THE COBALT BLUE sky created a brilliant backdrop for Imperial Dunes. The westerly flow is heavy, sending curls of sand clouds into the air. The wind is a sculptor of dunes, constantly reshaping ridges, peaks and ripples.
Imperial Dunes is popular with the buggy and motor-bike set. A small village of RVs lines the rough, crumbled asphalt road, just off Interstate 8 in California’s Imperial Valley. Trucks and bikes and dog pens and charcoal grills litter adjacent spaces. The dudes are eager for their dune-cation.
After making a few images, I decide to test my luck and head toward El Centro, further west on I-8. It’s part military town, part California desert outpost. In the winter, the Navy’s elite flight demonstration team, the Blue Angels, trains at NAF El Centro.
Walking El Centro’s main drag, it was hard to avoid the hints of a more prosperous past. Art deco architecture blends with simple store fronts. A transit hub idles next to a small concert venue, which is across the street from a furniture store, which stands next to a vacant lot that connects to an empty storefront.
There’s both charm and despair on this street. The town is aging, and seems unsure of its future, let alone its present. Worn out warehouses line the eastern edges, near the railroad tracks, which connect to a better life, or the life you have, in this town. The dream is direction dependent. Are you coming or going?
A few miles northwest is the naval air facility. It’s surrounded by fields of crops, which on this day are mostly just dirt and mud. The March wind that was whipping new shapes at the dunes is present here as well, spewing dust and desert and fertilizer into a wall of brown haze.
Navigating the ag roads allows me and a few others a closer look at the base, where to my delight I see seven blue and gold F-18s (one has returned to Pensacola, Florida) and the support aircraft known as Fat Albert. I pull off about twenty yards from the perimeter fence, turn off the engine and grab one of my cameras. It’s about this time I see flashing lights in my rear-view mirror. The military police have come to disperse the watch party.
A friendly staff sergeant informs me we are too close to the runway, and gives directions to a couple of roads nearby where everyone can view the afternoon training session.
The. Afternoon. Training. Session.
Around 2 p.m., I can see and hear the F-18 Super Hornets throttling up. The heat waves from the engines ripple through the air, blurring the hangars like muddy bokeh. Smoke billows high. Showtime has arrived.
Within minutes, the Blue Angels are barreling down the runway in a four-wide formation. Barely above the ground, the #4 plane slides under the other three to make a diamond or “delta” formation. It happens so quickly, but the skill is equal parts heart stopping and breathtaking.
Sometimes the best part of embarking on the unknown is finding the known. On this day, unknown-turned-known was a 90-minute practice run that was 100 percent bad ass.
Try the Mexca Brew Lager at Mexca Brewing Co. on Main Street in El Centro.
Seeing the Blue Angels was pretty dope. But checking out these weathered towns is what adventure travel is all about.
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