Nobody understands why I drive to Vegas. They don't understand that I like having my car there, that I actually enjoy driving through the desert, and that when traffic is bad, I'm happy to wend my way through the old Route 66 towns on the way home. It takes some time, though, and often I want to stop for a meal along the way.
The problem is that once you leave Barstow, there isn't much to eat. Sure, there's Baker, if you want the depressing gyros and incessant flies from the Mad Greek or a sodium headache from the Alien Jerky place. There's enough chain food in Baker to choke a horse, too, sustaining but not satisfying.
Fortunately, the best road food on the way from LA to Vegas is a quick 10-mile jaunt off the freeway in the little town of Nipton, near the California/Nevada border on the way to Searchlight and Laughlin. Where most Mojave desert towns have dried up and blown away (Kelso, Cima, Essex) , Nipton has thrived, relatively speaking. The town itself consists of an artist's camp, a general store, a B&B, a campground, a laundromat, a few houses and the Whistle Stop Oasis, home of a damn good burger. Though it looks like a ghost town, this is progress: Nipton is electrified by a series of solar panels on the west side of town, and there's free Wi-Fi in the café.
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The Whistle Stop Oasis looks a dusty outpost, but walk into the ramshackle building and you'll feel like you're in someone's living room--and you really kind of are. An ancient TV crackles on the counter, and Bill Sarbello, the chef who owns it, is in the kitchen concentrating on his cooking. Order a burger and a soda, kick back, and wait for it to happen: the burgers are made by hand and they're way less rushed than you are. If you're there for dinner, the menu is slightly more varied.
The burger was surprisingly juicy, with a little crust of salt on the outside, on a soft bun with the required pickle, lettuce and tomato. Fries were pretty standard, but so much better than the offerings back in Baker that they seem elevated somehow.
Once you're done and rested, head on back out to the freeway or, if you're daring, carrying water, and SUV-enabled, tackle the dirt track from Nipton to Stateline.
Whistle Stop Oasis, Highway Contract 1 Box 357, 107355 Nipton Rd., Nipton, California; (760) 856-2335; www.nipton.com.