Three Rules for Driving in the Desert

Over Thanksgiving, I treated myself to a white-knuckle drive through the Mojave because I got complacent and didn’t follow the rules for driving in the desert: have a map, fill your tank and bring water. More succinctly: don’t get lost, don’t get stuck and don’t die. Even more succinctly: be prepared. [1]

Now, I enjoy desert driving. I grew up in the high desert, and most years I fly to Las Vegas and take a 300-mile road trip through Death Valley to visit my parents for Christmas. That’s not the most efficient route home, but it lets me skip LAX and the nightmare of Los Angeles traffic, which is heavy, slow and oppressive to a dystopian degree. The journey through Death Valley is slower and longer, but considerably more peaceful and staggeringly scenic, if you have an appreciation for the austere beauty of the desert. On the other hand, it’s not called “Death” Valley for nothing. I grew up with stories of record high temperatures, and tourists who died of dehydration after wandering away from their vehicles and getting lost. [2]

 Last November, my family planned a get-together over Thanksgiving in Palm Desert, which meant heading  in a new direction through unfamiliar territory. Google Maps suggested a route through the Mojave National Preserve, which sounded scenic (Joshua trees!) and not particularly challenging compared to Death Valley. The route details, however, should have given me pause, with multiple turns onto minor byways with names like Morning Star Mine Road. [3] Google offered an alternate route that was all freeway, but it was also boring, ugly, six minutes slower and would run into LA traffic when it hit the I-10. Joshua trees here I come.

Guess which of the three rules I broke? (Hint: partial credit if you pick any two, full credit for all three.) I set out with less than half a tank of gas, no water, and only my cell phone for navigation. [4] And in short order found myself eighty miles into the wilderness, low on gas, with no sign of civilization and no cell reception. [5]

So, what does this have to do with writing? I originally intended to segue into a discussion on the thin veneer between civilization and “adventure.” And how an easily avoided mistake can lead to cascading difficulties. And on the relative merits of capable characters and those who create their own complications. And the “ratchet” effect. And how “surprise” wilderness in a contemporary setting can function as a portal fantasy. And the subgenre of films I call “car trouble in the desert” (e.g. U-Turn, Breakdown, Scenic Route, Duel, etc.). And on and on and on.

Those are all fun topics but too much to tackle in one blog post. I got lost. I got stuck. I didn’t die, but this blog post did. After writing six hundred words of pure introduction then realizing I had no way to proceed, I ended it up shelving it for two months. This week I dragged it out, scrapped what I had and wrote 700 brand new words of setup before getting bogged down again.

The third time through, I finally tumbled to the irony of being unprepared to write a post about rules for driving in the desert which boil down to “be prepared.”

So, that’s it. Be prepared. Do your homework. Make sure you have what you need before you venture into the wilderness.

I should say, there are writers who don’t work this way. In the NaNoWriMo world, we distinguish between “plotters” (those who outline) and “pantsers” (those who write by the seat of their pants). A more generous term for this latter group is “discovery writer,” with the implication that they’re not just winging it out of laziness but intentionally cultivating adventure. These are the sorts of people who love to write their characters into a corner and then figure out an escape for them.

That’s not me.

At least, that’s not me right now (2019 and the foreseeable future). Right now I’m about writing as much as I can as predictably as I can and finishing things in a timely manner. I love a good adventure, but they’re the farthest thing from predictable. They “make you late for dinner,” as Bilbo Baggins says.

Three rules for writing: don’t get lost, don’t get stuck, don’t give up. Be prepared.


1. There’s actually a fourth rule: drive with your headlights on during the day. Hot air over the blacktop creates a shimmer which makes oncoming vehicles hard to see. This rule is actually enforced on some stretches of US-95 in Nevada, but it’s good practice for all desert driving.

2. The highest temperature ever recorded in the United States is 134 degrees Fahrenheit in Death Valley, which also holds the record for most consecutive days with a temperature over 100 degrees—154 days in a row. Note: the 134-degree record is disputed, and the high temperature might only be 129 degrees Fahrenheit.

3. This is Google Maps default route, which is just insane. All that additional complexity, plus the risk and inconvenience of going off the beaten path with no services and no cell reception to shave six minutes off a four-and-a-half hour trip? That’s a savings of less than a quarter of one percent on the journey. Not worth it, Google. To be fair, I would have chosen this route anyway, and that’s on me, but the fact that Google suggested it boggles my mind. Worse, the route is so infrequently used that Google was unaware that the the main road south was washed out. I had to double back to the freeway, hitting the LA traffic after all, and adding about two hours to my trip.

4. A cell phone is no substitute for a printed map in an area without cell reception. 

5. Spoiler: I didn’t die. I coasted into Amboy on fumes

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s