I should know this by now. I’ve lived here for almost five years and have been going up to Northern California throughout that time. This last trip was different—the journey would be as much a part of the experience as the destination. Which meant liberation from Interstate 5, which is also known as the Stultifying Forced March through the Central Valley. I should be clear. The small farming towns of the San Joaquin Valley are beautiful and I imagine the cities have their own charm. But the I-5 is an arrow-straight bowling lane with hurtling semis, distracted So-Cal princesses trying to paint their nails while steering their BMW’s with their knees, and minivans piloted by red-eyed parents hell-bent on getting to their destination before the kids throw a COMPLETE fit. And you get 300 miles of this between L.A. and the Bay Area.
On Friday we three Soutowoods packed into the car and headed up the 15 through Riverside and onto the 395. I had no idea what to expect, but the satellite view showed some traffic lights, a few small towns, and a lot of empty space. After we cleared the last of the tract housing and strip malls, we came to open space.
O p e n s p a c e.
Sage brush, rock piles, gullies. Sometimes we would crest a hill and seated below us was a country spreading to the horizon with nothing but one single road. I’ve driven through the mountain states from Canada to Mexico, hiked in BLM lands that see nothing but the occasional cow every dozen years, and stood on high plains with no town in sight. But this emptiness could only be compared with the lung-sucking feeling I got looking West over the Sahara from the outpost oases in Western Egypt. Out there, your mind tells you, you could walk, fall, crumble to dust, and become one with the sand, and no living creature would ever set eyes on you.
As we drove north the hills on either side grew up into mountains. To the east were stony hunch-shouldered giants. To the west, rocky ridges became blades. I never knew the Sierras had Alp-like pinnacles like this. I expected molars, but saw rows of shark’s teeth. Winding through flat-pan valley between these two rows of mountains, the climatology of mountain terrain was obvious. The western mountains reach up with stony fingers and claw snow from the clouds, leaving veils of mist to fall in the valley and on the western slopes. Several times we drove through drapes of rain, the shadows of mountains adding a pensive feeling to the valley. Periodically we passed through towns named by tired pioneers: Lone Pine, Big Pine, Tom’s Place. They were not Old-Westy for the tourists. These were towns for whom raised wooden sidewalks, windbreaks of leaning eucalyptus and cypress, and flat-fronted saloons were practical solutions to 19th century problems.
Then the valley ended. For hours we wound through a green trough of land but like the head-end of a bathtub, we had to climb up and out. Thus we entered pine country. The temperature dropped 15 degrees, redwoods stood in immovable verticality, and ponds fringed with greenery beckoned for an overnight camp. Much of the scenery reminded me of Scotland, for its grand wild vistas that begged for exploration with a sturdy pair of shoes and a walking stick. I know I’ll be back to that part of California, will get out of the car and onto the land.
Tomorrow, the second part of the drive, breads, and the great patience of Baby Harbat during 23 hours of driving.