Unless you make exotic weapons for the Navy -- know how to build "smart" bombs or have some special expertise in heat-seeking missiles -- it takes an unusual effort to get to this town on the mesquite-lined shores of a dry lake in the Majave Desert.
You have to turn east out of Bakersfield, where the August temperatures hover around 100, and head toward the village of Mojave, where the stunted brown trees tun to cactus and 110 degrees is more likely.
From Mojave you head north on state Route 14, avoiding the turnoff to Jawbone and being alert to signs that warn of flash floods and burro crossings. The signs, being somewhat challenging targets at 70 miles at hour, have bullet holes.
The drive can be lonely. But the military, which owns most of the land out here for exotic weapons testing and simulated wars, is doing something to remind travelers that they are not totally alone along the shores of dry lakes named Dead Man and Mirage China.
A cold war, any kind of war, brings new life to these dry badlands where the air is so hot it dances in heat-rivulet illusions.
But the cruise missile, America's latest plaything in the escalating game with the Soviets, is no illusion as it follows the highway at 400 feet. Sonic booms from exotic new aircraft and the rolling thunder of bomb tests behind desert bridges also tell you that others are here, working harder than they were just months ago at the art of national self-defense.
The missile, using the same terrain-tracking radar that could guide it around Siberian ridges and take it 1,500 miles into Russia, is tested here in a low loop that hugs the Cuddleback and Lava ranges, passes near little desert towns and then circles Red Mountain before slipping past the 1,500 people of Ridgecrest toward its target near China Lake.
The explosions break an occaional adobe house window, and at least two missiles have been lost in crashes near here.
But last week, the Navy, which operates China Lake, assured the local desert folks that the missile's warhead is concrete instead of nuclear for the flight tests it is doing for the Air Force here and, perhaps more importantly, the flights won't interfere with local television reception.
That seemed to reassure the Mojave Desert people who are accustomed to all kinds of strange doings. They have lived with Sidewinders -- and both the desert snake and the weapon -- and mysterious explosions far off behind cyclone fences that say "Restricted" and "Danger, Keep Out."
For the most part, the people here are unconcerned about a few nuclear arms race, think it is probably good and are far more worried about the Soviets than an occasional American missile careening off course into their backyards. Vivian Miller, whose parents homesteaded here in 1914, when there were a half-dozen families around figures war is coming for sure although "it will be silly because this one will be nuclear."
"The Bible says we'll always have wars and always have poor people," Mrs. Miller says in her old ranch house just outside the fence. "So there always will be a war. The question is when it comes in your life."
Mrs. Miller believes the Bible, but she has other sources. Her father fought the Spanish-American War before coming here to get away from it all. Her brother died in World War II. Her son went to Vietnam and, coming home wasn't off the bus before someone asked him how it felt to be a murderer.
Wars go back to those Old Testament days of Mesopotamia and Persia, she says, and human nature hasn't changed. If the other guys build up their defenses, the way the Russians are doing, it's "just the natural thing for us to do it, too."
Paul Miller, her husband, feels the same, although the worries about "those instant geniuses" back East who are planning it all. After watching the political conventions, he is disenchanted with talk about "this great American and that great American" and politicans "taking credit for everything except the Creation." Miller is retired, now, and he spends most of his time on his sandy patio fighting the roots of his salt cedar shade tree. oThe roots grow as thick as a big man's thigh as they push through the desert soil seeking the water in his swimming pool.
Miller worries about the Soviets. But he also has his troubles with the Navy, which runs the huge Naval Weapons Center at China Lake.
The Navy wants the Millers' land because experimental planes swoop in low overhead on their way to targets beyond the fence. The logic is simply beyond Miller who talks while he brushes away a tarantula hawk, a big black inscect that preys on the desert spiders. The Navy is willing to trade land with the Millers, and make a payment, too. But who wants to trade land you've had since 1914 for more mesquite and sand in the Mojave?
"we've been here since before that lousy base showed up," Miller says. "They've already got all the land in the world -- more than some eastern states, I hear."
He's right about that. The weapons center, its secrets covered by endless desert sand in the Indian Wells Valley, spreads across 1.27 million acres. Its bigger than Rhode Island.
And the Navy isn't alone out here.
The Fort Irwin Military Reservation bellies up to the Navy base. Gen. George Patton trained there decades ago and the Army is beefing the base up once again for mock wars.
To the south the Marines have a base at Twentynine Palms and to the west supersecret spy satelities and planes more advanced than the highaltitude U2 are tested at Edwards Air Force Base.
Just east, beyond Death Valley and into Nevada, Nellis Air Force Base and the Nevada Test Site north of Las Vegas take up more land than all the others put together.
There is a certain desert-politics paradox in all of this.
Out West, where well over half the land in some states is owned by the federal government, the political fad is a "Sagebrush Rebellion" -- an attempt to get some of those federal lands back under state control.
In a letter to his consituents last week, the state assemblyman for the China Lake area, Phil Wyman, said he was backing the rebellion because people here "are tired of being pistol-whipped by federal bureaucrats and dry-gulched by their regulations." But the western politicians are mostly after forest and grazing land, not military bases like China Lake and Fort Irwin. This is raw-boned conservative country, a new Cold War is building up and it's no time to be going soft.
Then, also the arms race makes parts of the desert bloom the way earlier races -- for gold and silver -- never did.
As you cut away from Route 14, up the narrow Red Rock Highway on your way to China Lake, you pass buzzards picking at rabbit carcasses and then you approach the carcass of the old mining town of Randsburg. Randsburg has turned as bone dry as a burro skeleton since the gold petered out more than a half-century ago.
Twenty-five miles away is Ridgecrest, a town that is a real estate developer's dream with a real estate developer's name. It sits at the edge of the China Lake fence, where a sentry in a beret stops outsiders.
Ridgecrest, which was called Crumsville until the Navy arrived in 1944, outgrew Randsburg in a falsh when weapons testing started here. The population now is 15,750 -- twice what it was in 1970 -- and climbing fast.
Where Randsburg's main street-best is Three Fingered Jack's Store, China Lake Boulevard in Ridgecrest has a brand new McDonalds, a Bank of American and stores that advertise all of life's luxuries from waterbeds to Harley Davidsons.
The Ei Dorado Motel is adding a new wing, renting the rooms while the workers still pound the roof. The motel is filled night after night with men who come here for weeks, writing in General Dynamics, Lockheed or Grumman on the registration forms.
Lela Jester has been around for 23 years, lately working the office counter at the El Dorado. She signs in the engineers and scientists beneath autographed photos of test pilots ejecting from strange looking planes.
Jester is convinced the nation needs more of those airplanes, more missiles and more of everything of hold off the Russians.
She figures this will cost a lot of money, but money well spent, because anything the Soviets build, Americans can build better. "After all, we went to the moon and they didn't, says Jester, who met some of the astronauts when they trained in the nearby Coso Mountains.
Ridgecrest, despite all its bright new buildings, still has a frontier atmosphere about it on Saturday night. The bars are jammed.
The choices range for the VFW hall, which has a shimmering red missile in its front yard, to the Hideaway, which offers disco lights for dancing and dining to The Time Out, which has beer, pool and those new computer games where a quarter gets you into a match with space invaders.
On Saturday night a young sailor, who didn't look quite legal, was showing his date, who looked less so, how to play the Galaxains.
"We are the Galaxians," the computer lights flashed at the couple "Our mission: Destroy the aliens."
The sailor had some experience with the aliens and his scores rolled into thousands. His girlfriend, a novice, struggled to learn the tactics.
"As you get better at it," the sailor said knowingly, "the aliens just keep coming at you faster and faster."