a fall vacation, part one – finding where there are no Starbucks
The last Monday in September, Karen and I loaded up the two-seater and started our vacation by heading south. This trip would include stops in San Pedro and Avalon, Calif.; Ensenada, Mexico, and ultimately end back in Los Angeles.
To get to our first destination, we made our way out of the Bay Area to that soulless ribbon of road, Interstate 5. It’d be nice to say we left early, but oh-dark-thirty is the usual time we depart for work. Luckily, that means missing most commute traffic. Thankfully, Karen and I enjoy each other’s company and once and a while we can still hold a substantive conversation, a big plus when droning down I-5.
The last few years we’ve developed a rhythm when it comes to traveling. We outline plans, flesh out an itinerary, make reservations, and pack. (Inside and quietly, my 10-year-old boy still finds it hard to believe I am old enough to make and manage all of these arrangements.) While I still like to outline the stops along the route and the timing, I’ve come a long way in simply letting the journey play out as it will.
We generally make good time on any highway, even stopping when we want or need to, usually for fuel, for both us and the car. This stretch of the trip would total 402 miles and end at the Best Western Plus San Pedro. Running through California’s San Joaquin Valley (aka Central Valley), I-5 bisects some of the state’s richest agricultural areas and is the origin for about 10 percent of all U.S. agricultural production. Visible from the highway are fields of grapes and orchards of citrus and stone fruits, almonds and pistachios. On any given day, you can also find a bump crop of freight trucks on I-5.
This highway is the main corridor between northern and southern California. Over the years, I’ve driven it all hours of the day. The traffic is constant and never seems to thin out. Between the two of us, to put it politely, Karen is the speedier driver and three times we passed the same truck after quick stops. There’s not much to see in the 160 miles from Gustine to Grapevine, and we discovered that there is no Starbucks in the 60 miles from Kettleman City to Buttonwillow.
The weather was beautiful. The uncultivated terrain was dry. The grass was not “California gold” dry; it was an ugly, dead color. When not conversing, we had podcasts to listen to during the more desolate expanses.
A few landmarks can’t be missed. Harris Ranch is heralded by the stink of a nearly 800-acre feedlot and the cattle that inhabit it. Weathered, faded and grammatically incorrect homemade signs calling the Central Valley a “CONGRESS CREATED DUST BOWL” pop up once and a while. As if taunting, The California Aqueduct periodically snakes into and out of view. One can’t miss the iconic windmill towering over Pea Soup Andersons. (Once the sole eatery here, it now competes with no less than six chain restaurants.) The 77-foot tall windmill also marks the off-ramp for the San Joaquin Valley National Cemetery, home to California Korean War Veterans Memorial and the bronze 11th Airborne Memorial.
Soon we were climbing The Grapevine. (For those unfamiliar with California, The Grapevine is the section of highway – named either for a local creek or the vineyards that once dotted the area – that crosses the mountains of the Transverse Range and over the Tehachapi Mountains to peak at 4,144 feet.) With a 6 percent grade, The Grapevine rises about 1,500 feet over 5 miles. A collection of roller coasters at Six Flags Magic Mountain marks the far edge of urban sprawl.
After the long descent into the Los Angeles Basin one’s ability to navigate is tested by a collection of convoluted interchanges. Near the outskirts of San Fernando, it became difficult to resist the urge to refer to highways in the local vernacular: “the” 405, “the” 100. The lack of traffic was welcome, however, and we arrived at the Best Western Plus San Pedro earlier than expected.
There’s often a pregnant pause and disapproving look when you tell people familiar with the area that you’re staying in San Pedro. It didn’t seem that bad.