fishing for words

(and tossing out random thoughts)


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a fall vacation, part one – finding where there are no Starbucks

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 view from our destination. The next day we'd be headed toward those cranes.

The view from our destination. The next day we’d be headed toward those cranes.

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.

Just down the street from the hotel, where one could cash their paycheck, pick up some vapes and medical marijuana, get a tattoo and some lingerie.

Just down the street from the hotel, where one could cash their paycheck, pick up some vapes and medical marijuana, get a tattoo and pick up some lingerie.


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the move that prompted a road trip that led to a short vacation

If you think you missed that New Year’s post in which I promise to start afresh — writing more, fishing more and worrying less — don’t bother looking for it because you won’t find it. Any intent to write was muddled by events that ensured there was no distinct end to last year or clear beginning of this year.

Our trip to Washington State wasn’t technically last minute but certainly hasty. A son accepted a position in Seattle and the cheapest option was to rent a second vehicle and haul him and all his worldly possessions up Hwy 5 in a single day. My parents graciously offered a bit of storage space in their garage. Plans were set in motion.

The day before our departure we expected to drop by the boy’s place and load up. His things would be packed, we were told. They were not. It took more than a few hours and 14,000 steps, according to my pedometer, to pack things in our two vehicles. It was a good thing we had upgraded to a rental vehicle one size larger.

Believing that I’m immune to the march of time, I still cling to the idea that the 800-mile drive from home to Seattle’s Eastside could be accomplished in a single day. All it takes a reliable vehicle, about 14 hours and a co-driver willing to quickly empty the bladder. My brother and I did just that some 20 years ago.

We were out the door that first Saturday of the new year as hoped, at 5 a.m. The three of us would rotate between the two vehicles, with more stops at Starbucks than gas stations. (I can’t help but think part of Starbucks’ marketing strategy is to offer clean bathrooms that lure travelers, who buy beverages, requiring a stop at the next Starbucks, where the cycle is repeated.)

Hwy 5 Sunrise

Sunrise somewhere along Hwy 5 in far Northern California.

An experienced traveler knows that the most boring sections of Hwy 5 are from Vacaville to Redding (California), Roseburg to Portland (Oregon), and Castle Rock nearly to Seattle (Washington). Traveling through at least one of those stretches during the dark early morning hours helps, and we didn’t see the sun rise until well past the puddle that is Shasta Lake. The miles droned by but, surprising, we all seemed none worse for the wear when we pulled into Eugene, with a longer-than-expected detour to Papa’s Soul Food Kitchen & BBQ.

As I have noted before, we will drive for food, and when travelling we will make time for food. (Rarely is a conversation among our family members not peppered with food references.) This is a place Karen and I had seen on Diners, Drive-In and Dives and thought to give it a try. We were met there before the 2:00 p.m. opening time by Karen’s friend Michelle and her husband Nik, who made the trip from Portland to join us.

I loved the Louisiana vibe of the place and friendliness of the staff. The food was good, but not worth-a-return great. The hushpuppies were the highlight. The red beans and rice were close to what I recall being served in the French Quarter. The brisket was tender, with a nice smoke ring, but relied on a sauce I found too sweet for flavor. The fried chicken was crispy but lacked zing. We lingered a bit longer than expected amid enjoyable conversation. Maybe it was the pint of Oakshire Brewing’s Original Amber Ale or simply not being on the road. Refreshed, we zipped through Portland with an unusual lack of traffic, even though it was midafternoon.

With the increasing latitude north, darkness came earlier, conflicting with our internal clocks. I’m not certain, but it seems that every trip north I end up stopping, in darkness, at the Toutle River Safety Rest Area 5 miles north of Castle Rock. As rest stops go, I think it’s one of the best and my earliest memory is from 1985. Dad and I were moving to Issaquah in the hope of finding jobs and stopped there, pleasantly surprised to find hot coffee and cocoa thanks to WSDOT’s Free Coffee Program.

Quickly calculating that we could skip the last planned stop for gas, I was soon in the familiar territory of Bellevue and Redmond, followed by the dark rural road that would take us across the Snoqualmie River and into Duvall. The short two-lane segment of N.E. Novelty Hill Road that descends toward the Snoqualmie River floodplain is slow. It twists almost back underneath itself along a steep grade, with no street lights. N.E. 124 Street crosses the river and in my mind Novelty Bridge marks the beginning of something a bit more wild. Perhaps it’s the wide expanses of undisturbed land. Or the seemingly uncontrollable volume of water flowing in nearby rivers. Or the smallness of Duvall’s downtown. It’s been a fleeting but persistent feeling during every visit.

But downtown Duvall was welcoming, with Christmas lights adorning street lamps and brightening our way. We pulled into the parents’ driveway a bit later than planned but not tired enough that we didn’t stay up and visit with Mom and Dad and my brother for at least an hour.

The next day we’d face the reality of being strangers in strange land unpacking the son’s stuff and dropping off the rental vehicle, and then, finally, take time to relax. We’d also learn that flooding is apparently no way to measure the water-wealth of a state.