MOJAVE DESERT, Calif. — "This place is packed with bones and crystals!" Matt Walker, 11 years old, had his nose as close to the ground as the term "rockhound" implies. I had picked up my friend Judy Walker and two of her three children on a Saturday morning for a trip to explore the Mojave Desert. We headed out California 14 past Lancaster to the Rosamond Boulevard turnoff. East of Rosamond, a vast sky-blue lake shimmered off the road to our right. Except we knew that there is no water here in the desert--Rosamond Lake is dry but produces a staggeringly real mirage.
"It's a ghost lake!" said Jenny, 8 years old and very interested in ghosts and illusions and animal tracks. Minutes later, when we pulled off the road for a walk, she danced ahead over the miniature hills of a cracked and eroded wash, entranced by the tiny tracks left by nighttime kangaroo rats.
Over the years, I've developed a theory on successful traveling with children. My rule is simple: Make frequent, high-interest stops with some kind of physical activity.
We stopped for lunch at the Wayside Cafe in Rosamond, across from the railroad tracks where boxcars were piled high with minerals. The cafe was full of men wearing cowboy hats and a waitress with a waist-long ponytail. We had good, fresh sliced turkey sandwiches with sides of sweet fruit. The children ordered brown cows (Coke floats) and onion rings and wangled quarters from their mom for the candy machines.
We got back on 14, drove a few miles north, then turned right onto California 58 heading east toward Barstow. After about 25 miles, we turned north up Boron Avenue toward the U.S. Borax mine, the largest mining operation in California. When in Boron, as they say in Boron, visit the borax mine.
Viewed through the expansive window at the visitor center, the open-air mine pit is 1 1/2 miles wide and more than 600 feet deep, and has the striations of the Grand Canyon. Open seven days a week, the center had two friendly ladies and fascinating exhibits.
We spent the night in Barstow along historic Route 66 (the motel added a cot to the room's two queen-size beds), and ate dinner at the Cactus Kitchen restaurant. In the night, train whistles hooted out across the desert.
The next morning, we drove eight miles outside Barstow to Calico Ghost Town, a restored miners' village with costumed actors. The surrounding hills were streaked with mauve, pale green and beautiful iron-oxide red. In the late 19th century, 4,000 people lived in the town of Calico. Many of the houses from those days are built of stone the same pink as the striations in the surrounding hills. Now only nine people live here.
We arrived early, while the air was fresh and the shadows still blue. The "town sheriff," with a pearled gun in his holster, leaned his chair back against the wall of his shack, guarding the entrance. Farther up the main street, lined with shops selling souvenirs, a lone cowboy in chaps played a mournful tune on his accordion.
"Can I take a picture?" I asked.
"You're a grown woman," he said out of the side of his mouth. "Do whatever you want!"
"Are those real guns?" asked Jenny.
"Are you a real kid?" was his unsmiling answer. Jenny's eyes got wide, and she didn't know whether to laugh or not. Later, a slapstick gunfight was staged between two of these wandering Western-garbed miners, and then she knew to laugh at the guy who said, "I ain't shot no tourists yet today!"
Another miner, in a felt hat trimmed with silver, taught Jenny and Matt how to pan for gold in water sluicing down into a trough. I wandered off to see a glass-bottle house. Later we walked through a tunnel hand-hewn into the mountain, and lunched at an eatery overlooking the canyon. Judy and I sat, while Jenny and Matt shrieked with laughter on the seesaw just in front of the old schoolhouse. We left just as the tour buses started to arrive in early afternoon.
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Budget for Four
Best Western: $68.31
Lunch, Wayside Cafe: 32.76
Entrance, borax mine: 2.00
Dinner, Cactus Kitchen: 58.10
Entrance, ghost town: 18.00
Lunch, ghost town: 24.00
FINAL TAB: $225.33
Best Western Desert Villa, 1984 E. Main St., Barstow, CA 92311; tel. (800) 528- 1234. Calico Ghost Town; tel. (760) 254-2122. U.S. Borax Mine; tel. (760) 762-7432.