(Note: Links and photos (finally!) added 9 May 2012. Hope you enjoyed the trip!)
Thursday morning dawned warm. Noticed the palm trees at the hotel door on my way out to get started for the morning, and noted the amount of miles I had to cover. This was going to be a long day, but definitely an interesting one; perhaps the most challenging one of the drive. Had I really expected the mountains to be behind me once I passed Flagstaff?
The Grapevine and the Pacheco Pass would have a good laugh at my expense.
The road crossed the Holy Moses Wash. Had there been any actual water in said wash, I might’ve stopped to gather some for my
nefarious Vodou purposes, but it was as dry as the Israelites’ path through the Red Sea. While going through this part of Arizona, I got to thinking about how the colors of the landscape and the turn of the land, how its emptiness and sharp angles, affect those who have lived there, and who have crossed through it. The guides talked about various migrating groups (anything from pioneers to Okies), and how they reacted to the terrain. Part of me would love to try to cross these areas on foot, or in a wagon or on horseback, and experience it that way. The rest of me is pretty convinced that part needs to go sit in the corner until she gets some sense.
Started to see cacti. Now, I’m sure there were cacti before, since there were deserts before, but at least by this point I can say I was seeing plants that looked like cacti to me. My mother had asked me two days previous if I’d seen any cacti; mostly I saw low trees, where I saw any vegetation at all. The iPod decided to be a smart aleck and serve up “Tea in the Sahara” as I neared Lake Havasu. A Kompressor passed me with the license plate RP S OK and I thought of my gaming friends. Currently, I am roleplaying a woman moving halfway across a continent. It is fairly challenging RP, despite the Mazda doing most of the work.
California happened quickly, and I was surprised by that. I expected the Colorado River to be bigger than it was; instead, I found the transition from Arizona to be almost blink-and-you-miss, at least at first. Then I was stopped at a checkpoint and asked about why I was there and what I had in my car, and the guard said “hey, welcome to California, good luck in San Jose!”
It was a little strange to believe I’d made it to California as I crossed the Mojave, as essentially, it was Arizona all over again with some higher elevations, and certainly higher temperatures. But I had made it, after starting three days late. In the middle of the Mojave, I found a DQ. The person who built this was brilliant, and is most certainly rich. Even in January, an ice cream in an air-conditioned building was a luxury. The swarms of ravens sitting around outside were only slightly disconcerting. Considering there’s nothing else to look at for a good 50 miles, they picked a good place to watch.
I-40 gave way to I-15. I passed the Wienermobile, going the other way, a bit after noon. Later, on Twitter, I found out it was headed to the Super Bowl. Wonder what driving that thing through Flagstaff was like….
Barstow was surprisingly unmemorable, besides being the first civilization I’d seen in a while, unless you count the Marine base near Twentynine Palms. Victorville distinguished itself by having more billboards for bariatric surgery than I’ve ever seen, anywhere. Is everyone in Victorville fat, or just worried about being fat? Everyone in southern California looks underweight to me, every time I’ve visited. (The rest of the plastic surgery billboards all over the place in Victorville were pretty creepy as well…)
Soon enough, it was mountains again. The pass through the Cajon River area was gorgeous, especially after having been through days of desert. It was so green, even for winter! Made me want to see it in the summertime, though I suspect it’s pretty hot down there then.
Each mountain pass had its own small terrors. The Superbeast handled the grades admirably, and was quite happy. I didn’t handle them quite as well, though, so it was a small relief to see the end of a grade and realize I’d made it through another pass in one piece. My friend Tim had warned me that most of my California trip would be up the Central Valley, and thus mountain-free. Once I got out of the Cajon Pass and into the LA area, I was cheering, thinking I was safe from scary mountains. Those of you who live in California, and know I went north on Interstate 5, are probably laughing uproariously at me about now.
Most of the LA area was not visible due to traffic; not very easy to sightsee while driving. I’d been to LA before, so I tried to remember what that was like while watching for the signs for Interstate 5, and even with that vigilance, I almost missed the turn.
The mountains on the horizon weren’t getting any smaller, and they weren’t staying any further away. Once I saw signs indicating whether or not the interstate ahead was open for the day (it was, with a high wind advisory), and I noticed all the “last stop before grade” signage and other things, I got a little concerned. As the road started climbing again, and then the southbound lanes actually went to the other side of us and went out of sight…I knew I was in for an adventure that was going to make the Flagstaff descent look like a joke. This adventure was named Tejon Pass, and the Grapevine.
Those of you who have spent your life driving up and down mountains are probably amused with my mountain-driving panic. Please try to understand that the highest elevation I’d ever driven previous to this trip was Monteagle in Tennessee, a wimpy 2,000-ish feet, and not even really a mountain but the edge of a Cumberland plateau, with a whopping 4-6% grade. Tejon Pass sits in the midst of 40 miles of nothing but mountains, on a California freeway, double Monteagle’s height, and no less than 6% grade at any point. Remember that I was passing through at about 3:30pm on a Thursday, in January, as well. This may still make you think I’m soft, but back in Illinois, a speed bump in a parking lot is an elevation.
Thankfully I was able to get off the highway in Gorman briefly, to consult the map and get another Red Bull and stretch my legs. I had already made it halfway through the Tejons on the climb, watched a man chasing his car down the shoulder as it rolled away from him, and avoided two near-accidents as people took the switchbacks a little too quickly and then shifted lanes without warning. The attendant in the Gorman gas station cheerfully informed me that I was almost out of the mountains. “It’s just a few miles down from here to the Valley,” she said. “It’s easy!”
Yes, it was easy. It was pretty much straight down through the Grapevine: the giant, twisty hole that the San Andreas Fault tears in the mountain range, on a highway conveniently slapped across its surface.
Three thousand feet of descent in less than six miles, with semis on both sides of me, in a thick fog, in dinnertime traffic, was not exactly how I wanted to enter the Central Valley, but enter it I did. Superbeast handled the Grapevine admirably, even if I decided to switch over to manual transmission (I now know what my Tiptronic is for besides snow!) and went down most of it in second gear. At the end, as the mountains opened up and I could see nothing but flat green in front of me, I think they must have heard me cheering back in LA. As I looked over at the mountains receding to the side and rear, I was reduced to grinning and thinking to myself: “You just drove over that!” As soon as I reached a rest area, I got out of the car and ran around like a fool for a minute or two until the adrenaline wore off. No, I didn’t go and pet the sheep.
Tim was right; the Valley was rather uneventful. But after a day of Unexpected Mountainous Adventures, uneventful was exactly what I needed. I set up my Bluetooth headset and talked with my parents, stopped and looked at maps, and sorted out when I thought I might make it to San Jose. There wasn’t much to see, beyond other cars, many fields and orchards, and the occasional sign berating various politicians for lack of water or other things. “Congress-Created Dust Bowl” was a pretty popular one that I saw numerous times as I headed north, though there wasn’t any dust or any Congress around.
As darkness fell and I reached a second rest stop, I realized I had a quandary. The MapQuest directions I’d printed out indicated that I should take something called the Pacheco Pass Highway west into Gilroy, and from there head northeast into San Jose. The navigation system in the car itself was suggesting I drive further north, via the Altamont Pass into San Francisco, and come back south toward San Jose. The map at the rest stop suggested I’d be driving through some more mountains either way, but the numbers were shorter on the Pacheco Pass Highway option, thus getting me into San Jose earlier. I was already running late. And the Altamont sounded cool – Rolling Stones reference and all – but so did getting to San Jose sooner.
By this time, in this trip, I should have known that trusting my instincts was going to be a bad plan.
But you already know which way I chose to go, don’t you? Not even Santa Claus, parked next to the Superbeast, was able to talk me out of it.
I chose to go across State Road 152, a.k.a. the Pacheco Pass Highway, after dark on a moonless Thursday in January, after I’d already spent all my nerves on the Tejons.
Once again, with feeling – see what it’s like to drive the Pacheco/Hecker Pass! Only do it like I did – after being on the road for 10 hours, at night, with no moon!
I’m not going to complain about everything on this part of the trip, I promise. It was actually a blessing that I couldn’t see anything but the yellow stripes down the road itself for those 14 very long, twisting miles. I suspect that if I had been able to see other things as I continued around the curves of a two-lane road through a mountain pass, I might have had to pull over for the night at Casa de Fruta. Someday, when my courage is up and my mountain-driving skills are better, I might drive back there just to see the reservoir in the daytime, but today? I’m just glad to be in a valley again. Later reading would inform me that this highway is exceptionally dangerous and possibly haunted, though other than the fear of being hit by someone driving far faster than I was as we curved around and down, I don’t think anything happened.
Thankfully, the office staff at the Studios Inn, who had been reading my daily “I’m not going to make it today” emails for two days, waited up for me, and I arrived at my temporary housing around 9pm. Once I’d signed all the paperwork and reviewed my room, I headed out to the diner across the driveway from the Winchester Mystery House that I remembered from my last trip, since I knew it would still be open and I could sit still for a little while. For the rest of the evening, it still didn’t seem like I made it, but I did. A goodnight to Sarah as I drove past her monstrous Queen Anne sprawl and on to my new home, and my California adventure had just begun.