The Mojave Road and Goff, CA
The Mojave Road would have faded from sight except for the curiosity and perseverance of one man: Dennis Casebier, of Goffs. We caught up with Dennis at his home in Goffs, on the south side of the Mojave National Preserve. He moved to this 113-acre desert ranch when he retired in 1990. With his wife, Jo Ann, and innumerable friends, he has built a natural and historical center that is a gold mine of displays, photographs and reference materials in a library of more than 6,000 books.
Dennis came to the desert in 1954 as a young Marine stationed at Twentynine Palms. Born in Kansas in 1934, the desert was a new and different world. It called his name, however, and most weekend passes were spent camping and hiking in what is now Joshua Tree National Park. Out of these weekends came a love for the desert lands that kept this Kansas native on the desert for most of his adult life.
After his time in the Marines, Dennis Casebier (pronounced case-beer) returned to Kansas and went to college. He could hardly wait to return to the California desert, and upon graduating he took a job as a Navy missile scientist at Corona in 1960. His passion for the desert grew, and his training as a scientist blended well with his other passions: curiosity, truth and history. These passions have created a national treasure in a body of work that will be a resource for generations to come.
When he returned to his desert in 1960 he found it had changed. Joshua Tree had become too busy for him, and like a true Rainbow Chaser, his eyes were drawn to the far horizon where blue mountains and dry canyons beckoned. He methodically surveyed the high Mojave and the southern low Colorado/Sonoran desert. He bought a full set of USGS 15-minute quadrangle maps, from the Owens Valley to the Mexican border, and studied them.
"The eastern Mojave drew me," he said. "It was similar in elevation to Joshua Tree, but not as populated, and it interested me. Then I kept seeing references to 'Old Government Road' on the maps. This excited my curiosity and I wanted to know more about it."
This excitement began a quest for knowledge that took him from the high desert to the National Archives in Washington and built a body of information that tells the exciting story of a 150-year-old wagon trail that had been passed over by time: The Mojave Road.
During his career as a scientist for the Navy, he made many trips to Washington, so many that eventually he rented an apartment there. He spent his evenings at the National Archives finding any record he could that related to the Mojave Road. He microfilmed the records and brought them home. Back on the Mojave, he followed the trail and found it still in existence, even in use as a road in some areas. He identified the sites of 5 Army outposts as well as other settlements along the way. Over the years he assembled a full record of the last 150 years along the Road.
"I can tell you the names of every soldier that was stationed on the Road, and when he was here," he said. "I can even tell you the color of his eyes."
By 1980 he had accumulated a great deal of information about the Mojave Road, and interest in his project was growing. The Bureau of Land Management wanted to mark the trail for public access so others could share in the experience of traveling the road. But Dennis was concerned that the impact of many more travelers would destroy the road -- or possibly worse, environmentalist pressure would encourage the BLM to close it off forever.
"This isn't a pristine wagon trail. In fact, not a foot of the trail hasn't been driven by motorized vehicle," Casebier said. "We weren't the first to drive it. There were Model A parts along the trail."
As interest in his research grew, he formed the Friends of the Mojave Road. With this group he worked with the BLM to identify the route of the trail, and create a trail guide for others to follow. While the BLM wanted to put up signs, the Friends insisted that no signs be allowed; the road would be navigated by following rock cairns located at strategic intervals.
"This did two things for the road," Casebier explains. "First, to travel the road you have to buy the Mojave Road Guide. This gives us a chance to tell people how they should behave, and I believe if you tell people what they should do they'll do it. This has worked. If you drive the trail now, you won't see where people have driven off the trail or left trash behind. The second thing is, not having signs reduces the numbers of people who drive the Road.
"Each one of us has some impact when we drive the Road. At a certain point that does no harm, and even does some good in preserving the road. But at some point the numbers increase to where they do harm. Fort Piute has been disappearing one rock at a time; the walls used to be much higher. No one goes out there to tear down the fort, but they may take one rock as a momento, a trophy of their visit. Enough people have done this that the walls are almost gone."
Casebier points out that the road, while not a particularly tough 4-wheel drive trail, is a dangerous place. "You can die out there," he said. "And the people who want to go see the trail need to be equipped properly. We once had a lady come here to Goffs who wanted to go to Fort Piute -- alone and in her Chevy. She just wouldn't believe what we told her that she'd never make it in that car, and could die trying to walk out. You are alone and many, many miles from help when you're on that road."
For these reasons, there are no signs leading you onto the Mojave Road; just rock cairns. You earn the right to drive the Mojave Road. It's a system that not only preserves the trail, but undoubtedly has saved lives of some who might have tried to follow BLM signs without being prepared for the vast lands crossed by this old trail. It also adds to the experience by preserving a sense of how the trail must have been in the 1800s.
Preserving the road -- keeping it alive for access by people who will respect the land, tread lightly, and preserve the heritage it represents -- remains a critical interest of Dennis Casebier.
"The establishment of the Mojave National Preserve will eventually destroy the Mojave Road," he asserts. The Preserve was created by the 1994 Desert Protection Act, and control of this land was transferred from the BLM to the National Park Service. The philosophy of the BLM allows multiple use; thus, mining, cattle and sheep ranching, and recreation could co-exist on the same land.
"The Park Service's business is preservation. If the Road becomes more heavily used, at some point they won't let it happen any more; they will shut it down. If we lose the Mojave Road, we lose our Americana. It becomes a Disneyland like Grand Canyon, Yellowstone, and Yosemite."
Shutting down access to desert lands has become a focal point for many desert people, including Casebier. The Act created many new wilderness areas throughout the California deserts. Designating these lands as 'Wilderness' means that vehicles can no longer travel the roads within the designated areas.
"So what happens when people can't go 4-wheeling and exploring where they used to, and have to hike in to these places? They won't go," Casebier pointed out. "This pushes more and more people onto lands that are not protected and increases the environmental damage in those areas."
Casebier acknowledges that some people are destructive to the natural environment. "However, when the speed limit is 70 on the freeway, most people will go that speed. You don't close the freeway because someone is traveling at 90. You throw him in jail and let the rest of us go on."
The depth of Casebier's concern, and the value of his opinions, are clear when his 113-acre desert home is visited. It is a lifetime accumulation of knowledge and work, with displays devoted to the desert tortoise, mining, the railroads and old buildings. The capstone is the Goffs schoolhouse, which is fully restored. With a group he helped form -- the Mojave Desert Heritage and Cultural Association -- he is in the process of turning his collection into a museum and resource center. On 25 September 2008. Construction of the the Mojave Desert Archives Library was completed. The Library is a replica of the historic Goffs Santa Fe Railway Depot (1902-1956).
It will be a fitting memorial to a man who dedicated his life to understanding the Mojave, and has revived the past and made it a living experience through the Mojave Road.
The newly revised edition of the Mojave Road Guide includes all new maps, GPS coordinates, and more. The roadlog has been completely updated to reflect changes in managment and landmarks. This is the original Mojave Road Guide authored by Dennis Casebier.
By Len Wilcox
This book details the history of the Mojave Road forts established across the East Mojave by the U. S. Army starting in 1859. These lonely posts were built to protect settlers, miners, and the mails from Indian resistance. They mark a path of western migration across a harsh and unforgiving land. Published April 2007.
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