Driving the Mojave (with Fallout New Vegas as my guide)
Updated: Apr 13
I love the desert. I've always had a love for desolate places, for the openness, the scraggly plants, the horizon. Jean Baudrillard says it best:
... why are deserts so fascinating? It is because you are delivered from all depth there - a brilliant, mobile, superficial neutrality, a challenge to meaning and profundity, a challenge to nature and culture, an outer hyperspace, with no origin, no reference-points.
I am equally obsessed with the Fallout video game series. I have played Fallout New Vegas (2010) a dozen times. While Fallout 3 is my favourite iteration, New Vegas is a very close second, and there are aspects of the latter which are better than Fallout 3. travelling
Was New Vegas the impetus for my love of deserts? No, but it helped to encourage it. I've always been intrigued by the arid wilderness of the American Southwest. As such, upon travelling to Las Vegas for a friend's bachelorette this past week, I made it a goal that I was going to go to the Mojave. I craved it. There is no comparable place where I live (Ontario), and I wasn't sure the next time I would be in the USA. But why would I leave my friends to see a bunch of rocks and dirt? My first visit to the desert was in 2015. Friends and I had travelled to Vegas and I encouraged my husband and another couple to spend a day travelling to the Western edge of the Grand Canyon. We stopped first at an ostrich farm, then for lunch in a small town called Meadview. It was suggested to us to drive up a small road to an airstrip overlooking the start of the canyon. It was magnificent.
I fell in love with the desert then, and I've never been able to climb out. It's hard to describe what it's like to stand at what feels like the top of the world. We saw rain falling in sheets miles away but none of it touched us.
Freedom, I suppose, is the word I equate with this terrain.
I returned to the desert in 2017, when my husband and I road-tripped down from Ontario to Phoenix for a family vacation. Despite being 8 weeks pregnant and exceedingly sick, I spent as much time in the desert as I could. We went ATVing, we went horseback riding, we hiked a small mountain, we drove to Sedona and hiked again to the Devil's Bridge.
I loved that trip, despite vomiting at every gas station and McDonald's during the 36-hour drives. Since then, it was my dream to head out into the Mojave proper. And my friend's bachelorette party was my chance. But what does Fallout New Vegas have to do with any of this? Let me explain - the game is set in a post-apocalyptic alternate reality where a nuclear war occurred in 2077. Some of the locations in the game are based off real-life places. I disgusted my friends in 2015 by being able to point out landmarks in real Vegas based on having played the scaled-down version in New Vegas. I can also do this with the Capitol Wasteland (based on Washington D.C.) in Fallout 3 as well.
[I used to have photos from the game in this post, then realized it's copyright infringement, so I removed them. Sorry for the wall of text]
What do I love about the game? It's very open-ended. You can complete the main quest or wander. The quests and larger story are fun, engaging, and the gameplay (while buggy at times) is challenging while not frustrating. It's a first-person shooter and an adventure RPG. Your companion characters are likeable with fun backstories. It has moments of humour, both absurd and dark. It is a Mature game - not for kids.
Combat and story aside, the game is very inclusive, in that you can play as a man or woman of whichever race you choose. While there are two gender-based perks (Ladykiller or Blackwidow, which serve merely to increase your charisma/combat skill with NPCs of the opposite sex), the game does not penalize you for your gender or racial choices. There are LGBTQ characters and sex work is not vilified (in fact, you can take a quest where you search for people willing to engage in fetish-related sex work). Video games aren't known for treating women properly, but New Vegas should be held as an example of what to do. For example, in a minor side-quest, you are told that a female soldier was raped by a raider. Not only is she suffering PTSD from this, her teammates feel guilt for being knocked unconscious while the attack occurred. Your job is to convince the teammates they were not to blame and to convince the woman to attend a counselling session. You can read the basic overview here. For 2010, this was a surprisingly considerate quest for a game where you can get a perk called "Bloody Mess" and you are free to rampage the land if you so choose. Every time I play the game, even if I end up turning on the soldiers, I always help Betsy first.
If the game intrigues you, you can find it on Steam for $10.99. I highly recommend buying the Ultimate DLC package edition that's $21.99.
Fallout New Vegas only helped to instil my love for the desert. I decided when I got to Nevada this time, a fun destination might be to Fan-girl out and find some of the locations from the game.
After a relaxing day at the pool on Thursday with friends, on Friday I left at 8:00 am, to take an Uber to Sixt Car Rentals. The Avis rentals at my hotel (the MGM Park) were over-priced (like everything in Vegas). I found a cute little VB Cabrio that was perfect for me on Sixt's website. I had my backpack with my camera, phone charger + external battery pack, written directions (a list of which highways would take me back if I got lost), a melted Mars bar, a bottle of water, my hiking boots, my 100-level sunscreen, and a selfie stick! I was ready.
At the rental place, after explaining I was going to Red Rock Canyon and then likely driving around, the guy asked me if I liked Mustangs. I prefer Audis or BMWs, but this was America - of course I said yes. He said I could upgrade for $20. I had been banking on such an offer!
Onward to the Top Gear/Grand Tour part of my blog. This Mustang was the stock variety - it definitely did not have a V8, nor did it have a ton of features. I hated the Sport mode - it was clunky (though I did play with it on winding roads). Overall, the car itself was incredibly comfortable, the radio was great, everything was intuitive, and it did have some guts. I loved it.
The first place I headed was McDonald's. America ... you have almost every food option available, why can't I get a bacon & egg McMuffin? Answer me, please.
Used to Toronto traffic, the rush hour in Vegas was very easy to navigate. My only issue was not realizing that merge lanes merge INSTANTLY, making me slam on the brakes when my lane was suddenly gone. I only made that mistake once!
I arrived at Red Rock Canyon and spent a lovely 1.5 hours staring at beautiful mountains. I also sat in the middle of the road waiting for slow cars to disappear from view so I could zoom around the turns in my sweet ride. I saw a lizard!
Red Rock Canyon is only 40 minutes from McCarran airport, so I highly recommend this beautiful scenic trip. There are tons of hiking opportunities. I brought my boots, but I loved being in the Mustang so I was itching to get back on the road.
I'm a strange planner. I like to know what I need to bring and how long I'll be gone, but as long as it fits into these basic categories, I'm game for whatever. Since I wrapped up Red Rock around 10:30, I headed the opposite way from Vegas, down through Blue Diamond to Goodsprings.
Why Goodsprings? It's where you "wake up" in FNV! After coasting South on HWY 15, smiling whenever I read the signpost for a location in the game (Sloan, the Correctional Facility near Jean), I made it to Hwy 161. This is where I let the car really rip. I won't say how fast I was going, but the Mustang hardly felt it.
I slowed when I saw an intriguing road called Sandy Valley, but the sign for Goodsprings kept me on task.
I was slightly embarrassed to step out of the car and take a photo with the sign, but then I realized I was in the goddamn desert - who would be around to see me? And if someone did, who cares?
Goodsprings is super cute! I had lunch (really tasty quesadillas) in the Ghost Town Cafe (attached to the Pioneer Saloon, which is the basis for the Prospector Saloon in the game). I bought a souvenir mug so when I drink coffee the heat will remind me of the desert. I did not see any fire geckos or buy dynamite from an old man called Easy Pete.
While eating lunch I tried to figure out how long it would take me to drive South. Google and the cheaper GPS in the Mustang were telling me if I wanted to go to Nelson's Landing (and go cliff jumping) I should backtrack. And while a race car track had intrigued me on the way South, I wanted to explore!
So, I did what adventurers usually do. I said, "f*ck it!" and decided to make my own course.
I headed back down Hwy 161, but that Sandy Valley road called to me. Again, I quoted the adventurer mantra and turned right. It was a wonderful choice - the cliffs towered above me and the winding road was full of sharp dips and tight turns that the Mustang handled like a boss. A posse of Jeeps showed up in my mirror, so I pulled over to let them pass. I assumed these people were going off-roading. I debated whether to follow them, but I was wary about being a lone woman in the middle of nowhere, so I didn't. Regret, you are a cruel companion.
After I backtracked to Hwy 161, I headed back on Hwy 15 South to Primm. I stopped to see the Buffalo Bill Hotel. Its doppelganger in Fallout New Vegas is the "Bison Steve" (roller coaster included). I debated going inside but decided against it.
After Primm, it was on to California! I had never been to Cali before, but I must say the drive there was awesome. It was hot, but with the top down I felt like I was in a movie. Having no agenda, beautiful weather, alternative rock on the radio, and hardly any traffic made for one of the most serene half hours of my life. I didn't want the highway to end.
But it had to, because I was getting off on Nipton Road (which turned into Hwy 164). This road was freaky. I've been on scarier roads (the Shafer Jeep trail in Moab, Utah, for one) and more desolate ones (jeeping through a national park in Florida), but this was a more off-putting because I was alone. And it was hot. If my car broke down I would have to walk hours in the heat by myself or trust another driver. But that slight trepidation was part of the adventure. I pushed any lingering doubts aside and blasted down the road.
I arrived in Nipton!
In the game, Nipton isn't the happiest of places. It's been taken over by "Caesar's Legion", a growing band of slavers that took the ideals and garb of ancient Rome as their inspiration. I hate the Legion. I tried a play-through where you side with them but I couldn't do it and back-stabbed them instead. I'm more of a lone gunwoman than part of a faction, and slavers are gross.
Part of Nipton's plot in the game involves a sinister version of the Lottery (see Shirley Jackson's short story), which was why I took a photo of the sign. Am I huge dork? Yes.
I stopped in the adorable town to use the bathroom and buy some coffee. Was I likely dehydrated and shouldn't be drinking coffee? Yes ...
After Nipton I cruised to Searchlight and then took the road to Cottonwood Cove. These are also two locations in the game. The first is a town covered in irradiated fog and the second is an area where you can free some people from the legion and poison those jerks to boot. Neither of these things happened in real life.
My favorite weapon in the game is a modified sniper rifle called The Gobi Campaign Sniper Rifle. My husband always rolls his eyes because as soon as I start a new game I hike over to Cottonwood to find the rifle, simply so I can fast travel back to it once I get the required lockpick skills to open the case. Priorities, people.
I did not find this mystical rifle on my roadtrip. In fact, I couldn't even get into Cottonwood Cove because it costs money! The NERVE.
I debated going to Nelson's Landing for cliff jumping, but I was tired and we had an evening planned. I did the responsible thing and headed back up to the rental place through Henderson.
My mini road trip covered over 450km and I was on the road from 9-4. But there's nothing like driving down a non-congested highway in a convertible, mountains off in the distance.
It was one of the best days of my life.