Spent a good evening with a buddy at his house north of Sonora, CA. Then it was time to head east, over the mountains and across the desert, with a goal of getting as close to Northern New Mexico as possible without undue stress. Road trips are not about stress. Quite the opposite.
The day was all about roads; there were curvy roads, straight roads, steep roads, flat roads. Mountains and desert, cool and brutally hot. Potholes and fresh asphalt. First up for my driving pleasure was Big Hill Road, a shortcut from my friend’s house to eastbound highway 108. (I spent a few seconds trying to coax a URL out of Google Maps to which I could link, but without success.) It seems every time I’m in the neighborhood the road is closed over Sonora Pass, but at last I’ll be passing over during the brief summer.
Big Hill Road has two flaws: occasional patches of broken-up pavement, and it’s just too damn short. It was an ideal way to start a day of driving, zipping around corners, the road sun-dappled as it wound through the forest. After that bit of road 108 seemed like a superhighway – at least for a while. Sonora Pass has, I believe, the steepest stretches of paved road I have ever driven. There was only one thing wrong with that part of the drive: Traffic. It’s not that there were a lot of vehicles, it’s that three vehicles in particular really gummed things up.
Here’s the deal. Let’s say you’re driving on a stretch of road in which there are no opportunities to pass safely. For the sake of argument, let’s say the speed limit is 40 mph. Now, this is a particularly twisty and turny bit of road, and you’re not comfortable going 40. You want to drive your big-tired station wagon (some people call them SUV’s), oh, how about 15 mph. I have no problem with that. Absolutely you should not drive faster than you are comfortable doing. But — BUT — when there are ample opportunities to pull over and there are people stacked up behind you, just get the hell out of the way! How much time are you losing, considering you’re just crawling along anyway? Obviously you’re not in a hurry or you’d be on a different road. Just pull over for a moment and let the SV (my car has no U) go by. Seriously. We’ll all feel better.
Thanks. Back to my narrative.
Climbing up to Sonora Pass, I drove my car as fast as it would go for the first time. On that hill, that wasn’t very fast, and even with a 6-speed transmission I was caught between second and third, winding the engine way up in second, but not pulling hard enough in third. The scenery was nice, sometimes even interesting, but not spectacular; trees pushed in close, denying breath-taking vistas. As I climbed, I could smell the brakes of the vehicles heading the other way. A sign warned of 26% (!) grade somewhere ahead (vehicles with trailers not advised), but 15% was more common.
Down the other side, past a small Marine base (sign read: “Caution Marines Training Ahead”). The buildings, otherwise identical to any other rural business site, were painted a light olive color. I imagine that this is simply a matter of habit; I don’t think the people who ordered the pre-fab steel structures spent much time thinking about what sort of attack the base might be subject to, and what coloration would best thwart it. I’m just saying that other colors might be more practical in some cases, like white for the propane tanks. (I assume, here, that there is a reason that propane tanks are always white.)
After a southward stint on US 395, I turned east once again on Highway 120. That was a great stretch of road. The terrain goes through several stages and climate zones, and there were plenty of sights that proved intellectually stimulating as well, like stumped trees dotting a field of tuff (compressed volcanic ash), which led me to ponder that the longest-lived organisms on our planet live in harsh circumstances. 120 is an old-school road, built before the cut-and-fill strategy had taken hold. As I drove through the forested stretch the road seemed to twist for no appreciable reason except to provide people like me with the feeling that they are driving. I wove between the trees, left right left right in an easy cadence like a skilled skier sliding down a powdery slope. Farther along, the road passed over flatter terrain, and I smiled as I passed a sign reading “Dips next 5 miles”. I have always liked dips; I remember as a kid staring out the windows of the familymobile hoping to see the next sign that said “The road is about be fun”. Some of the dips on 120 west of Benton were the real thing, providing an almost weightless moment that had me exclaiming out loud more than once.
Then it was time for the desert. US Highway 6 was my new friend, and as I drove I applied sunscreen more or less constantly. The high desert was not oppressively hot (at least, not while I was moving), and I slid easily into my desert driving mindset, a contemplative frame that discerns significance in unexpected places. Out there in all that vastness the small things matter most.
East, east, as far as Tonopah, delaying the critical decision as long as possible. I have a choice: South through Las Vegas and an easy drive tomorrow, or east over some exceptional roads, winding through the Utah rockies, but adding hours to the trip? A deadline loomed, alas (the bane of any journey is the destination); I chose south. Not that Highway 95 doesn’t have its own charm. I passed mysterious, seemingly purposeless dirt roads that ran from the highway up into the mountains to end abruptly. There were the occasional buildings, painted pink and surrounded by palm trees. Brothels, out in the middle of nowhere.
I worried about rush hour in Las Vegas, but it turned out to be the weekend. As I drove through Henderson (now no more than an estension of Las Vegas sprawl), the moon climbed over the mountains, almost full, almost invisible. The same color as the sky around it, it seemed translucent, ephemeral. I followed Highway 93 toward Hoover Dam. “No trucks or busses!” the signs exclaimed. “Use alternate route!” In boulder city I was presented with two ways to go — the truck route or the business route. Truck route? I hadn’t gone far on the truck route when I was reminded once again that trucks were not allowed.
There is a massive construction project going on there, appalling amounts of money being spent in the name of Homeland Security. The result will be: 1) more efficient 2) less fun and 3) spectacular. They’re cooking up one hell of a bridge over there. From there, south to Kingman as darkness asserted itself. It was time to stop, time to sleep, time to reflect on a day of many roads.