Glamis California - Rails, Rigs, And Rowdies
Thanksgiving weekend at the Imperial Sand Dunes Recreation Area
There is no quick way over a dune on Lizard Hill. No matter how much horsepower, no matter how expensive your shocks, the dune’s sneering lip presents a problem. Your rig may paddle along niftily on sand tires, but following a straight line over the edge will get you a spinal compression injury. To drive the dunes is to make rhythmic connections, to turn with the banking, crest where it tapers away, and then slant over in the other direction. Delicacy and patience are the winning formula here.
We have come to the Imperial Sand Dunes Recreation Area (ISDRA) on the day after Thanksgiving, the busiest spell in a season that stretches roughly from Halloween to Easter. Many of the approximately 113,000 people at the dunes this weekend have been coming here for decades. They simply call the place Glamis, for the popular camping area south of California Route 78. Strategically located at this camping area is the one-of-a-kind Glamis Beach Store, which sells everything you forgot or didn’t know you needed, and where a visit to the restroom costs $2.
The dunes stretch 40 miles across California’s lower left metatarsal, from the Salton Sea to the Colorado River. Ignoring the border and any other federal designations, they spill into Mexico. North of Route 78, the dunes are closed to vehicles. Creosote bushes hold the sand in place along with the shrubby Wiggins croton and delicate Peirson’s milkvetch, a threatened cousin of the pea.
As a result of this endangered plant, some 49,000 acres designated as open to vehicle traffic have been the subject of administrative closures, but the Bureau of Land Management (BLM), which administers ISDRA, has signed a record of decision to reopen those areas, explains Neil Hamada, who manages the dunes from the BLM’s office in El Centro, California. Litigation by advocacy groups has held up the reopening. “We’re waiting to find out what the outcome is,” Hamada says.
The administrative closure has no effect on Glamis. Every sort of vehicle is in use on the dunes, and we see them at Oldsmobile Hill. This steep and rumpled rise of about 300 feet is reputedly named for the first four-wheel vehicle to climb it: a Model T chassis with a Rocket V-8 engine and hand-grooved tires.
Since this accomplishment in the 1950s, special-purpose vehicles and tires have abounded. Motorcycles and quads scamper uphill like sand fleas, but turning around and heading down can be a nerve-wracking experience, particularly because whoop-de-doos on the lower portion will buck a rider right off. Side-by-sides are increasingly popular, perhaps to the extent of displacing some of the quads. And whether carrying two or four, a sand rail is always a sure bet, with the long-travel suspension easing it over the hill’s ribs and the ridged front tires slicing through the soft stuff. Power is typically provided by Chevy V-8s (large- and small-block), but one guy’s rail had an Acura V-6 that sang like a finch. We even spied a couple of original VW dune buggies.
The whole crowd is made up of gassers and diesel addicts. Blessedly, there is not a hybrid car anywhere in sight, and if an electric one showed up it would probably be used to fuel a weenie roast.
Masked and goggled against the dust, the drivers and passengers are a colorful bunch. They are on the lam from real life, away from the city, enjoying El Sol. Bystanders accumulate sand in their tear ducts. Children are everywhere. The fortune sunk into acquiring motorized toys—not to mention transporting them—is evidently worth it: not a single PlayStation is in use. These youngsters will grow up with a DIY ethic and homebuilt, fixer-upper knowledge.
Every entry must have a whip flag for visibility. Some motorcyclists attach their tiny red ones to backpacks and hope for the best. Other vehicles’ grand banners slash through the blue sky with messages: Chevy, Coors Light, Dale Junior, POW-MIA, Ford, Mexico, Jeep, Arizona, California, USA, and…Big Belly Crew? Although $100 bill whip flags are common, skulls outnumber them.
The comic actor Dax Shepard, known for his work in NBC’s Parenthood and his 2012 car chase movie Hit and Run, is said to be here with his new Tatum rail. We would know him if we saw him, because the blue-and-white bodywork’s only graphic is a red, white, and blue shooting target—and the flag matches perfectly. But Shepard might be up at Competition Hill or down at China Wall—both bluffs located on the eastern, or lee, side of the dunes. These imposing scarps are the final deeds of winds that blow out of the Imperial Valley.
Another noteworthy attendee is B.J. Baldwin, who has recently won a second Baja 1000, soloing in his Trophy Truck. He is guest-driver in a newly prepared rail powered by a twin-turbo Corvette engine said to produce 1,800 hp.
And trucks, of course, are everywhere. Some are outfitted with balloon tires for hillclimbing and dune-running. Others are tow vehicles that also serve as base camps; they have come to Oldsmobile Hill on a trail extending from the highway. Still others remain beyond Lizard Hill at the campgrounds. There, we had already spoken with Jess Atilano, 54, who came from Riverside, California, with his sons Jesus, 21, and Alex, 18. Their main tow vehicle, an ’08 Ford F-450 Super Duty Power Stroke, is customized with 22-inch American Force alloy rims wearing LT325/50R22 Falken Wildpeak A/T tires. Their sand fleet includes three bikes and one side-by-side. Jess says they have been regulars here for 10 or 12 years and have noticed more enforcement of helmet and safety regulations lately.
Of the truck, Jesus says, “It’ll move the Empire State Building on a good day.”
In the meantime, we turn our attention back to Oldsmobile Hill. A pinstriped Ford Excursion that appears to be jacked up over a chrome bridge is flying a pirate flag with the slogan “Surrender the Booty.” The windows are down, and four well-dressed dudes are peering upslope. The chrome treatment also extends to KMD XD Series wheels, which carry low-profile rubber with an unaggressive tread. Our skepticism about this rig’s climbing ability is borne out 30 seconds later, when all momentum ends and the brake lights illuminate. A rail blasts by the Excursion, showering its occupants with sand. The backup lights wink next. The SUV gouges out a pair of deep ruts during the precarious, skidding, tail-first descent, and we imagine the passengers’ worries and the driver’s humiliation.
At least they make it safely down. The weekend’s toll will include 62 calls for medical assistance and two fatalities.
Later in the afternoon, there are to be drag races over by Gecko campground, near the western edge of the dunes. Silhouetted against the setting sun, shrouded in its own dust, that Corvette-powered rail was popping a monstrous wheelie in Third gear, amazing not only the spectators but also its driver. The fall of darkness hardly stops anybody’s fun; in fact, activity seems to increase. Headlights blaze, and the whips supporting safety flags are aglow with internal LEDs. The beams of light show dust and more dust. The neighborhood’s burrowing owls stay in for the evening.
When it was time to go, we removed our sneakers, pouring out streams of sand. Later, at home, the sneakers were thrown into the washer and then the dryer. After they cycle, we pull out the lint trap, which is full of sand. For many thousands of people, this residue is a cherished bonus—a reminder of the fun and fear they experienced at the dunes of Glamis.
“Every sort of vehicle is in use on the dunes, and we see them at Oldsmobile Hill. This steep and rumpled rise of about 300 feet is reputedly named for the first four-wheel vehicle to climb it: a Model T chassis with a Rocket V-8 engine and hand-grooved tires.”