For most Californians, there exist Southern California, Northern California, and a stretch of boring-ass freeway that connects them. As a NorCal expat living in SoCal, I drove this stretch of I-5 on a regular basis, so much so that I felt obscure emotional connections to various markers along the way, and on occasion (while driving in solitude, of course), I would greet them as old friends. These markers include, but are not limited to: the pumpjack by the I-5 overpass over CA-99, the exit sign for Jayne Avenue, the sound of the town “Wasco,” and of course the horrible stench of cow feces emanating from Harris Ranch (aka: Cowschwitz).
For the most part, my relationships with these roadside attractions were routine and benign. Jayne Avenue would make me fondly recall a Jayne I happen to know. The town of Buttonwillow would bring to mind Harry Potter’s butterbeer. Every time I would see the sign for CA-46 to Wasco, I would say “Wasco” aloud in the car, and smile.
Yes, the sound of Wasco and I were good friends. The problem arose, however, when these innocuous beings would respond.
“Hi, Pumpjack! I’m playing Mahler’s 6th Symphony again! Just for you! As always, my sweet.”
“Please, my good sir, must you start that damn symphony every time you descend the Grapevine? My heart yearns for fresh sounds. It’s so lonely here in the oil fields, and the harmonies of ‘The Tragic’ only make me more tired and weary. Have mercy, Driver. Have mercy on my poor pumping soul.”
And at that point, I knew it was time to change routes.
To the surprise of many, there exist more than one way to get between the Bay Area and Los Angeles. I-5 just happens to be the fastest and most direct, and therefore the most popular. But in my brief exploration of alternatives, I found several, and exhausted them quickly.
I have since dedicated my life to the losing effort of proving to the world that California is more than just a 500 mile stretch of beach connecting the Golden Gate Bridge with Disneyland, so I feel compelled to briefly share with you these routes.
US-101 happens to be a lovely route, but it is a route with which I am familiar from my youth. My dear mother prefers this route to I-5 because it is much prettier, albeit longer. It is the historical backbone of California, connecting the Spanish Missions and passing through every little settlement in California’s pre-USA past. But, to me, it’s old news. My desire to explore the roads of California spread further to the west.
CA-1 is famous for having absolutely stunning scenery as well as being a royal pain in the ass to drive. It takes half of forever to get anywhere, and on occasion erosion will close the road entirely, resulting in 200 miles of detour. Due to the remoteness of the road and the lack of actual towns along the coast, gas stations are few and far between (and thus prohibitively expensive). I took this route once, and as gorgeous as it was, I decided to expand eastward.
CA-99 has no redeeming value. It takes longer than I-5 and it’s significantly uglier. Passing through all the major agricultural towns of the Central Valley, it also has the benefit of showcasing California’s shitty air quality. If US-101 is a museum of California’s history, CA-99 is a museum of California’s decay. It was a nice experiment, but Adios, CA-99, and good riddance! I had to go further eastward…
This took me to US-395, the best road trip in America. Just one problem – it actually doesn’t go anywhere close to the Bay Area. In fact, it only takes you farther away. Such is life living in a state with a huge mountain range running through the middle of it.
Now I had to get creative…
CA-33 is basically I-5’s little brother – small, squirrelly, and a little attention-deficit. It provides all the scenery of I-5 with none of the speed, but on the plus side, it does put you in the middle of the ‘farmland,’ and thus a little closer to the earth. If you enjoy driving through fields of pumpjacks, this is your road, although, it’s more of a detour than a route.
This brings me to CA-25, aka: the Dumbest Route.
It started innocently enough. I took the route going southbound from the Bay Area in the hopes that somehow it would lead me to Los Angeles. While it technically did take me closer to Los Angeles, there is a point at which the route seems to disappear, forcing the driver to cut across the mountain range to a more mainstream route like 101 or I-5. Of course I knew this, and had drawn myself a quality map to remind myself of how to not get lost forever in the backwoods of California.
At some random point along the road, I decided it was high time to admit defeat, and determining some unmarked crossroad was as good as any other, I turned vaguely eastward with high hopes.
These hopes slowly descended. Maybe it was the lack of signage. Maybe it was the lack of manmade structures indicating that life had once existed. Maybe it was road ascending the mountain range, slowly deteriorating into a river of dirt and mud that made me question my decision to take this arbitrary road in the name of not mysteriously disappearing (my rescuers would never know where to look). The only way I knew I was heading vaguely in the right direction was the sun setting behind me. And alas, when I finally descended the switchbacks leading to the freeway ahead, rejoining society from a period of intense alienation atop a long forgotten range, I felt the pangs of disappointment.
I let adversity win. I succumbed to the geographical challenge of driving headlong into a mountain range, and I retreated to the road oft traveled. No, this was not a success, it was a failure.
So naturally, I had to try again. For principle. For victory. For ego.
This time, starting in Los Angeles, I drove north up CA-33, hoping to cross over to CA-25 in a new and crafty way, thereby connecting the two routes and completing the original intended journey. My map (for lack of a better term) brought me to Parkfield, CA, the self proclaimed earthquake capital of the world. And then I ascended as before… and ascended… and eventually I was again driving on a dirt road from the mountain tops of the Coastal Range, cruising at a smooth 5 mph.
Then the sun went down, and yet again, I wound up at I-5.
Failure! I sat by the onramp to the interstate, looking westward at the mountains in the distance in disdain, loathing their impossibilities as they taunt me from their heights. Someday I will connect the South to the North. I will conquer the Coastal Mountains, and when I do, it will be me who laughs from the heights of victory!
And this is why it is the dumbest route I’ve ever driven. It left me wanting more. It has unintentionally altered my road trip philosophy The lack of sweet, elusive victory consumes my being, and even now as I live in faraway Texas, I feel I cannot perish from this Earth until I drive the length of CA-25.
And if this weren’t enough, the need to explore the seldom seen roadsides of the world has bled out from the hills of California, from the agony of my failures along the San Andreas ridges, and now my cross-country routes, whether in Texas, Arkansas, or Arizona, require the use of no-name roads to prove to the world that I will not succumb to the consequences of foolish senselessness.
I know this internal need will be the end of me. One of these days, on some dirt road in the Rockies of Montana, my humble Corolla will be found with an empty tank, and my famished spirit will be sitting atop of it cursing the Parkfield-Coalinga Road for the fate it had bestowed upon me many years ago.