explains how the county forced him to rid his gigantic mountain of bicycle parts. I leave without anything.

Another shop called Waikiki boasts an eye catching Beef Jerky Cell Phones which sounds like the perfect mix of 2012 and 1900 fused into a novelty gift. Anything can “work” including a Volkswagon van and part tank at a used car lot. Granted, it’s the mascot for a lot of interesting vehicles called Vehicle Liquidation, it made me stop. The lot is actually an oasis of classic cars perhaps dug out of garages in the area. The organized shop sits in the middle of nowhere complete with website showing off their collection. It seems like they figured out how to connect with the world using the internet.

More eye catchy small shops whiz by. One is an auto garage which is housed in a mid century modern building with giant deco boomerangs. I’m sure the workers there have no idea that the dilapidated building is actually cool. A town water tower, out of commission grain silo, and abandoned mobile homes pass me by.

El Mirage dry lake bed is another half hour away after a few lefts and rights on roads that get smaller and less travelled. I see signs pointing to yard sales that appear to be dirt roads leading to neither a yard or a sale, which makes the perfect beginning to a horror film. The evil looking Joshua Trees add to the scenario.

The two decades ago, when I visited, El Mirage dry lake bed was free. You drive into the desolate area, and there might be a few people there, if at all. Now, there’s a staffed building with machines that take your money or credit card for the entrance fee. Pay by the day, week or year. For me, it was $15.

The dry lake bed must have had water in it perhaps centuries or thousands of years ago since there are no obvious banks, but the pool must have been still since the ground is packed, hard with no obvious river or runoff areas. It’s a warm saturday, Dec 31st and people are celebrating New Years Eve by riding their ATVs, dirt bikes and flying crafts. The rider’s trucks and campers dot the boundary edges. There’s maybe 20, some near the entrance, but some at the far reaches of this many miles long and oddly shaped area. Years ago, we got stuck in darkness with no compass and finding our way out was a task.

Driving on the packed surface feels eerie yet free. How often can you drive in any direction at any speed for a decent amount of time? I started off careful and slow and gained confidence of the surface little by little. There’s actually races, time trails and Bonneville events so it’s deemed safe in the highest of speed limits. While driving I see a camper truck with bikes in tow in the distance kicking up dust and the place feels even more familiar than from the numerous car commercials which takes place here. It comes to me. This is spot from the desert scenes in Terminator 2 – the toned Sarah Connor’s training ground.

I pick up a rock that’s just a rock found in the middle of the dry lake. Did it get washed in centuries ago? I was hoping it was a meteorite which are sometimes found here since after they land, and are easily spottable against the creamy brown surface. I check out the ground and the pattern and the hardness that comes from the precipitation and the drying out. There’s bushes on the edges, mountains in the distance, but the horizon lines mostly end in bare flat land.

As I’m making my way out, I pass by a rider pushing his bike. He’s facing the expanse of  the area and at the moment, there’s no one around. I double back and offer him my cellphone but there’s no reception, and then offered him a ride. He took a few paces more then said, “I’ll take that ride.” Me, being a stranger in a “Kermit Green” car, he must have thought I’m a safe driver and at worst, a pervert. He takes off his helmet and he’s Asian American and says that he was “opened up in fifth gear” when something went wrong. He rides about once a month.

Perhaps a mile or two across the raceway, we reach his friends who had no idea he broke down. I wished them a Happy New Year and got a “thanks brother” in return. It’s all I needed to hear on Mars.

(for more info about the car read the bottom)

 

The Mazda 2. It’s a four door, which honestly I didn’t use get to test except to put things into the back seat. It’s subcompact in size but feels like you have all the space you need. It offers legit space for four which might get tighter but without problems. The key is the comfort. There are the cup holders, which are for big drinks, the user friendly area works for your mp3 player, in my case an iPhone which has a connector built in next to the “lighter” power outlet which is convenient. The sound system is decent, and Bluetooth would have been nice! Everything else from the gauges and the dash amenities are typical and no nonsense. You don’t need to have a degree in auto engineering to figure anything out. It’s practical and easy. Even when I pulled into the gas station, the little arrow pointing to the right told me which side the gas tank sits.

Speaking of gas, one of the most attractive things is the gas milage. 35 highway isn’t bad in a gas tank that fills at around 40 dollars.

The Kermit or Spirited Green throws me off, but I did receive compliments on the car throughout the week, even at a Burger King drive through. I saw not one other car with the same color all week. It wouldn’t be my first choice of colors, but it stands out. I’m able to find it in parking lots in a quick second. It’s perfect for me to whip around from home, to the store, to art shows, and dinner. Parking? So easy.

Yet most important for a car of this size and style, is the performance. Being a manual shifting vehicle, it has a bit more zip that I’d expect. I’m used to a turbo, so the initial burst can’t compare. Yet, it’s decent especially going up hills and when passing slower motorists. For the speed enthusiasts, this is not your car, but at higher speeds during smooth traffic on highways, the Mazda 2 offers a smooth ride even at the upper limits of the speeds one should be driving on roads. Most who drive this car won’t break 80 mph zone and there, it’s perfectly fine. Bang for the buck, yes, this car is a winner averaging something like $15k.

 

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