Summer ’86: Part XV

I awoke to a cool misty morning making the ocean barely visible.  I heated up some coffee on the butane burner and relaxed in my newly “discovered” easy chair.  Turning the passenger seat around created a whole new space.  It felt like a small studio apartment with a living/dining room, bedroom, closet, storage  cabinets, radio and TV (battery operated, of course), sliding glass (cargo) door, and kitchen (well, just a refrigerator in my case).  It was my heaven on wheels.

It was somewhat difficult leaving the Paradise on the Pacific, but it was time to move on.  I sauntered north on the Pacific Highway (CA 1) through Long Beach, Redondo Beach, Santa Monica, and Malibu before finally merging with U.S. 101 at Oxnard.  I wanted to take a drive that would keep me in view of the ocean for as long as possible.

I passed through Santa Barbara, another sanitized ocean front town where the highway veered away from the ocean for about 70 miles through a typical California landscape of rolling feminine hills covered in wild golden grass and dotted with clusters of live oaks.  I was ready to find a spot somewhere along the highway to pull off for the night.  Lo and behold, I spotted a rest area of sorts just north of Grover City, perched near a cliff overlooking the Pacific.  I really felt like I was literally on the edge of the continent. I laid in bed listening to the roar of the waves splashing against the rocks below.  It was another night in paradise.

The next morning on my way to San Luis Obispo, I spotted the William Randolph Hearst mansion perched on a promontory overlooking the Pacific.  It was magnificent in appearance even from a mile away.  I decided it was time to head east, so I chose CA 58 to take me across the state’s fertile valleys again to Bakersfield.  I continued east on the same highway out into the desert to the small isolated town of Mojave where I junctioned with northbound CA 14.  The scenery subtly shifted to spectacular views of the southern tip of the Sierras.  About 50 miles further, I merged with good ol’ Hwy 395 again and continued north until stopping in the tiny town of Coso Junction for a few groceries.

My Atlas indicated a picnic area just up the road, so I took off hoping it would be my “just right” space for the night.  Sure enough, about ten miles further there was the picnic table under a cluster of live oaks and surrounded by a green sward. It was tantamount to an oasis and was even nestled next to the shoreline of the Haiwee Reservoir. I couldn’t believe my luck. I relaxed in the easy chair panning the panorama of the Sierras silhouetted against a setting sun.  What a way to end another splendid day!

The next morning I continued north on Hwy 395 with pit stops in Lee Vining and Lone Pine.  The terrain between the Sierras and the highway looked eerily familiar, and then it hit me – the boulders, trees, and rolling hills were the settings for hundreds of “B” Westerns filmed back in the 1930s and 40s. I was visualizing Tom Mix, John Wayne, Gene Autry, William Boyd (a.k.a. Hoppalong Cassidy), and dozens more of our heroes galloping after the bad guys.  Behind all that stood Mt. Whiney, the highest peak in the contiguous states at 14,491 feet.

At one of the stops, I encountered an elderly gentleman sitting on the front porch of a grocery mart who appeared to be one of the local gentry.  I had to ask him, “Wasn’t this area a haven for “western” film makers back in the 30s and 40s?”  He replied, “Yep, I can remember trainloads one after another packed with actors, horses, huge cameras, and props coming up from Los Angeles.  They all stayed in the Lone Pine Hotel over there across the street and partied all night.  Those were wild times.  Been pretty quiet around here since around 1950.  ‘Bout ten years later the trains stopped runnin’ through here and they ripped up the tracks.  Those were sad days.”  That was one good talk.

Well, it was time to head across the hottest, driest, and lowest region of the country known as, you guessed it, Death Valley. CA 190 took me through the most desolate and unforgiving landscape that I had ever witnessed.  The distant mountain ranges appeared to dissipate due to the extreme heat vaporizing into the air from the desert floor.

It was Dante’s Inferno, a netherworld to the casual observer, but laying dormant in the arid landscape was a myriad of flowering vegetation patiently waiting to bloom whenever, if ever, an unprecedented rainfall soaked the valley.  If I’m not mistaken, such a phenomena occurred on the average of once every 100 years!

I pulled under the cover of an abandoned gas station/restaurant in Death Valley Junction for a respite from the intense heat. True to California standards, the city limit sign read: pop. 0, elev. –268. I wasn’t too far from the lowest point in the U.S. at 282 feet below sea level.  And to think, I was less than 100 miles from Mt. Whitney!   All across Death Valley, I had been driving sans A/C so I could get the full affect of driving through “hell’s kitchen”. It really wasn’t all that uncomfortable since the extremely dry air was constantly flowing through the open windows and skylights. Curiously, I checked my thermometer that read, not surprisingly, 119 degrees, in the shade, of course.  I couldn’t help but recall that only a short time ago I was shivering in the cool mist of San Fran’s Marina.  Only in California could one experience such a dramatic change in climate over such a relatively short distance of about 300 miles.

A government pickup pulled in under the canopy for a brief relief from the blazing sun.  I strolled over to a middle-aged man who looked like he might know something about the area.  We had an interesting talk with him telling about the herds of wild Mustangs still roaming in the hills just east of the state line in Nevada.  I wondered how those magnificent animals could survive in such an inhospitable environment.  He replied, “They are sturdy animals and know how to survive by instinctively finding water and grass.” I noticed about a half dozen derelict adobe buildings situated around what was once a town square.  My friend Mike commented, “This was once a busy little town up until the early 50s and then people just stopped driving here.  There was even an opera house that drew the rich from San Fran and L.A.” Changing the subject, he said, “Did ya’ know 20 Mule Team Borax used to mine its salt from the valley floor?”  I replied, “Yea, I recall reading about that somewhere.”  All of a sudden, Mike bolted to his truck, saying, “Here comes my boss. I better look like I’m doing something.”  I waved goodbye to a most enjoyable man.

I stayed in the shade for a few minutes thinking it was so hot (how hot was it?) that if I was parked out in the sun, I couldn’t fry an egg on the hood because it would boil before the shell cracked. I finally got back on the road with the exhaust of a hair dryer blowing through Ol’ Blue (it was tolerable, trust me). I called it my 2/60 A/C – both windows rolled down going 60 mph.  I stopped in Thermos Creek, a palm tree-lined oasis where I learned from a local that it was once a popular retreat for movie stars back in the 1930s and 40s.  Things change.  I finally exited Death Valley and crossed the state line into Nevada. What an incredible trip it had been over the last six hours.  At Maragos Valley, I hooked a right onto U.S. 95, which lead me straight to the citadel of Sodom and Gomorrah (a.k.a. Las Vegas).