Ridgecrest, California: a military town servicing the 1,800 square miles of China Lake Naval Weapons Centre. It was 11pm, and I was surrounded by pool tables, plates of nachos, thick-necked military personnel, wall decorations of airplanes and missiles on holiday. Time to hit our sacks in preparation for the early morning wake-up call.
We were three hours' fast driving north-east of LA. The sprawling megalopolis was the other side of the scrubby Mojave Desert - past the spectacular shard of rock that marks the point where the San Andreas Fault rears its head at earth's surface - past Antelope Valley and over the Sierra Madre mountains. Few Angelenos come here, which is their loss, since this is in the midst of one of America's most splendid archaeological treasure- troves.
We were not so very far from the western edge of Death Valley and its epic Martian landscape of soaring bare rocks and narrow arroyo canyons. Red Rock, Jo'burg and Randsburg, a trio of turn-of-the- century honky- tonk gold-mining towns, festered just over the horizon. Jo'burg is now nothing but a cluster of wooden houses at the base of a hill leading up to one of the Wild West's most scenic old cemeteries, while Randsburg is a functioning rough-and-tumble gold town, its main street, complete with 100-year- old swing-door saloon, a glorious historic portrait of an America now almost entirely dead.
We were in Ridgecrest for a reason. It is from Ridgecrest's Maturango Museum that the tours leave for China Lake. Not that I had any desire to see weapons such as the heat-seeking Sidewinder missile being tested overhead. But I did want to see Little Petroglyph Canyon, which is secreted away deep within China Lake's mountainous terrain.
Petroglyphs are images carved into rock. These particular ones were carved into an entire canyon: thousands upon thousands of images, etched into eternity along the steep cliffs of the canyon and its tributaries by long- vanished nomadic Native American tribes who lived in the area between 6,000 and 500 years ago. Recent analysis indicates a handful might even be as much as 19,000 years old. According to our guides, some were created by religious leaders who, the experts think, sat motionless in tiny stone dens for days on end until they had induced a hallucinogenic trance - and then started carving artistic prayers for rain and for successful hunting. Other 'glyphs were possibly just the product of a powerful artistic impulse, the desire to tell posterity "I was here". Perhaps the little stick men and mountain lions that patrol this stone landscape were the Kilroys of their day.
Saturday morning. Dark, ominous storm clouds hovering over the mountains to the east. We had a large diner-breakfast and then, primed by the caffeine and pancakes, drove over to the Maturango Museum.
Only 17 vehicles are allowed to join the tour-convoy, so we car- pooled. My friends left their car in the parking lot, and I became the designated driver, in charge of the only non-4WD in the group. We drove through Ridgecrest and then out to the base. The military guards checked the paperwork, to make sure we weren't smuggling spies onto the base. They let us take cameras but told us we couldn't shoot photos until we reached the canyon. And then they waved us off the highway and into the scrubby hills of China Lake.
The road began winding upward into the mountains. Half an hour in, the tarmac was replaced by dirt. …