Five SN&R writers take to the road in search of love, adventure and new beginnings
The open highway, miles clicking away on the odometer, the stereo cranking tunes to 11 and a spot circled on the map&8212;or not. The road trip is classic Americana, immortalized in literature (Jack Kerouac’s On the Road, for starters), film (Easy Rider, of course) and song (the Rolling Stones’ take on “(Get Your Kicks On) Route 66” is a must) represents a timeless pursuit of destiny and new experiences. Whether you’re on a recreational mission, moving to a new city or simply putting pedal to the metal with no agenda, destination or rules to follow, road trips represent freedom and oportunity, the chance to learn something new, escape the old, or figure out everything in between.
Here, five SN&R writers share stories of miles logged, loves lost and gained and discoveries made. Oh, and there are also heroin addicts and serial killers, peacocks and puppies, snowstorms and motel break-ins—all adventures experienced along California’s great highways, byways and back roads.
The Codependent Olympics
It was 1996, the summer we graduated. Kurt Cobain, dead two years, still ruled the airwaves. Pulp Fiction was everyone’s favorite movie. The idea of heroin was everywhere, but no one was actually doing it.
Until, suddenly, everyone was.
Nobody told me, or maybe I hadn’t noticed. Growing up with a father addicted to the stuff made me immune to the concept of “heroin chic.” It also meant I had trouble spotting the obvious. I didn’t consciously accept my dad’s addiction until he entered recovery when I was 14, though I’d seen the frightening evidence my whole life. In the Codependent Olympics, “refusing to notice when people are using drugs” is my gold-medal event.
After graduation, my best friend drove me to Los Angeles. We planned to spend a week with some former college dorm mates who’d moved to Hollywood to write screenplays. Our first night there, we ate chili-spiced fruit at the Olvera Street market, saw Trainspotting (of course) and returned to the screenwriters’ apartment for dessert.
I was hoping for cupcakes, but dessert turned out to be heroin, served flambé style on a sheet of tinfoil. Shocked, I shot my best friend a look that said, “These L.A. people have lost their minds!”
Unfortunately, I couldn’t make eye contact with him, since he was eagerly huddled around the drugs with everyone else.
Having no desire to watch my friends smoke their way down the rabbit hole, I started walking home.
To Santa Cruz. From Los Angeles.
I soon realized, however, I had no idea where I was (it was the ’90s; no Google Maps); and my best friend eventually found me sitting on a stranger’s front lawn, sobbing. I told him I couldn’t go back to that apartment.
So, naturally, we decided, spontaneously, to drive to the Grand Canyon. Neither of us had been before. My friend said it would be a fresh start, which made me wonder what he’d been doing lately. Why was I the only one surprised by the heroin?
For the next week, we drove where ever we felt like, pulling over to sleep in the car when we were tired. We walked across desert vistas with wild winds pushing us forward. We stood at the edge of the Grand Canyon and felt our relative smallness. We drove to Zion National Park and hiked up the Virgin River in our clothes, splashing and sputtering, and emerged clean and new.
As we journeyed past cactus forests and riverbeds, I imagined the ancient landscapes strengthening us. I prayed my friend would stay healthy, and we’d return many times.
Back home, however, the drugs continued for my friend and many in our circle, interspersed with stints in jail and rehab.
Brokenhearted, I took a job in New York and drove across the country, revisiting the same desert vistas. I still return to the Southwest when my spirit needs replenishing. I don’t know if my old friend emerged from his troubles to do the same, but I like to think of him there now, hiking, clean and strong.
Just as I like to think of us on that trip, when we drove past the unmanned gates of Zion after midnight. The mountains blotted half the sky overhead, but we could still see thousands of stars. My friend cranked up the Smashing Pumpkins on the stereo, and we danced in the empty road.
It was the ’90s. It was drugged out, dark and confusing. But in the desert, for the length of a song, it felt luminous. (by Becca Costello)
Take the trip
Route: Sacramento to Los Angeles, Interstate 5 south; Los Angeles to Flagstaff, Ariz.: Interstate 40 east; Flagstaff to Grand Canyon National Park: Highway 64 north; to Zion National Park. Follow Highway 64 east along the Grand Canyon’s rim, and turn left on Highway 89 north to hit Zion National Park.
Going the distance: 740 miles.
Soundtrack: Sea Change by Beck for long desert drives, “Moonshadow” by Cat Stevens for nighttime hikes (best sung a cappella) and Siamese Dream by the Smashing Pumpkins for nostalgia.
Reading material: Desert Solitaire by Edward Abbey.
Where to stay: Sleep in your car and “bathe” in the rivers.
What to eat: Get Navajo fry bread with chili and cheese from any roadside diner. For dessert, spend your pocket change on pecan logs and Chick-o-Sticks from the Native American-themed gift shops that pop up every 75 miles.
Places to go: Throw a stone off of the rim of the Grand Canyon.
Take it easy
It’s late on a cold February afternoon, and I’m sitting behind the wheel of a U-Haul truck, watching Sacramento disappear in the rearview mirror—its skyline shrinking down to a dot as I press the accelerator. The truck is packed to capacity: I’m moving to New York City for a new job, a new life.
A new life suddenly mired in complication. Sitting next to me, across the truck’s bench seat, is my boyfriend. I’ve only known him for two weeks, actually, but he’s helpfully offered to join me on the cross-country trek.
As we drive, I’m trying not to focus on the outcome. It’s difficult not to though, as I glance sidelong at this near-stranger playing deejay with a handful of mixtapes made for us by friends.
Know this: It’s almost impossible to hold back tears when you hear Tom Petty’s “California” played through crappy, tinny boom-box speakers as you leave everything behind while seated next to a guy you barely know. A guy, who as fate would have it, possesses the rare ability to make you laugh at just about anything, including yourself.
But there’s not much laughing on this particular day; rather, I spend most of it mired in an ever-deepening state of misery, watching as California zips by, a gorgeous blur of farmland, rugged mountains and kitschy roadside stops.
We reach Bakersfield after midnight, pulling the U-Haul into a desolate Motel 6 parking lot. It’s not exactly our dream destination—we’re both classic-country fans, and Buck Owens’ Crystal Palace beckons nearby, but there’s no time for sightseeing. This is strictly a sleep, shower, eat and gas-up kind of layover, so we check in at the front desk where a dull-eyed man of indeterminate age hands me a room key card. Our room is around the corner and up the stairs, he says, clearly bored.
Exhausted, we trudge up to our room where my boyfriend sticks the key card into the slot and opens the door.
Or tries to, at least: The door swings in a few inches and then stops.
He tries again, this time more forcefully—until we realize that not only is the door’s inside chain locked, but there’s another couple inside our room, asleep in our bed.
Well, they were asleep, anyway. As we stand there, frozen in surprise, someone in the bed bolts up, mumbling a confused and sleepy, “Hey!”
The boyfriend pulls the key out of the lock and slams the door shut, shouting out an apology as we both beat a hasty retreat back down to the check-in office.
By the time we make it to our new, thankfully unoccupied, room, I’m a mess, punchy and emotional to the point of breaking down. Not into the pool of tears I’ve been fighting off all day, however, but into a giggly morass of exhaustion, giddiness and, I realize, looking over at the guy laughing next to me, relief.
I’m sad to leave California but thankful he’s by my side.
I have no idea what the future holds—certainly there’s no way of knowing at that moment in a cheap Bakersfield motel that the rest of the trip will be fraught with more highs and lows: Gazing at the midnight sky in Arizona, getting lost in Arkansas, a frightening trip to the emergency room in Chicago.
There’s no way of predicting, either, that just two very short months later we’ll be engaged, and in less than a year, I’ll hit the road again—this time bound west, back to California and a new life. Again. For good.
We leave Bakersfield at dawn, nursing truck-stop coffees and cold bagels. The boom box is tuned into a local radio station and, as we head south on Highway 99, the Eagles’ “Take it Easy” starts playing.
Neither of us particularly likes the Eagles, but as we sit there in the cab of a U-Haul on a cold winter’s morning, listening to the epitome of laid-back California rock—“Take it easy / Don’t let the sound of your own wheels drive you crazy / Lighten up while you still can / Don’t even try to understand”—nothing could be better. (by Rachel Leibrock)
Take the trip
Route: Sacramento to Bakersfield: Highway 99 South to Highway 204.
Going the distance: 278 miles.
Soundtrack: Mixtapes playing “California” by Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers; “Two Boats” covered by Mary Lou Lord; and radio stations tuned into “Take it Easy” by the Eagles.
Reading material: Joan Didion’s “Staking Out California” essay; the Country Music Hall of fame anthology, The Bakersfield Sound.
Where to stay: Any cheap roadside hideaway staffed by bored night owls.
What to eat: Truck stops, gas stations and greasy diners.
Places to go: Buck Owens’ Crystal Palace.
Potential for murder
I don’t want to leave the house, but I’m taking this little trip to Lake Berryessa as a sort of spiritual Zen journey. Ha! Just kidding. I’m going because it’s the site where, in 1969, the Zodiac Killer stabbed Cecelia Shepard to death with a foot-long blade while her boyfriend Bryan Hartnell looked on in misery—and it’s brimming with evil.
Yeah, I admit, I’m depressed.
You see, ever since grade school, people had big plans for me. In the sixth grade, Mr. Lofche (who we called “Dicknose” because his nose looked like a giant, flaccid penis) shook me violently by the shoulders and yelled, “You’re wasting your po-tential!” in this top-heavy Boston accent that still rings in my head to this day: Po-tential. Po-tential. Po-tential—like an alarm clock of guilt, screaming 24-hours-a-day between my ears.
It’s no different today—emails, phone calls, letters to the editor—unsolicited critique: Do better! You have so much po-tential!
So I peel myself from the couch, get in my car and drive west on Interstate 80, toward Lake Berryessa’s Zodiac Island. For a soundtrack, I pop in Venom’s Welcome to Hell, which I used to love for its crunchy odes to Lucifer, but now all I hear is a bunch of idiots who can’t play their instruments, rambling in clichés about evil.
Luckily, the trip only takes a couple of hours, and when I pull up to the side of Knoxville Road, I’m excited to find what I think is the secluded Zodiac Island. But, weirdly enough, there are cars everywhere, trucks and SUVs packed fender-to-bumper on the sandy shoulder of the road.
Hardly the evil scenario I expected.
But then I make my way down a tree-lined path toward the lake and hear voices. And splashes. I peek my head through the clearing to see about 40 young Mexican-Americans lying around the sand, drinking heavily.
“Mari, do you have the Malibu?” one says.
“No, bitch.” Mari says. “But I have tequiiilaaaa!”
A muscular teen in a wifebeater runs toward the water and trips headfirst, making a giant, clumsy splash into the artificial lake. His friends hoot and holler in approval.
“Fuck this,” I think, turning around, pointing my car back toward Sacramento.
On the freeway, I’m engrossed by thoughts of homicide. My evil trip was, of course, ruined by people. I reach in my glove box and find two CDs, both by Queen Latifah. I pop one in and let my mind wander.
“You need a job,” my wife says.
“You need Jesus,” say the dozens of reader emails I get every week.
“Me-owwww!” says my cat, Kato.
I picture Mr. Lofche sitting in my passenger seat—“You’re wasting your po-tential!” he yells. Po-tential! Po-tential!—and skid deliriously onto the side of the freeway, clutching my stomach, gagging on my delusional panic. Queen Latifah blares in the background like a soundtrack to my own haunted visions—my wife, family, friends and complete strangers, my fucking cat, and that disgusting teacher with his dick-like nose wiggling perversely while he shakes me until my head flails like a beached tuna: You’re wasting your po-tential! You’re wasting your po-tential! My brain closes in on itself while freeway traffic whizzes past.
“Mama Zula stands for positivity, knowledge and grace,” raps the good Queen. “I never run my piece, damn, I’ll take it to your face!”
I double over right there on that disgusting stretch of freeway in between Dixon and Davis, clutching my belly, snorting so goddamned hard, that I’m pretty sure I’ll choke to death on my own laughter, bile and vomit.
How’s that for po-tential? (by Josh Fernandez)
Take the trip
Route: Sacramento to Zodiac Island at Lake Berryessa: Interstate 80 west; follow signs to Highway 121 south to Highway 128 west.
Going the distance: 74.4 miles.
Soundtrack: Welcome to Hell by Venom; Black Reign and Nature of a Sista by Queen Latifah.
Where to stay: Inside your car.
What to eat: Kountry Kitchen, 11 Grant Avenue in Winters.
Places to go: Walk down the scary path, and watch bros guzzle Keystone Light.
A wake-up call
We’d planned to get a head start on relaxation by making an early night of it on the first day of our vacation, so we stopped at the motel in the Casa de Fruta complex about three-quarters of the way to our destination in Big Sur. My wife and I had both been working extra hours through the summer and had gone deep into that ugly place where conversation is reduced to itineraries and shopping lists. We were desperate for some serious R & R.
Our hopes got a shrill howl of “fuggedaboudit,” however, when the peacock at Casa de Fruta motel—technically called the Peacock Inn—began his evening serenade on the roof right outside our room. In case you’ve never heard one, imaging the combined noise of an industrial-strength alarm and an irritated donkey’s braying in a two-tone long meow, repeated with the persistence of an unattended car alarm.
It lasted until the wee hours of the morning.
Come checkout time, one of the peacocks was perched on the roof of our car, his brilliant tail spread out gloriously over the back window and trunk.
Fortunately, Casa de Fruta’s Chevron station had a car wash. A good breakfast at Casa de Restaurant helped a great deal as well.
Then we were off, down to Highway 1 and to Big Sur.
The big surprise: Driving down Highway 1 will relax you, but only if you stop frequently on the winding and surprisingly narrow road to look at a coastline that is even more beautiful—and winding—than it looks in photographs. We pulled off at every turnout to just stop and look for a while, tasting the salt on the back of our tongues and marveling at the view. I grew up on the Oregon coast, so for me, the drive brought back memories of childhood; my Iowa-born-and-bred spouse was simply awestruck.
We stopped so often, we didn’t reach Big Sur until it was almost dark. We spent three days there at the Big Sur River Inn, and did almost nothing that was on our list. Instead, we stumbled into things we hadn’t expected: the sound of birds in the morning—other than peacocks—the way that highway noise disappears just a little way into the forest; how quickly one’s feet get cold, even on a hot day, when they’re immersed in a rocky stream.
We saw a sea otter in a kelp forest, floating on his back. We saw deer. We got sand in our shoes—and in the car. And in the room, a cozy little knotty-pine paneled, rough-hewn place with no television and no telephone, but a comfortable bed covered with a thick quilt—necessary, even in summer.
We talked and walked and read. Then we sat in Adirondack-style chairs down by the stream and talked and read some more.
And then we started laughing, because any place with live peacocks should be saved for the trip home when you’re well-rested. (by Kel Munger)
Take the trip
Route: Sacramento to Pacheco Pass: Interstate 5 south to Highway 33 south, to Highway 152 west; Pacheco Pass to Big Sur: Highway 152 west to Highway 156 west to Highway 101 south to Highway 156 west to Highway 1 south.
Going the distance: 218 miles.
Soundtrack: Graceland by Paul Simon, a wee bit o’ Johnny Cash, some 10000 Maniacs and a little Beatles.
Reading material: Selected Poems by Robinson Jeffers; Big Sur and the Oranges of Hieronymous Bosch by Henry Miller; The Lust Lizard of Melancholy Cove by Christopher Moore; Cannery Row by John Steinbeck.
Where to stay: Peacock Inn at Casa de Fruta, 10031 Pacheco Pass Highway in Hollister; Big Sur River Inn & Restaurant, 46840 Highway 1 in Big Sur.
What to eat: Casa de Fruta: The secret is to stock up on fruit (both fresh and dried), nuts and chocolate. There’s also plenty of garlic and garlic-related items (including garlic-stuffed olives).
Places to go: Pfeiffer Beach is about 5 miles south, open for day use. Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park is 14 miles south, also full of hiking options.
The winter of my dog’s discontent
Winter seems like such a long time ago. But it was only March when I took my dog Appa for his first hike in the snow. Our goals for this short trip were threefold: 1. to provide the dog a bit of exercise, 2. to burn a few calories myself on a snowy high-altitude hike, and 3. to slough off our city-dwelling malaise by retreating into the (relative) wilderness. So, early on a Sunday morning, we embarked on a spur-of-the-moment trip to the snowy Sierra Nevada Mountains.
We left around 9 a.m., the four of us (my fiancée, brother, mother and I) with Appa, loaded into my relatively new SUV—also on its first trip into snow. An hour after leaving town, we encounter rain somewhere in the foothills. Half an hour later, thick snow. The heater in the car strains to keep snow off windows, and the windshield fogs over.
Wilderness has taken over. Goal No. 3 already met.
Nevertheless, since the car sports all-weather tires and four-wheel drive, we arrive safely at our first destination in Soda Springs, Royal Gorge Cross Country Ski Resort called. My brother jumps out of the car. He’ll be skiing here alone for the next few hours. Because dogs aren’t allowed at this ski resort on weekends, the rest of us drive a few miles down the road to our next destination: the Sierra Club’s dog-friendly Clair Tappaan Lodge.
As soon as we park, Appa leaps out of the car into the snow and starts wagging his tail. I wonder if he’s happy because of his breed; he’s half Lhasa apso, a dog species native to cold-and-snowy Tibet. (His other half is toy Australian shepherd). Regardless, he’s eager to be out of the car and ready for our walk. We grab our gear—jackets, backpacks full of sack lunches and snowshoes—and head on down the trail.
It’s snowing hard, a beautiful white covering atop ever-present pine trees. The easiest destination seems to be a mile up a flat trail; a lodge employee tells us there’s short hike to a lake. But it’s a difficult trek. The trail hasn’t been plowed today due to stormy conditions, and a few feet of fresh powdery snow seems to cover the ground for miles. As a result, we sink deep into the snow with every step—even with our snowshoes on.
At this point in the journey, we notice that Appa’s hairy legs and paws are encrusted with tiny ice balls. To ease the discomfort, he stops to lick them and bite them off. It’s not working, and his tail slowly lowers to reflect his mood midway to the lake. Here, he stops and doesn’t want to go any further. His paws must be hurting. We pick him up, take turns carrying him back to the lodge, and remove as many snowballs as we can from his poor legs. It’s tiresome.
Goals No. 1 and 2 met. Sack lunches are in order.
The day is done already. And although we accomplished our goals, we still learn a valuable lesson: even dogs need snowshoes. (by Jonathan Mendick)
Take the trip
Route: Sacramento to Truckee, Interstate 80 east.
Going the distance: 100 miles.
Soundtrack: Into the Wild soundtrack by Eddie Vedder.
Reading material: In Our Time, Ernest Hemingway’s first collection of short stories, or If on a Winter’s Night a Traveler, Italo Calvino’s famously adventurous but confusing novel.
Where to stay: Clair Tappaan Lodge (19940 Donner Pass Road in Norden), where access to the trails is free to guests.
What to eat: If you’re on a day trip, bring a sack lunch. Bring your own food if you’re staying overnight. Guests have access to full kitchens in the lodge.
Places to go: Trails at Clair Tappan are great for beginners. But if you’re up for a serious workout, Royal Gorge—which bills itself as the largest cross-country ski resort in North America—is only 2 miles away.