Interstate 10, or I-10, or “the 10” as it’s known colloquially, is a trans-continental highway that travels east from the Pacific Ocean in Santa Monica (assuming you’re on the west coast) through Los Angeles and on towards Phoenix. From there it elbows south to Tucson, swings east again through Las Cruces, El Paso, and Scroggin’s Draw before reaching its Atlantic terminus in Jacksonville, Florida.
Construction began in 1957 as part of President Eisenhower’s National Interstate Highway System and wasn’t completed until 1990 when they finished the Deck Park Tunnel near downtown Phoenix. It’s the section between Phoenix and LA I want to focus on, because it's that section that connects the city I live in (sing it!) to the city I’m from and it will, if I do this right, provide some sort of metaphorical resonance as to the point I’m trying to make when I wrap this thing up. So buckle in.
Leaving Phoenix on I-10 heading west you pass through the pink stucco suburbs of Glendale, Tolleson, Avondale, Goodyear, and Litchfield Park. By the time you’ve reached the White Tank Mountains, you’re getting close to the formally remote, but quickly encroached upon, Buckeye. For most of my memory, you could spot a giant plywood baby sitting in a field somewhere around Goodyear. He was towering over a plywood tractor as a terrified plywood farmer ran for his life while a plywood woman wearing an apron, presumably the baby’s Mother, stood with her arms on her hips looking up sternly at her massive plywood son. This of course is gone because the universe needed another super-big-box-chain-restaurant-retail shopping center.
Also around Goodyear, and before the real estate speculators arrived, you’d spot Trotter Park, an abandoned horse track purportedly owned by the mob. This “fact” was repeated at least once on every California-bound road trips since time immemorial. I have no idea if it’s true. The tracks lesser known, but I think more important claim to fame is being blown up in the 1998 film No Code of Conduct starring Charlie and Martin Sheen and directed by Bret Michaels from the 80’s glam-metal band Poison.
Past that is Tonopah and the Burnt Well Rest Area, the first, or depending on how tight your family’s ship runs, the last rest stop between Phoenix and Anaheim or Newport Beach or Dana Point. It’s here you know you’ve left the protective dome provided by Best Buy and Chili’s and are officially entering the harsh unforgiving desert. Not completely of course, you still have your vehicle and 373 miles of asphalt tethering you to civilization, but the veneer is more visible out here.
For those unfamiliar, the Sonoran desert covers 260,000 square miles of southwestern North America. It extends from large portions of Arizona deep into the aptly named north Mexican state of Sonora. It spreads out a little into north-eastern Baja, and south-eastern Alta California, though these sections may well be considered different deserts as far as I’m concerned.
The tell-tale sign you’re in the Sonoran desert, at least the main part, is the iconic Saguaro Cactus. It’s the tall, multi-armed cactus frequently used in logos for mediocre burrito places or seen in the background of classic Hollywood westerns set in Texas but shot in Arizona. It produces blossoms on top between April and June and its trunk provides shelter for Arizona’s state bird, the cactus wren. The fruit produced is a favorite of the white-winged dove, a notable mondegreen misheard as "one-winged dove” in the chorus of Edge of Seventeen, a classic rock staple by fellow Sonoran native Stevie Nicks.
Other common plants are the barrel cactus, prickly pear cactus, mesquite tree (recognizable from it’s dried seed pods) and my personal favorite the creosote bush, a small scrub plant who’s leaves are covered with an oil resin that when wet releases an aromatic scent many desert dwellers associate with “the smell of rain.”
Temperatures during the summer months regularly reaches over 110 degrees. And rain fall is all but non-existent save for the few violent monsoon thunderstorms that roll through the area during July and August. If this weren’t enough to deter human settlement, the desert is also full of scorpions, rattlesnakes, coyotes, mountain lions and wild javelina. Honestly, the fact we’ve managed to build thriving cities in such an environment is, as stated by Bobby Hill from the animated show King of the Hill, “...a monument to man’s arrogance.”
It’s okay though, you’ve got air conditioning in your car, and tunes on your phone. You should make it to Los Angeles in one piece.
The next sign of civilization is Quartzite, a small town just east of the California border. Originally known as Tyson’s Well, it was at one point the last waterhole before you’d reach Erhenburg, a steamboat landing on the Colorado River 25 miles to the north. This of course was before we dammed the great river in order to build our sprawling Southwestern metropoli. (You’re welcome Vegas.)
The most interesting thing about Quartzite, aside from being the cheapest place to get gas before you reach that eco-socialist-dystopia across the river, are the camel murals on the highway underpass. Apparently in the 1800s the United States Army imported a herd of camels from the middle east to help tame the Great American Desert. They were run by, among others, an Ottoman man of Greco-Syrian heritage named Hadji Ali. He became known to the local cowboys as “Hi Jolly.” The camels ultimately proved ineffective because they spooked the horses and mules, but Mr. Ali married, settled and was eventually buried in Quartzite where a modest pyramid monument in his name still stands.
A little further west and you hit the once Mighty Colorado, the natural border between California and Arizona, home to the future Arizona Bay and the current agricultural town of Blythe, CA. Blythe is a great place to break down because it has a Hampton Inn, a Starbucks, and a Denny’s parking lot that doubles as both a safe place to sleep when you’ve been up for the past twenty-four hours and a moderately-safe place to teach your best friend Nate to drive stick because you’re to tired to drive and he has to make it back to work by 8:30 the next morning. These are just hypotheticals.
From here you can continue straight on till morning or, if you have some time, take a detour south on California State Route 78. The desert here is a harsh, desolate moonscape then you reach the North Algodunes Dune Wilderness Area, a large expanse of sand dunes used for dune buggy racing and, I assume, Mad Max LARPing. Up the road you’ll turn north on State Route 111 and drive along the eastern edge of the Salton Sea, a massive body of water created by an engineering accident in the early 1900s. You’ll know it’s the Salton Sea because it reeks of dead fish and instagram influencers, both of which contribute to the post-apocalyptic aesthetic of the once popular tourist destination. Before the fish die-off it was marketed to Hollywood elites as “the California Rivera,” a name now more appropriately applied to Santa Barbara.
Around here you’ll also find the ever popular Salvation Mountain, a large mound of dirt covered in plaster, brightly colored paint and bible verses. The phrase “God is Love” is painted in big letters and a singular white cross is perched on top. The whole thing resembles an electric kool-aid Golgotha. It was created by now passed folk-artist Leonard Knight and is kept up by a group of volunteers. If you haven’t stopped, you really should. There’s something endearingly earnest about the whole project and in a world where religion is often used as tool of division, Mr. Knight seems to have created a faith inspired work that brings people together.
Nearby is the desert dwelling community of Slab City, immortalized in Jon Krakauer’s great book Into the Wild and Sean Penn’s okay movie of the same name. Consisting of RV’s and make shift dwellings built on the abandoned concrete slabs of a former Marine Base, it’s the United State’s largest unincorporated squatter community and a popular place for LA’s failed-artist class to project their Kerouacian back-up plans.
From here you can jump back on the 10 near the city of Indio. But before we get to that, what happens if you continued on from Blythe like a normal person. Not much you might think, and you’d be right, but there are a few things to pay attention to:
Desert Center. Founded pre-interstate as the mid-way point between Blythe and Indio by an eccentric man named “Desert Steve,” it once boasted the suckers deal “Free Room and Board Every Day the Sun Doesn’t Shine in Desert Center.” It’s now a post office and RV park comprised of snow birds intent on eeking out their last days in the hot desert sun, and not worth stopping unless you’ve blown a tire and need to call a tow truck from Blythe.
Chiriaco Summit. 19 miles west of Desert Center, this is a proper travel stop and decent bathroom for those of us whose ship doesn’t run quite so tight. It also comes complete with its very own General Patton Memorial and Museum. There’s a cool statue of the General and his dog, a few old tanks and though I’ve never seen it, a large map he used while planning war games in the Army’s former California-Arizona Maneuver Area. There’s also a small airfield nearby for those weekend Cessna fliers who chose to forgo the I-10 all together, but really need their George S. Patton fix.
Cotton Springs Rd. 12 more miles past Chiriaco you’ll reach the turn off for Joshua Tree National Park, a place so magical it requires its own post. It’s one of my favorite spots on the planet and you should definitely check it out. Maybe bring mushrooms.
I’ll also point out that during this desolate 100 mile stretch the drive reaches its most transcendent. I’d recommend putting on something like Epic by Kamasi Washington or Hallogallo by Neu and just enjoy cruising through the desert. Time your trip to arrive at this portion around sunset and you’ll see what I’m talking about.
A side note: You may also notice that the desert has changed since crossing the Colorado. It’s still full of creosote, rocks and sand, but no more saguaros or other tell-tale flora. You’ve entered a sub-section known as the Colorado desert, it’s here we see the landscape transitioning toward the other great western desert, the Mojave. There’s actually a demarcation line inside Joshua Tree where ecologists have documented the switch. Nature’s great.
Soon you’ll be heading down into Coachella Valley and re-entering the protective dome. You’re still on the periphery, but Target and Panda Express are silent reassurances that everything will be okay. The polo grounds are nearby and if it’s late spring the hoards of eponymous concert goers will have infiltrated the valley, so... happy hunting.
Coachella Valley is surrounded on four sides by distinct mountains or mountain groups (ranges? I don’t know). Santa Rosa to the southwest, San Jacinto to the west, little San Bernardino to the east and the 11,500-foot tall San Gorgonio Mountain to the north. The place I stop most is the In-N-Out off Ramon Rd in Thousand Palms. In-N-Out’s been in Arizona and other states for years, but something about eating it in California seems to please the gods.
Coachella Valley is also home to Palm Springs, so if you’d like hang out with some googie architecture, hip LGBT seniors, or the hot-rich (at least pretending to be) people at the ACE Hotel, take a detour here.
Past this is the wind farm, the final threshold and the tell-tale sign “we’re almost there” since I was a kid. At night all you’ll see is a bunch of blinking red lights. These are the windmills. If you’re a particularly anxious child, they’re also mysterious harbingers of the coming alien apocalypse. Why aren’t the adults more concerned! Also, as makes sense for the location of a wind farm, it can get pretty windy in this area so be careful when driving. Around here you’ll also find the Morongo Valley Casino, a trumpian tower built for corporate conferences and those admirable golden-state gambling addicts for whom Vegas is just too damn far. There’s probably a burned-out 90s pop country act playing there if you’re interested.
As you exit San Gorgino pass and enter the final stretch you’ll be met by a couple of well-known threshold guardians, the Cabazon Dinosaurs. Made famous by Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure and built in the mid-1960’s by Knott’s Berry Farm designer Claude K. Bell, they were originally intended to attract travelers to The Wheel Inn, a now shuttered roadside diner, and are currently owned by a young-earth evangelical family who’ve opened a creationist museum next door in case you were wondering why we can’t have nice things.
Next you'll reach the mysterious Inland Empire, a metropolitan area in it's own right consisting of cities like San Berdoo, Riverside, and Ontario, and home to what I imagine are roving hoards of Hell’s Angels, LDS cyclists and disaffected heavy metal kids. From here it’s a straight shot into LA unless you make a trip up to Glendora to check out Donut Man and their infamous strawberry donuts (or peach, depending on the time of year.)
After passing through the outer LA suburbs of Rosemead, West Covina, Monterey Park (home of LA’s best Chinese food), and a little passed the junction with the 710, you’ll turn the corner and come upon the Downtown Los Angeles skyline. If you’ve ever wondered what Dorthy felt like when she found the Emerald City, probably this. It’s also the sign you’ve arrived (physically at least) and the end of your journey.
Like I said, I’m going to try and bring this sucker down for a clean landing. I-10’s been a major artery in my life. It connects the two cities that have had the most impact on me and in a lot of ways it represents the bridge between who I was and who I am. It’s been, at different times, the yellow brick road that led to adventure and the ruby slippers that brought me home again. To most people it’s just the boring drive they take because it’s cheaper than whatever deal Southwest is running. The important part is to stop and look around. Explore. Because (roll credits)... life. is. a. highway. (Cue sax solo.)