That’s the way it is with vacation trips isn’t it? Seems like eons ago – if you even remember it at all. Seems as if the national park t-shirt with the wolf on it and the Mount Rushmore refrigerator magnet are the only hard evidence that you actually went somewhere.
Going back to work dims the memory all the more and all the more quickly.
So that’s why I’m thankful that I’m retired. I can better savor the experience when I get back and I don’t have to suffer the pre-vacation office bullshit.
There’s no more of the insulting, “Well, if you must,” treatment from your boss when you put in for the two weeks off. That would be the selfsame boss who just the week prior encouraged “team members” to take some time off to “recharge the batteries.”
I’ve retired from having to compose the out of office message to keep coworkers, and especially management, at bay, “I’ll be out of the office for two weeks. Since I’ll be staying in Chicago where there is no internet and only limited phone service, I will respond to your message upon my return.”
I’m spared the onerous return to office rituals of sorting through a thousand emails and suffering the inquisition over whatever thing went sideways while I was gone.
This isn’t to say that I’m not going through a post vacation malaise; a what’s on the itinerary tomorrow, followed by the depressing realization that the only itinerary is getting out the green that developed in the pool, and digging up the plants that perished, while we were gone. Is that all there is?
Maybe part of that malaise comes from the fatigue of the last leg, the worst section of the entire trip. My daughter offered that the last day is always the worst because there’s nothing new to look forward to. What’s immediately in front is what you left to get away from.
That’s probably true for me but not for Cora. She was ready to return home. She wanted to sleep in her own bed again. Me? Give me ten milligrams of melatonin and a bed of nails and I’m good. Slept like a baby. Where to next?
I will admit that when I travel I miss my coffee maker and my shower. We stayed at eighteen different places and it seemed that at each one I had to learn how to use a coffee maker. And as for the shower, I never could get the water temperature and pressure to my liking. Hell, in one place the hot and cold were reversed. I thought that I would have to take a cold shower until I tried the, “I wonder what’ll happen if…” bit.
But there were times, even towards the end, that I was plotting a way to extend the trip. Cora wouldn’t have had anything to do with that notion. She would have hitchhiked home if necessary. And then shopped a good attorney while I was still away.
Travel writing. Straight from the start I realized that I have a lot of learning to do when it comes to being a travel writer. I started out with the notion that I could write as I go. I brought along all the tools; a journal, plenty of pens and pencils, a voice recorder and of course my laptop.
But the write as I go plan was trashed on day one.
The whole trip was almost trashed from the start as I was ready to turn us back around for home on day two. At the end of day one I was spent. In marathoner’s terms, I’d hit the wall. That first day was, on paper anyway, a drive from home to Porterville, California, a distance of 257 miles. That 257 miles is point to point and during the planning, I didn’t take into account the side trip to Kings Canyon and Sequoia National Parks and the scenic drive that added another 100 miles or more.
I was suddenly slapped by the realization that all of the mileage and drive times had been based on motel to motel calculations. If I adhered to the point to point itinerary we would miss the planned and off the cuff side trips. I would’ve stripped the meat from the bone. It was a mistake that couldn’t be undone without undoing the trip.
At the end of that first day the rest of the trip was the furthest thing from my mind. I was exhausted and stressed and told Cora that I’d have to see how I felt in the morning. Maybe I’d bitten off far more than I could chew.
So what about that first day?
We started out full of anticipation. It was going to be our great adventure, the one that had started the previous month as one of those wild hairs of mine, the ones we’d always dismissed as stupid flights of fancy. This was the one that we were actually going to follow through on.
It’s May 18th. Our daughter Jessica walks us out to the packed van and wishes us the customary, “Bon voyage, be safe,” before we pull out, bound for Porterville, in California’s San Joaquin Valley. The bulk of our drive will be south on Highway 99, down the eastern edge of the valley.
The most productive agricultural region in the world, the San Joaquin yields more than 250 crops. It’s a drive I’ve taken to Disneyland, for work, as the start of many a vacation, and it’s the drive I took to take my daughter to college at San Diego State. It’s a familiar drive and for me one that can be monotonous.
And what of the last day?
It’s June 17th, the one planned point to point drive that I planned to stick to. The drive with no side trips and only necessary stops; Klamath Falls, Oregon to home, a distance of 334 miles. I know from the weather reports that we’ll be driving on one of the hottest days of the year; temperatures into the hundreds (F).
I’m wanting to get an early start but as usual that doesn’t happen. Being the driver and knowing that the trip is going to be a daunting one never carries any weight. The driver is driven by Cora’s schedule.
It had been years since I’d driven 99 and it’s changed. It’s still an agricultural bounty but the farms, the orchards and the ranches are broken up by splotches of consumerism.
Commercial plazas, replete with Hometown Buffet, Applebee’s, Best Buy, Ross, Bass Pro Shop and barns that don’t house livestock; that would be Boot Barn and Dress Barn.
Still it isn’t as if the malls and apartment buildings and townhouse communities have pushed out the industry that moves the valley. Mile upon mile is a sea of crops. For a stretch it’s tomatoes, changing to onions or melons or peppers or almonds. Almonds are harvested the old fashioned way but with the help of technology. You have to get the almonds off the tree somehow and that’s done by shaking the trees. Instead of using human hands, the jaws of hydraulic shakers clamp the trunk of the tree and shake the almonds off.
Table grapes grow in the San Joaquin. Grapes of Wrath grew in the San Joaquin – twice. The first sprang from the pen of John Steinbeck who began writing the book in a little restaurant near Tagus Ranch in the San Joaquin’s Tulare County, just thirty miles from our first stop. The book didn’t treat the valley farmers graciously and in turn it was banned and burned in Kern County.
Years later, in 1965, in Kern County’s Delano, agricultural workers walked off the job at ten vineyards that produced table grapes. The workers, most of them Filipino, were demanding a raise both in their hourly wages, from $1.25 to $1.40, and in the rate a worker earned for each box of grapes packed. The organizers of the strike called for a consumer’s boycott of table grapes. For years my family honored the boycott and went without table grapes.
Highway 99 is an ever moving ribbon of big rigs; trucks hauling produce, tankers full of milk, rigs pulling shipping containers from the Port of Oakland. They scream past small towns, Livingston, Ripon, Salida, and Ceres, and the larger sprawling towns of Modesto, Turlock and Fresno.
At every rest stop, at every motel, there’s proof that America is travelling again. Out of state plates, RV’s, travel trailers and dads and granddads doing the gas station ritual of dumping water out of the cooler and stuffing in a new bag of ice. COVID? What COVID?
I’m humping stuff from our motel room in Klamath Falls down to the van. I’d asked for a first floor room but she put us on the second floor. I’d parked the car in the nearest spot to our room which was still a pretty good hike.
“She couldn’t have put us farther from the car if she’d booked us into a room in Eugene, Oregon,” I remark to Cora as I wipe away the sweat that’s already forming at eight in the A.M.
I’ve packed the car for the 18th time and, what’s this? Extra room. Is there something left in the motel room? On the very last day I’ve mastered the art of packing the car. Note to self, before the next trip pack and unpack the car every day for a month so that you’ll have your shit together from the very start.
Before leaving Klamath Falls I stop at a Pilot Travel Center to top off the gas tank. Just as I start to put my debit card in the reader, an Oregonian gas jockey snatches the nozzle and reminds me just were I am in these great United States of America.
“You’re in Oregon buddy. It’s full service here. Fill it up?”
“Sure,” I sigh.
“Card or cash?”
He instructs me to insert my card into the machine and follow the prompts – as if I’ve never pumped gas before. Payment made and I sit in the car while the gas jockey hops over to the next island.
Full service is something of a misnomer. The full service that I remember went something like,
“Clean your windshield?”
“Check the tires?”
“Pop the hood sir, I’ll check your oil.”
There’s none of that here. It’s just a gas jockey, putting the nozzle in the fill pipe and then bebopping over to the next island until he hears the automatic shutoff, at which time he bebops back, removes the nozzle and sends you on your way.
The drive out of Klamath Falls is through high desert, dry and nondescript. It’s going to be that way until we get near Weed, California where we start to pick up the forestland of Northern California.
Before leaving the travel center I get another cup of coffee to help me stay awake through the monotony of this plain land.
Less than a half hour out and I enter Dorris, in a manner of speaking. The main, and I guess only, attraction in Dorris, California, population just under 1000, is that it’s home to the second tallest flagpole west of the Mississippi River. The flagpole, is a 200 foot tall marvel of engineering that flies a flag measuring 30 feet by 60 feet. It was the tallest until a taller one was erected in Laredo, Texas. Why? Well because everyone knows that size matters and everything is bigger in Texas.
Aside from it’s massive pole, Dorriss is just another of the many, many sleepy little towns we’ve passed during the course of a month, through sixteen states.
The Saddle Company, a western wear, and saddlery – I guess. Doesn’t matter what it was – it’s closed down. The Bar 40 – also closed. El Ranchito advertises in green and red lettering on a plywood board, birria tacos, tamales and tortas. The place looks like a dump but I’ll bet the mortgage that the food is better than some high priced frou-frou Mexican joint in San Francisco. The Elm Motel. No vacancy, nobody at the front desk and no bell to ring for service. The Elm is long out of business.
A little further down the road a fellow is busy setting up a roadside tamale stand. I stop to take a picture and a guy sitting in front of a house eyes me. Suspiciously?
I pull out of Dorris and wonder if there’s much to do there besides give the stink eye to camera toting out of towners.
Atwater sits on Highway 99, a few miles north of its much larger neighbor, Merced. I was last in Atwater sometime in the 1980s when it was home to the U.S. Air Force, 93rd (Heavy) Bomber Wing at Castle Air Force Base; a base for B-52 bombers.
The company that I worked for was doing business with military bases and I was making a sales call on the base purchasing department. I’ll never forget the sight of a B-52 lumbering down the runway and taking flight; the huge aircraft trailing clouds of black smoke, gigantic wings literally flapping, making it look like a gigantic gull, only without the grace.
The base is closed now, decommissioned in 1995. An Air Museum remains along with an adjacent RV Park, a high security United States Penitentiary and a small Google campus that the tech giant uses as a testing ground for a self-driving car.
I’m very tempted to stop at the air museum. Included in the exhibit is a Royal Air Force Avro Vulcan bomber, a delta winged veteran of the Cold War that I always thought had a pretty cool look about it. Fans of the old James Bond movies, the good ones that starred Sean Connery, will remember that the Vulcan was featured in the 1965 movie, Thunderball.
I know that if I stop, Cora and Lexi will have to hang out while I spend an hour or more shooting photos. Probably COVID closed anyway.
Even from as far away as Klamath Falls, snow capped Mount Shasta has been looming in front of us, getting larger and larger in the windshield as we approach it from the north. It’s a classic view, the one that I remember since before I ever laid eyes on the mountain itself. It was the logo of the Shasta Soda Company. I loved their cream soda and cherry cola. Shasta sodas were the staple out of the family Scotch Cooler on picnics and road trips.
“It hasta be Shasta.”
Lake Shasta. In what used to be normal times it would be brimming, sapphire blue spotted with houseboats. Today it’s frighteningly low. Where the lakeshore should be, is yards and yards of parched ground. High and dry as the saying goes. Patches of earth rise out of the center of the drying lake.
At the town of Weed, we transition onto Highway 5 for the long haul towards Highway 80 and the final leg home.
Southbound, with hours to go before home, on the outskirts of Redding, and the temperature has just hit 100 (F). It’s still early. Not even noon and it’s going to get hotter.
At Fresno, we turn east to our first planned sights of the road trip, Kings Canyon and Sequoia National Parks. It’s 80 degrees (F) at around noon but as we head into the park and gain elevation the temperature drops quickly. At 7000 feet it’s a comfortable 63 degrees.
It’s been nearly 40 years since I last visited Kings Canyon. I went backpacking with my friend and coworker, a fellow named Barry. In the weeks leading up to our trip I warned Barry who wasn’t in the greatest shape, to get some running in and to hit the gym. He did neither.
He did bring a bottle of tequila. You know, it’s amazing how quickly you can get hammered at 7000 feet.
In the end, when the trek turned out to be too much for Barry we cut the backpacking short. I ended up carrying some of his gear so that we could get out, get to a hotel and have a regular meal. We wound up in Fresno where we gorged ourselves on Mexican food and Margaritas. After dinner we went to a minor league baseball game to watch the Fresno Giants and an up and coming young first baseman named Will Clark.
Kings Canyon and Sequoia National Parks are adjacent to one another and the most prominent features are the Giant Sequoias. We stop briefly to pay homage to a giant of the Giant Sequoias which, in 1867, was named after General and later President, Ulysses S. Grant.
You have to be a very prodigious tree to get named after a dead president (actually when the tree was named Grant was still neither president nor dead. He was at the time the celebrated victor of the Civil War). It’s hard to comprehend the majesty of the Grant Tree. Photos certainly don’t do it justice. This wonder, thought to be 1700 years old, rises 268 feet (82 meters) and is estimated to weigh 1254 tons (1325 metric tons). The circumference at its base is 107 feet (33 meters) and the tree’s largest branch is 4.5 feet (1.4 meters) in diameter.
Still in Northern California, on the homeward bound drive we pass miles of forestland that has been devastated by wildfires. This brings the term “scorched earth,” to life – or death. Blackened, denuded, skeletal trees, their limbs gaunt and scraggy, they look like so many grim reapers; ghostly harbingers of life in the new west.
The drive south takes us into the Sacramento Valley, the northern sister to the San Joaquin which we drove through on our first day out. Together they make up California’s Central Valley, 60 miles at its widest point and stretching 450 miles down the state’s spine, a place that’s notorious for being a griddle during the summer months.
It’s the drive out of Sequoia that’s stressing me. Miles and miles of sharp turning switchbacks back down towards the valley floor.
“I hope the brakes that I’m smelling belong to the guy in front of me,” I tell Cora.
We come to an overlook and I stop to take some photos of Moro Rock and the surrounding panorama – and to take a sniff of the tires. Yep, it’s my brakes. Let’s just stay here for a bit while they cool down.
Moro Rock is a granite dome that towers over the park. The view of it is spectacular. The view from it is even more so. There’s a trail, complete with handrails, that leads to the top of Moro Rock. Maybe another time. Maybe another life. I’m not fond of standing on the precipice.
Finally out of the park we stop at the little resort town of Three Rivers. I check a map (a real one) to fact check Google. It won’t be the last time that I fact check Google using a map (a real one). Fact checking Google can be a time and tantrum saver, because by the time that you find out that you’ve been fucked by Google you might be miles and miles off course.
Southbound towards home the temperature soars to 110 and I keep turning to look back at our dog, Lexi who’s hanging in there. I make a number of stops, at travel centers for coffee and at rest stops for shade. At each stop we offer Lexi water and spritz her with water from a spray bottle to cool her off.
We stop at Granzella’s, a traveler’s rest in the little valley town of Williams. Olives are the king crop here and besides being a place to get food and a rest from the road, Granzella’s offers a variety of olive products and a few souvenirs.
I’d planned to get a sandwich and buy some oil and olives but I decide to just get a smoothie for Cora and get back on the road. I don’t have the patience to wait for a sandwich. At no point during the trip was I in a hurry to get home but that’s changed. Now I just want to get home and out of the heat.
Before we stopped I’d told Cora that I wanted to check the cooler and maybe replenish the ice.
I get back to the car and hand her the smoothie.
Thinking she was expecting ice in the smoothie, I shot back.
“Really? I stand in that fucking line after this fucking drive to get you a smoothie and it’s not good enough?”
“I meant for the cooler.”
We sit in silence for a while.
We’ve barely been apart for over a month, most of the time we’ve only been separated by the center console of the van and this is only the second time that we’ve exchanged words of anger. Both, just short bursts that are quickly forgotten.
At the Porterville, Best Western. I’m not at all hungry, just stressed and exhausted. All I want to do is lay on the bed, try to compose myself and contemplate what to do. Part of me wants to just pack it in, turn around, admit defeat and go home. I mean, think of all the money we’ll save. Sure, some is already spent and not refundable and there might be a cancellation fee or two. Small change, compared to what we’ll save. Another part of me doesn’t want to face the humiliation of turning around after one stinking day. The most reasonable part prevails, the one who advises giving it another day or two.
Day two takes us through more of the San Joaquin Valley. Almost from the start of the drive we pass miles and miles of orange groves.
As we drive deeper into vast Kern County (third largest county in California) the beautiful, deep green orange trees are insulted by the grotesque appearance of oil fields. The two sights, sometimes separated by only a fence, couldn’t be more at odds with one another.
Hesperia and our start of Route 66 is our final destination for day two. Most of the drive is through the Mojave Desert. It’s hot and it’s desolate and while the glare hurts the eyes the view is fascinating. It’s one of those rare places that most of us never get to see.
Just outside of Boron we pause at a rest stop for the three of us to take a bathroom break. Unlike most rest stops there’s no lawn here, just hard scrabble and a sign that warns pet owners to keep an eye on their dogs as rattlesnakes are not uncommon here. Nothing about keeping an eye on the children though. I guess, have a snake bite kit available in case Johnny decides to play with a viper.
Boron, population 2200. But for scraggly brush and some rough hills, the place is featureless – and hot. One wonders which of god’s 2200 people would live here. The answer is, the ones who work at the world’s largest borax mine and the ones who work in the service industries that support the miners.
At Boron, we stop at Love’s Travel Center for gas. The tank is just under half full and while I might run the car down to fumes at home, the Mojave is no place to risk running out of gas. You gas up and you don’t shop because the next station might be a few gallons further than what you have in your tank. Between desert burgs is NOT the place to have a breakdown.
At the end of the second day I’m still exhausted and not feeling well and once again I warn Cora that I might just want to turn back for home.
After an early takeout dinner from the Mexico Lindo Restaurant, we drive to our first Route 66 attraction, Elmer’s Bottle Tree Ranch.
Elmer did it. Suddenly I’m feeling better and looking forward to the next day and the days to follow.
Home. The temperature has dropped to 102. Cora wants me to relax but I need to empty the car because if I sit down I won’t have it emptied until noon tomorrow.
The drive home was the absolute worst day of them all. I’m at the same time exhausted and amped up. I’m already starting to get that clouded over feeling, dark with the post vacation blahs. Nothing to do tomorrow. Nothing on the agenda. Nothing new, nothing exciting.
I’m worn out but if I could, I’d hit the road again. Well, maybe I’d wait till morning but I’ve no doubt that I need to plan the next one. In fact as we left Klamath Falls I told her of my plan for a late summer road trip. This one will be solo and Cora is perfectly fine with that as long as I check in every day.
One thing is abundantly clear, something that became clear to me at some point, no, at many points during our road trip. This has been the best trip, bar none, that I’ve ever taken.
We passed through sixteen states and drove over 8000 miles.
We drove the Mother Road and visited more than a half dozen national parks. We saw new cities, like Oklahoma City, Kansas City and Bozeman, Montana. We bought coffee and pastries and stopped at farmer’s markets in small town America. We explored ghost town America to wonder what had befallen these places that turned them into lonely, tired derelicts, forgotten by all except for the few holdouts who never left.
Barbecue in Kansas City and Amarillo, green chilis and sopapillas in New Mexico, steak in Nebraska, catfish in Arkansas and bison in Montana. We spent our 40th anniversary in Seligman, Arizona, having burgers at a drive in and making new, albeit temporary friends who helped us celebrate.
We saw the plains, the cornfields, the cattle ranches, the mountains and the valleys. We walked through a sandy desert at Petroglyph National Monument in New Mexico and in snow at the Beartooth Pass in Montana. We were standing on the corner of Winslow, Arizona made famous by Jackson Browne and The Eagles, and we craned our necks to look up at the Devil’s Tower, nature’s strange obelisk that obsessed Richard Dreyfus in Close Encounters of the Third Kind.
We spent Memorial Day Sunday visiting the memorial for the victims of the Oklahoma City bombing and then spent Memorial Day at a Civil War battlefield in Pea Ridge, Arkansas.
We watched a weaver spin his magic in Chimayo, New Mexico and leather workers craft saddles in Sheridan, Wyoming.
We cried over the grandeur of the Grand Canyon, laughed at the oddity of the Cadillac Ranch in Texas and cursed the dirty little motel in Missoula, Montana.
We crossed America’s grand and storied rivers; the Missouri, Yellowstone, Belle Fourche, Rio Grande, Columbia, and Norman Maclean’s Blackfoot River.
We’d been through rainstorms, lightning storms, wind storms and dust storms. I’d awakened to 25 degree cold in Flagstaff and driven through 110 degree heat in the Central Valley.
Maybe it was in Iowa, or maybe it was hiking to see a waterfall in Oregon, or looking at the “amber waves” of a wheat field outside of Ritzville, Washington; I couldn’t tell you exactly where or when. Maybe it was at all of these places and many more that I decided that you can have your cruises and your bus tours and your lay on the beach and do nothing but take a photo of your toes, vacations.
I’d rather explore America, savor its foods and sample its culture and meet its people.
Like the rock shop owner in Custer, South Dakota. The guy who had a little Trump sign on a post behind the counter. I told him I was from the San Francisco Bay Area and at that point we knew where each of us stood politically. And so we did what the politically opposed aren’t supposed to do these days. We spoke for a bit, as if we were good friends. Before I left he told me about an attraction in Sheridan, Wyoming that I absolutely shouldn’t miss. When I got to Sheridan I found the place and it was one of the highlights of the trip.
We saw the America that we’d only seen in the movies, or in books, or on CNN, when Chris Cuomo talks down to small town America.
We tasted America but for me it was only an appetizer. The main course is yet to be served.