Trains don’t stop at Kelso anymore. The freight trains still roll by the old Kelso Depot everyday, but the railroad stopped using the Depot over twenty years ago.

A red tile roof leans out from the second floor, with gentle Moorish arches framing the dusty oasis and palm trees standing in the green grass and sand and hardscrabble. The Depot is the visitor’s center for the Mojave National Preserve now, the sprawling desert outpost north of Interstate 40 and Amboy, and east of Baker, stretching out to Nevada. The Preserve is big and lonesome, the town of Kelso almost dried up in the sun, like most things in the desert without purpose. The Kelso Depot is open everyday for visitors.

I ran over a snake wiggling across the road south of the Kelso Dunes. It was the only living thing I’d seen up close in a half hour. There was no avoiding him. Swerve and maybe roll the Jeep, at fifty miles per hour. So with a little blip, he was done, and I was speeding on towards the Dunes, six hundred foot high wind-blown hills of sand that look like big piles of gold dust in afternoon sun. A few miles back I’d passed the cinder cones, and down further below I-40, the Amboy Crater. These are big, black, volcanic cones that poke up out of the ground from eruptions that started between 7 and 8 million years ago and continued as recently as 10,000 years ago when the Ice Age came to a close.

Inside the Kelso Depot the park ranger greets you.
‘Hello. Passing through?’

‘Yeah, stretching my legs,’ I say. She nods. She’s used to visitors plodding around, not really seeing anything, stopping in, halfway between nowhere and someplace. I was no different.

It’s cool inside the Depot. The old lunch counter forms three sides of a square in the middle of the tall main room, maps and brochures spread out on the dark wood. The hard plastic laminated maps start with a small one of the Mojave Preserve, detailing the roads and trails and open space of the immediate area.

In the lower forty-eight, the Mojave Preserve is the third largest piece of land that the National Park Service manages. A larger map shows Southern California. The Mojave and Colorado (Sonora) and the Great Basin deserts join up southeast of the Mojave, down in Joshua Tree National Park. In Joshua, the three desert climactic zones are all on display, the high desert, the lower desert and the Basin that runs all the way out to Utah. Another map shows the entire United States.

Deserts cover much of the Southwest. They get rain and even some snow. But by definition, deserts give up more moisture from evaporation than they take in through precipitation.

The counter has chairs, bolted down, wooden ones that swivel on a base. They surround the counter in simple formation, with plenty of room in between. It would have been nice to stop in during a train ride, while the steam engine or the coal engine gets fired up with fuel, watered down. Take a seat at the counter and order a tall chocolate milk shake, talk with the waitress about the temperatures that get up over a hundred degrees four months out of the year.

In the West, historic structures stand alone, abandoned by time and money, no longer useful except as memories. The old buildings are allowed to hang around, no threat to modern development. In this new century, we look to the recent past, declare styles to be post-modern, mid-century, left-over structures that take on nostalgia with a bow. The lucky ones live on, guide books and preservation societies reciting pedigree, recalling their history.

A train rolls by today, not stopping. Oh, once it did, though, taking on water and fuel and food, people getting off, getting on. Mailing a postcard, a letter. 'The West,' they'd say, 'It’s vast."

They did once. They did.

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