Jul/Aug 2008 Travel

The Not-So-Lonesome Highway

by Micah Nathan

My wife and I have long fantasized about a cross-country road trip, one of those quasi-spontaneous forays into the heart of America that ends with a journey across the Mojave Desert, where the highway is an infinite vanishing point and roadside diners serve 90 cent Jell-O.

Of course such fantasies remain just that—nostalgia for something we've never done but always envisioned. But on a recent trip to San Francisco courtesy of frequent flier miles, we finally decided to tackle half our dream. Instead of the direct flight from Boston to San Francisco we'd land in Vegas and drive Route 15 South across the Mojave Desert, past those roadside diners and frontier outposts, through Barstow, Bakersfield, and the San Joaquin Valley, and finally to that paragon of the West Coast. Not quite the cross-country trip romanticized as every American's birthright, but what could we do. We hate driving.

I sheepishly admit I expected something similar to my mother's recollections of her road trip through Nevada and California in the early 1970's, before cell phone towers and aluminum wind turbines sat atop the distant hills like the scaffolding of a futuristic empire. The Mojave Desert of her youth sounded vast and dangerous, one of the few frontiers left in America where you were on your own, kept company only by crumbling ghost towns and lone gas stations and Steinbeckian stretches of dusty nothingness. "Make sure you bring plenty of water," my mother said the night before we left. "The last thing you want to do is break down in the desert without any water."

Of course that was the first thing I wanted to do, and the thought of driving through a post-apocalyptic landscape with nothing but our wits, cellphones, Google map print-outs, gourmet Buffalo jerky and organic grape juice was so enticing that we spent only one night in Vegas—ever the suave gambler I won $3.75 at the nickel slots—and left the next morning for our journey across the wind-scrubbed desert plains.

What we found, however, was traffic. A constant flow on Route 15 South, even in the middle of the desert with its bleached skin and Joshua trees and spiky bursts of yucca. It was the kind of place that beckoned us to pull over and sit on the hot earth and listen to the wind. But if we'd pulled over it would have sounded like rush hour outside our Boston apartment. The urban surf of thrumming cars was everywhere.

We continued along Route 15 into California, past the town of Baker, a former borax mining town and now home of the "World's Tallest Thermometer." From Baker we drove past the town of Zzyzx (pronounced "Zai zix") and continued through Barstow. Along the buzzing highway I found the ghost towns I'd been looking for but instead of ramshackle mining outposts these were clusters of newer single-story homes with shuttered windows and gleaming cement driveways slowly being covered in brush. Barstow and its surrounding communities were once stopping points for silver miners en route to the Calico Mountains, and Barstow itself enjoyed a brief boom in the early nineteenth century as a rail hub for immigrants entering California on Route 66. But today Barstow is poor, with 20% of its population living below the poverty line, and its surrounding communities aren't stopping points for anything. They're casualties of sub-prime mortgages and the failed fringes of sprawl, aborted subdivisions in the middle of the desert with sun-warped vinyl siding and driveways that end in the pale dust.

Outside of Barstow in the tiny town of Yermo, we stopped at Peggy Sue's Nifty Fifties Diner. The diner stood alone, a salmon and pink-colored building with gunmetal-gray tanks from the nearby Marine Corps Logistics base parked across the road. Patrons wore cowboy hats and dusty jeans. The walls were covered in faux-vintage ads for Coke and Exxon, stenciled graffiti on the bathroom walls with classic ad jingoes ("You'll wonder where the yellow went / When you brush your teeth with Pepsodent"). An Elvis fortune telling machine greeted us at the front door, hands poised over a milky crystal ball, gears whirring as his upper lip creaked into a sneer. We browsed the gift shop, its crown jewel a painting with Elvis and Marilyn Monroe locked in a kiss. Middle America's cultural icons, both dead from drug overdose.

The diner didn't serve Jell-O, so on we went, down Route 58 West toward Bakersfield. Rest stops advertised grass tracts for weary travelers to walk their dogs, and vending machines served ice cream and Gatorade. On the restroom walls hung posters of missing children and runaway teens, and signs indicating California's current water shortage, asking us to Please Preserve Water While Washing Your Hands. Yet the grass was green and freshly watered, and I stood on the lawn and let the moisture cool my ankles while I called my friend on my cell. "We're in the middle of nowhere," I told him, but I realized that wasn't true. I was in the middle of anywhere—along the Massachusetts turnpike, outside of Jersey City, commuting from the suburbs of Atlanta. I had ice cream and a lawn and Gatorade. I had my cell phone and satellite radio. The only difference was the backdrop, the glorious Mojave Desert now the world's biggest set design.

We spent the night in Bakersfield—the most ozone-polluted city in the U.S. according to a 2006 American Lung Association report—founded in 1858 as an alfalfa field for hungry horses carrying homesteaders through the Tejon Pass. The next morning we journeyed into the farms of the San Joaquin Valley. There we found miles and miles of pistachio and almond tress, orchards and grape vines and potatoes and gently rolling hills clotted with cattle. Drop sprinklers sprayed sheets of water pumped in from the Kings River and the now-extinct Tulare Lake, only good for its groundwater because irrigation had drained it dry. As we headed north on Route 5 the farms thinned and wind turbines took their place. They were everywhere, crenellating every ridge and hilltop, dizzying if you stared at them for too long. Trucks roared past, carrying loads of peppers and green beans and garlic that left a wake of white skin whipping in the road currents like cherry blossoms.

We stopped briefly at Harris Ranch in Coalinga, California, two hundred miles south of San Francisco. Harris Ranch is a massive hotel complex done in Spanish tile, with palm trees and lush grass and overflowing parking lots. We browsed the gift shop. I bought another organic grape juice. While my wife used the restroom I stood in the hallway and looked at paintings for sale. Oils of cowboys rustling cattle, of cowboys standing around wagons with the sun setting over the distant Calico Mountains. On the last stretch to San Francisco I thought of those paintings, portraits of the way the land used to be. Before grass and vending machines and traffic. Before the middle of nowhere became the middle of anywhere.



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