“Are you sure this guy actually likes you?” I thought I was. We’d met when I hired him to take photos a few years back and we still grabbed lunch on the regular. But now, driving down a deserted dirt road to nowhere, I wasn’t so sure. He’d sent me this way. Given me directions to an off-the-beaten-path town that would make for some pretty pictures. Over the last few hours we’d driven deep into California’s Mojave National Preserve. I wasn’t sure we’d make it out.

Our fall road trip had already taken us through Idaho and Utah. We’d spent the previous day exploring the slot canyons in Page, Arizona after I made a navigation error and missed the Grand Canyon. Seems impossible, but I apparently have no real talent for map reading. We were now headed south to Joshua Tree and Twentynine Palms was on the way. It was a straight shot, side-swiping Vegas before crossing the state line into California. I re-read his text.

“There’s an eerie neighbourhood you should check out. Take the turn off at Ivanpah Road and follow it all the way. You’ll go about forty miles. It’s pretty remote, but totally worth it. Be sure to stop at Roy’s Motel Café on the way.”

Seemed simple enough, but our GPS disagreed. J had punched the destination in earlier. It chose a different route. All highway. I was convinced it was wrong, inclined to believe a friend’s first-hand account over our robot guide. People have driven into lakes listening to that things. If we took the highway, we’d miss something. The route I’d been given was the road less travelled.

We took the turn off. It started fine. Scenic, quiet and paved. Until it wasn’t. About fifteen minutes in, we hit dirt. I went back to the text. Had he mentioned this? He had. Something about the road being a bit rough. I tried to remember what he drove. I was pretty sure it was a car. We had a 4×4. We’d be fine regardless of what lay ahead.

After an hour, nothing much had changed. We chatted aimlessly about the last few days and what we’d do when we got to Joshua Tree. I picked up my phone to do a quick search for campsites and discovered we’d lost cell service somewhere along the way. We were officially off the grid.

Another ten miles in, the road washed out. It had been dry for days, but you could see where a rush of water had carved out a sizeable ditch across our path. Looking back, this was when we should have turned around. That moment in the movie when the main characters use common sense. We started calculating the time to sunset and evaluating our current fuel level. Doubling back now would mean arriving in the park after dark. We pushed on.

When the road turned to washboard, J turned the GPS back on. If we’d taken a wrong turn along the way, it would offer the most direct route forward. It immediately started to squawk. Make a U-turn. Our eyes met. Surely that was a mistake. With the lack of connection, it was just confused about our location. The map showed that the road continued on and would eventually link up with the main drag. Surely it was faster to keep heading that direction.

We rolled on, the odd dirt path running perpendicular to the road and out into the hills. Were they driveways? I couldn’t be sure. There weren’t any houses, that we could see anyway. The GPS called out each one. Turn left. Turn left. Turn left. How did it even know they were there? They weren’t big enough to be roads. They weren’t even on the map.

By mile thirty, I started to worry. Our momentum had slowed thanks to rapidly degrading road conditions, and we’d been listening to the GPS freak out for almost an hour. Conversation had all but stopped. I started scanning the landscape for huge craters filled with abandoned cars. You know how it goes. The family breaks down on a deserted road and everyone falls victim to violent savages. It’s always based on a true story.

I watched the horizon, eyes searching for some lone silhouette. It was getting late and we were low on gas. Even though we’d been camping, we weren’t carrying any food or water. J had lost interest in the town. He just wanted to get off this damn road. The incessant thump of hostile terrain was wearing him down and we’d started following a set of tire tracks that had appeared suddenly and seemed oddly fresh.

My mind started playing tricks on me. Dark objects just on the outside edge of my vision. Movement, maybe a flash of light. We’d driven through a valley earlier, a solar farm well off the highway. There was something alien about it. The towers looked unnervingly like the creatures from War of the Worlds. Maybe it was a front. They were living in plain sight right here in the California desert.

Up ahead, I could see a shimmer, low to the ground. I thought it was a mirage. Or a hallucination. Turned out to be asphalt, the threshold back into civilization. The GPS agreed. Follow the National Trails Highway. The destination is on the right.

Roy’s was as promised. Think season one of Mad Men, paused forever. I pressed my face up against the glass of the main building. Rose coloured couches sat facing each other, a Jetson era bar alongside. I imagined the owners simply went out one day, locked the door behind them and never returned. Maybe they took that road we’d been on? We got gas and wandered through long-abandoned motel rooms. One offered an unusual art installation. A gift from previous visitors to those who came this way. But this wasn’t the destination.

Twentypalms itself is a community – for people who likely don’t believe in such a thing. I imagine it appeals to those looking to disappear. Be forgotten. The houses are small. One room structures for the most part. There are no telephone lines, no power poles. At first glance it looked deserted. Linger and you’ll see the signs that people are probably lurking behind those yellowing lace curtains. In one yard, a faded Mr. Turtle pool sat disintegrating out front, but there were footprints on the porch. A lot of them.

We stopped a couple times to take pictures, but after a long day of driving a deserted road, I was already spooked. Each time I raised my camera, I imagined the barrel of a shotgun mirroring my movements on the other side of a plate glass window. We were the strangers. The unwelcome guests. Everything about this place screamed get out. I was happy to oblige.

We rolled into Joshua Tree as the sun set. After popping the tent and pouring a much-needed cocktail, I settled into a camp chair and picked up my phone. Pulling up the map, I searched our route. The warning read – dirt roads in the park require high clearance and extensive experience on gravel. Conditions can change quickly, and cell phones do not work throughout most of the park. Notify a Ranger before you leave the pavement. I should have read that earlier.

J pulled up his own chair, confirming that the GPS had been correct all along. The highway skirted the edge of the park. Smooth. Fast. Totally civilized. We could have shaved a few hours off the day. We’d taken a big risk. It way my call, my fault. But we’d survived. It would be a cautionary tale with no death or dismemberment at the end…unless the shadows I thought I’d seen had followed us here. I looked beyond the lantern’s pool of light, into the blackness. A pair of eyes blinked back. And then they started to howl. At least we weren’t alone.