“You need to understand that I live in a town of eight men. No women. Out of the other seven guys, six are alcoholics. The maintenance guy is an alcoholic. The guy who runs the post office is an alcoholic. The sheriff and his ‘friend’, they’re alcoholics. So I don’t fit in too good. But I estimate that three hot chicks pass through here every week. It almost makes it worth it.”
Jacob is in his early twenties and runs Roy’s service station in Amboy, population 8: ‘the ghost town that ain’t dead yet’. Amiable, plump and a little stupid, Jacob is exactly the kind of lonely gas-pumper who gets blown away by the villain in the opening scenes of a Coen brothers movie. Like many of the other ghost towns that litter the floor of California’s Mojave desert, Amboy stands on the old Route 66 and was founded to feed and shelter the millions of migrants who headed west along John Steinbeck’s Mother Road to escape drought and famine in the thirties. But when Route 66 was bypassed by the interstates, the traffic dried up and the towns died. Amboy might not be dead yet, but it’s not looking too healthy.
So little disturbs Jacob’s days. And as a result, Jacob, we suspect, probably spends a little too much time sitting in the fierce Mojave sun. He’s impressed by the 155mph top speed of our Rolls-Royce Ghost, but certain his ancient, battered, dusty Mitsubishi is faster. “The guy I bought it from spent forty thousand dollars on the engine. It will do 287mph. He told me. I’ll never be caught speeding because that’s exactly 2mph faster than a cop car. A detective told me that.”
So what, exactly, are we doing in a £200,000 Rolls-Royce Ghost in a ghost town like Amboy? There’s more to this road trip than puns or irony. We wanted to explore California’s untidy back yard. Famously, were it independent, California would be the eighth richest nation on earth. But most of the wealth is on the coast; cross the San Bernadino mountains to the Mojave and it just gets weird. Weird landscape, like the Joshua Tree national park with its bizarre, twisted flora. Weird geology, like the inland Salton Sea, formed just a century ago and one of the hottest, least hospitable places on earth. Weird places names, like Zzyzx, Grimm, Mecca and Bagdad. And weird people: the very wealthy twenty minute’s drive from the dirt-poor; Mission Indians hosting poker on their reservations, and sun-crazed loners who honestly think their shitbox Mitsubishi will do nearly 300mph. But if that makes it sound crowded, it ain’t: it’s big and bleak and empty and slightly scary. It’s the California few know, and few get to see.
We also wanted to reconnect with a Rolls-Royce as a car, and as a piece of engineering, not a luxury good. Rolls no longer claims that famous old ‘best car in the world’ tag, but it ought to display some of the qualities that earned it that reputation a century ago; ought to take you deep into that desert at furious speed and in sybaritic luxury and without once making you worry that the nearest help is five miles overhead and just starting its descent towards LAX.
At 5.4 metres the Ghost still a colossal car; it even spills out of some plus-sized American parking spaces but it disguises its bulk beautifully and manages to look prestigious but not arrogant, exactly the pose Rolls needs it to strike in more austere times. You slide inside; it’s so well made, and from such extraordinary materials – leather that’s almost oily to the touch, fat lumps of aluminium, frosted glass and Steinway-grade black lacquer – that £195,840 before ‘personalization’ starts to feel like good value.
Rolls-Royce has somehow managed to make its monstrous 563bhp, twin-turbocharged, 6.6-litre V12 as refined as a Tesla at cruising speeds. And of course, the low-speed ride is magnificent. So we sigh from light to light as we set out from Palm Springs. Soon shops like ‘Diamonds of Splendor’ give way to Ray’s Towing and Frank’s Auto Body, and then to fields of dates being picked by long rows of sweltering migrant workers, and then just flat scrub as we head south to the Salton Sea.
What a dump. If it wasn’t for places like this balancing out the absurd wealth of Palm Springs, California would be way higher on that rich list. Early, optimistic attempts to market it as the Californian Riviera were scuppered by the intense heat, the water’s heavy saltiness and the stink caused by pollution and resulting mass die-offs of the fish. The sea is ringed with abandoned beach-front buildings and its few remaining settlements look more like the slums of Mexico City. This ain’t the OC. Many of the homes have an ancient Airstream caravan at their centre, to which various ramshackle lean-tos have been added: it’s as if those dustbowl migrants driving to the coast just gave up and stopped.
From here, the plan is to drive due north, over the Cottonwood Mountains into the Joshua Tree national park, through Twentynine Palms and north again across the Mojave to hit Route 66 and the ghost towns. Twentynine Palms is another weird place. Its 15,000 residents - lots of hippies, lots of artists – co-exist uneasily with the 10,000 marines who occupy and regularly blow up a patch of desert the size of LA directly to the north of the town. There are only three kinds of business around the base; ‘massage parlours’, tattoo artists, and barbers providing the haircuts the grunts are required to have once a week.
The road out to the north is deserted, because it doesn’t lead anywhere normal people would want to go. It skirts the back of the marine base, climbs over the Sheep Hole mountains, then drops down towards the vast, flat valley floor and runs, mostly laser-straight, to meet what’s left of what the world’s most famous road. It is beautiful, but arid and bleak and terrifying at the same time.
But for us it’s road-trip-perfect. I finally get that power-reserve gauge to show that the Ghost’s motor has nothing left to give. It’s very fast, the Ghost. It settles naturally at 130mph; enough for California’s famously unimaginative state troopers to put us in a cell for the night, but necessary if we’re going to race and overhaul the mile and half-long freight trains that rumble alongside the road. Their drivers blow their horns in appreciation as we run alongside them before we drop a couple of cogs and surge off towards the vanishing point.
The ghost towns, when you reach them, can be easy to miss. The ironically named Bagdad is shown on the Ghost’s very modern sat-nav but literally nothing remains, other than a faint track that leads away into the desert. In Chambless, a glorious but faded fifties sign for the Roadrunner’s Retreat and Restaurant still stands, along with a boarded-up diner and a gas station whose pumps have long-since toppled over, the numerals on their rotating counters melted into Daliesque distortions. The tarmac parking lot has been all but reclaimed by the desert, but like Ellis Island in New York, it’s impossible not to feel the presence of the millions of poor but hopeful who passed through here. It was maybe the greatest motoring migration in history.
We head back to Jacob’s for a cold Coke and a fill-up; run out of gas out here and you might end up ghostly yourself, for any of a number of reasons. Jacob still won’t let us take his picture; he claims to be one-eighth Native American and worries about the effect on his soul. But he is delighted we came back, and even happier that the same, slightly out-of-place German cabaret singer and model duo who’d attached themselves to us the night before in Twentynine Palms had stopped at his gas station and flirted with him too. “Three hot chicks a week, but I get two in one day!” Big country. Small place.