Between Yuma and El Centro, the highway ran perilously close to the Mexican border, coming within a mile at one point. I envisioned a gang of pistol-wielding bandoleros on horseback charging over the horizon, in hot pursuit of this gringo and his precious cargo. After all, the border was just an arbitrary line drawn in the sand, supposedly separating the two Californias (Baja and U.S.). My Mexican bandits never materialized, but I was besieged by several pitiful panhandlers at a rest area. The feeling I got was that I was at the very opposite corner of the continent from New England, where that good old Yankee pride had been entrenched for over three centuries. By contrast, the extreme southwest America appeared to be languishing in a state of lethargy. It was the general trashiness of public areas, such as that rest stop, and the unkempt private dwellings with auto carcasses decaying about their yards…that was depressing.
However, I soon discovered that things changed fast in California. It was a trip to the bountiful as I detoured north from El Centro to Brawley, passing through one of the most productive pieces of real estate in the country – the Imperial Valley. Was it named after that ubiquitous brand of sweetener? I hardly thought so. Wasn’t sugar cane grown in extremely wet climates? But then, anything was possible in California, especially when they had their spigots hooked up to the convenient Colorado. From the lush valley it was just a stone’s throw to the lifeless Salton Sea (236 feet below sea level). Two diametrically opposed regions were within 25 miles of each other. Unbelievable! I made a u-turn to get back on the San Diego-bound interstate.
Another detour confronted me in El Centro, but that one was purely impulsive on my part. On that hot afternoon, the Holiday Inn’s cool pool was too much of a temptation to evade. After changing a couvert in the van, I brazenly ignored the “For Hotel Guests Only” sign and dove headlong into the aqua refresher. It was all well worth the risk of being embarrassingly evicted. I emerged from my shameless adventure unscathed, due in part to a resourceful towel with the appropriate white-on-green logo (I had commandeered several from my neighborhood “Inn” many years ago in Dallas). I spent the night parked under a canopy of constellations.
The next day I was witness to even more of the state’s geological disparities. From the relatively flat desert I started the ascent through the Vallecito Mountains. About every quarter of a mile I began to notice a pull-over area with “water for radiators only”. I figured that it must be one beast of a climb during the peak of heat months. Even though it was just midday in early October, there were several thirsty autos gasping for some coolant, like so many dehydrated, metal and chrome animals with their mouths wide open, swilling down their life-sustaining liquids.
But New Baleau “kept her cool” as I wended my way up and over a mountainscape that composed a phantasmagoria of huge boulders, neatly stacked, as if by some giant hand-from-the-sky. To add to the eerie scene, there was not one speck of vegetation anywhere in sight. At several intervals along the gradual climb, I could see the remnants of the old two-lane roadbed. I was imagining how torturous (and tortuous) the ascent must have been tack in 1960 B.I. (Before Interstates) and for thirty or forty years prior to that. I pictured a ponderous and power-robbed truck as it made its way up the gear-grinding 8% grade, all the while, managing not to backslide into the log-jam of automobiles stacked up behind it. Radiator temperatures and driver tempers rose proportionately.
Was one of those boiling-over jalopies carrying the Joads on their way from the Dust Bowl to the Promised Land? I really enjoyed seeking out abandoned, weed-choked highways and, via my chimerical cinema, reeling off images of Packard’s, REOs, and Buicks caravanning around the curves and cresting hills. Where have all the Burma-Shave signs gone? Traversing those old roads sure kept the drivers alert and awake. Thousands of miles of the Interstate System could be sleep-inducing, but I sure wasn’t taking that mountainous stretch for granted. Because of the passing lane and more gradual grades and curves, I was able to maintain a proper speed for a sufficient air flow over and around my cool Chevy 305.
Once over the summit, it was preferably downhill to the Blue Pacific. And again, I experienced a sudden change, only then it was the outside air temperature. A waft of refreshingly cool sea air was floating up the canyon. A milepost read: San Diego — 37. Wow, did it ever feel good: I was close and I was cool. The freeway swept down the canyon under vaulted bridges that seemed to leap from hill to hill a hundred feet or more above the road-way. A green information sign read: Beaches – Straight Ahead. There was no mistaking where I was headed. A magnificent orange sphere was hovering over the Pacific horizon. What great timing! I was euphoric. As I neared the beach, even the native names of the area – Point Loma, Sunset Cliffs – aroused my insides a little.
I found an overnight spot next to the sand and watched a glorious sunset. I repeated to myself my thanksgiving: “Oh, what a heavenly sight! Thank You, for getting me here, safely tonight.” I couldn’t believe that I was actually sitting there on the edge of the continent. And wouldn’t you know, up pulled a Ford van with white characters outlined on a green mountain silhouette. The young Idaho Springs couple had taken the northern route via I-70 and I-15. We enjoyed comparing travel notes. That was the icing on the cake, sharing the parking spot with fellow Coloradans.
The next morning we shared coffee and swapped ideas as to where we might be headed respectively. Gee, but we had a swell time: (oft-used line in 1930’s movies).