We’re down in Los Angeles for a few days. The quickest way of getting here, obviously, is to fly. It’s a one-hour flight. But we generally drive, and that’s mostly because we like seeing the country along the way.
The main route between the Bay Area and L.A. is Interstate 5. And while a lot of the territory between metropolises is interesting and picturesque, and all of it is worth seeing and contemplating, that particular highway is a real drag. The volume of traffic can be intense, for one thing. For another, many, many, many, many drivers tend to camp out in what is known unironically in much of California as “the fast lane.” That’s especially true if a driver sees a truck somewhere up ahead — “up ahead” meaning “within sight.” The appearance of truck traffic, which in California has a 55 mph maximum speed limit, causes many drivers to get over into the left (a.k.a. “passing”) lane minutes before they will actually overtake the truck. Once past a truck, many drivers will sight another truck up ahead and figure they might as well just stay over there in that left lane until they pass that one, too. The result is long strings of vehicles lined up in the left lane, even when the right lane is empty. Not only are the lines of “fast lane” traffic long, they usually feature dramatic slowdowns and speed-ups as more cautious drivers brake to maintain some sort of minimum distance between them and the vehicle they’re following; sometimes the slowdowns occur because faster traffic has come up in the right lane and merges into the long line of left-lane traffic; sometimes the trucks get into the act when a slightly faster-moving truck moves to the left to pass a slow-poke semi.
That’s pretty much the way I-5 works most of the 275 or 300 miles or so down the west side of the San Joaquin Valley, and it’s kind of a drag. Yesterday, with less than half of that part of the drive done, I commented to Kate that I wished there was an alternative. Of course there are alternatives if you’re willing to take a much less direct (more time-consuming) route. But having voiced the thought of taking another way, we acted on it. I got off I-5 at Highway 41, the main route between Fresno and Paso Robles and the coast, took it west to Highway 33, then headed south through the Kern County oilfields, and across the Coast Ranges to Ojai and Ventura. I rode the same route on my bicycle years ago, and the memory of the trip across the mountains is vivid. The road did not disappoint yesterday, either.
We finished by taking 101 from Ventura into L.A., arriving early in the evening and well after the most excruciating hours of Friday afternoon traffic. We may have spent an extra couple of hours on the way than we would have if we had stayed on I-5, in part because we could stop as often as we wanted along the way and there was nothing pushing us (me) to go fast. We got where we were going, not necessarily soul-refreshed, but maybe a little less beat up from the tension of a long drive.
We drove down to Los Angeles from Berkeley today. History was made: Kate drove the first two-thirds of the trip, her first time negotiating the Interstate 5-San Joaquin Valley raceway. (As it happens, we haven’t taken I-5 south through the valley much, even in our 30-some years driving around California together, and when we have, I’ve been at the wheel.)
We’re here to visit Thom and Megan (that’s our son and his girlfriend, if people still say girlfriend), who just moved down here. After we got to our hotel, a little after dark, Kate and I walked over to their place, which is about a mile away. We remarked, as some non-Angelenos do, that there are not a lot of pedestrians on the street, even in this well-groomed old neighborhood. We also noted that some of the sidewalks are in amazingly bad shape, pushed up by tree roots in this well-groomed old neighborhood. I managed to trip on a panel of concrete jutting up a good 3 or 4 inches higher than the preceding slab.
The fall was not graceful, and it hurt enough that I was content to lie on the curb strip for a minute before I got back up. No lasting damage beyond a couple of skinned knees. It wasn’t fun, but once I started walking again and the little bit of adrenaline or endorphins or whatever kicked in, I actually felt oddly exhilarated.
Picture above: a front walk on 5th Street, near where we are staying and not far from where I fell on my face.
So: You’re going to drive down to Los Angeles from the Bay Area on a Friday. To avoid a heavy commute leaving the traffic-strangled San Francisco region — East Bay to be more specific, and Berkeley to be even specific-er — you choose to leave at which hour:
b. 2 p.m.
c. 4:30 p.m., into the teeth of the usual P.M. freeway shitstorm.
If you chose c., you and I think think differently, because I didn’t quite choose to leave at that hour, but leave at that hour I did.
I checked traffic maps before rolling out, and there were long stretches of red and darker red all along the best (actually only) escape routes. No worries, I thought — I will take some side and back roads to make my way over the hills to Interstate 5.
So, I took 580 east through Oakland to Castro Valley, where things were jammed up for the climb over the Dublin Grade to the Tri-Valley area. I could tell from the maps that 580 would be even worse going through Dublin and Livermore and on over Altamont Pass, so I thought I’d use an old cycling route over Palomares Road to Highway 84, which goes through Livermore from Fremont.
Palomares was great, once I found it. Not fast, because it’s a real back road that winds and twists constantly as it climbs the hills and then descends to Highway 84.
Highway 84 was a brilliant idea, though it was bumper to bumper for a long, long way into and through the townlet of Sunol. After that it opened up, and I had just normal non-freeway traffic through Livermore — time now 6:30, or two hours into the trip — and onto Tesla Road and up the last set of Coast Range hills into the Central Valley.
Lots of people use this as an alternate route to the miserable slog on 580 over Altamont, but everyone moved at a spritely pace up the steep, winding road over the top and down into San Joaquin County. In fact, some drivers crossed the line between spriteliness and recklessness. I saw a couple of cars cross the double-yellow line to pass a slower moving vehicle on a nearly blind downhill curve. Well, no one was killed. This time.
Corral Hollow Road, as it’s called on the San Joaquin County end of the road, hooks up with Interstate 580 at a point where it has diverged from I-205 and is usually just screaming along. The speed limit is 70 mph, and if I’m going 75 I feel like kind of a slow poke. But more of that in a minute.
I probably hit 580, which joins Interstate 5 about 10 miles further south, at about 7:20 p.m. It was dusk, and it didn’t make sense to shift over to whatever scenic routes I might devise. The bucolic portion of the drive was over.
If I have myself time — something I never do — I probably would stay off I-5 as much as possible. The side roads going down the San Joaquin Valley are many and, at this time of year, and especially after all the rain this year, beautiful. The countryside is green and welcoming in a way you can hardly imagine if you only see the place in the brown haze of summer or the gray of winter.
The other reason one might stay off of I-5 between the Bay Area and L.A. is that it’s one of the most stressful driving experiences you can find. Speed is part of it. If you’re driving 80 — yes, I know, that’s over the posted speed limit, but still quite common — you really have to be on top of your game.
But it’s not really the sheer speed that gets to you. It’s the varied speeds on the two lanes from the Tracy area down to the bottom of the Grapevine.
I-5 is the major truck route between Northern and Southern California. Trucks have a dramatically lower speed limit — 55 mph, and they seem to stick close to it. That means you have a mix of high-speed four-wheelers mixed in with some very slow moving 18-wheelers. But that’s only the beginning of the issue.
Many of my fellow motorists are driving at 70 or so — some just above, some just below. That’s fine. They may live longer, happier lives than the likes of me. But here’s the thing: They aren’t content to drive their rational 70 mph in the right lane of the two lanes available. No. They would much, much rather cruise at their comfortable, non-threatening pace in the left lane.
Yes, it’s true that there will be slower traffic they need to pass. For instance, the trucks I just mentioned. And then they will need to use the left lane. But the notion of completing the pass in some sort of expedited fashion — taking note of traffic approaching from behind, for instance; not getting into the passing lane before you need to; maybe speeding up a little to complete a pass (a technique I was taught in driver’s ed); and then moving over again (another driver’s ed lesson) — is not one that is widely shared based on the behavior one sees on the highway.
The net effect last night was that whenever the river of left-lane traffic encountered an obstacle — a truck or series of trucks in the right lane, say — the left lane would bunch up and slow down, with lots of nonsensical tapping of the brakes as the flow of traffic went from 75 mph, say, down to 60 or 65. It was kind of like NASCAR in super-slow motion.
The rules of the road, I-5 Edition, seem to be these:
–If you see any traffic ahead in the right lane — even that little speck out there in the horizon — you’ll be catching up in five or 10 minutes. Better get over to pass.
–Life is easier in the left lane. You don’t have to worry about getting over to pass. And why is that guy on my bumper?
–Drive with your brights on — all the time. It helps you see the gestures the driver in front of you is making.
–If the slower jerks in the left lane won’t move over, accelerate — accelerate with extreme prejudice — and pass them on the right. And do it over and over and over again.
And in conclusion let me say: No — I am not on a crusade to change the way the rest of the world behaves, there are serious flaws in the way I do things on the road — speeding, right-hand passes — and I don’t give enough credit to all the people I see who do behave in a rational, courteous way.
To complete the trip narrative, though: I got to L.A. in one piece, arriving at our downtown hotel at midnight after following the Apple Maps directions — which at one point involved exiting northbound 110 at Dodger Stadium and doing a U-turn back onto the southbound ramp — and getting lost briefly on surface streets.
Anyway. Here I am. Today’s travel will be on public transit.
A. I was thinking about driving up Interstate 5 and all those passes you cross.
A. It’s a flat valley drive until you get to Redding. That’s 200 miles from the front door. Then there’s some climbing and lots of twisty parts around Lake Shasta. And then you go up some more, past Dunsmuir.
A. Dunsmuir’s about 50, 55 miles north of Redding. LIttle town on the upper part of the Sacramento River. Popular place during trout season. Elevation up there is about 2,500 feet.
Q. What then?
A. Mount Shasta. You can see the mountain way down in the Valley. Once we saw it clear down by Dunnigan, which is 180 miles down the road from the peak. But when you get into the hilly country around Redding, you lose sight of the mountain until you’re much closer. And then, bang, there it is.
A. Very big. Very impressive. A 14,000-foot peak standing out there pretty much by itself. Anyway, the highway goes up past the town of Mount Shasta, which sits on the eastern base of the mountain. At about 3,500 feet. Then I-5 goes up crosses Black Butte Summit. About 3,900 feet. That’s the first real pass, maybe 50 miles south of the Oregon border.
Q. Black Butte?
A. It’s a volcanic cone of some kind. Next to Mount Shasta, it’s the most remarkable sight along that part of the road.
Q. OK. You’re still going north. What’s the next pass?
A. Well, the road loses some elevation first. You go through Weed, which is mentioned in passing in “Of Mice and Men,” the Steinbeck story. It’s a place Lenny and George had to leave before they landed in the Salinas Valley, where the story takes place. Then you go through Yreka, which ought to have a bakery because it it did you’d have a good palindrome. The road goes right up after you pass Yreka, up Anderson Grade. There’s a nice view of Shasta to the south, and somebody put a dragon sculpture along the highway there. You climb up to Anderson Grade Summit. Maybe 3,100 feet.
Q. Not a big deal?
A. Well, it’s steep coming up from Yreka, and the road winds, and there are plenty of slower trucks up there, and then the road plunges down toward the Klamath River. There’s an exit right along the Klamath with a rest area. Good place to stop, though I only remember doing it once.
Q. Still in California.
A. For a little while, maybe 10-15 miles. The road goes up and down for a while, you pass a weigh station, and then you start climbing again. The last town in California is called Hilt. Milepost 796, I think. And then you’re on the Oregon border.
Q. How far from home?
A. About 320 miles. That climb that starts in California is the Siskiyou Summit climb. That’s two syllables — SISK-you.The summit is the highest point on I-5, 4,300-some feet. Doesn’t sound that high — all the well-known passes in the Sierra Nevada are in the low 7,000 to 10,000-foot range. But Siskiyou is far enough north and gets enough wet weather in the winter to make it a barrier. I know plenty of people who’ve gotten stopped there during snowstorms. Or at least a couple.
Q. How about you?
A. Never. We always had great luck driving through there in winter. The road always seemed to be dry and clear when we went through on our way up to Eugene.
Q. Where’s the road go next.
A. There’s a steep drop with a couple runaway-truck ramps down to the town of Ashland, where the Shakespeare Festival is. Elevation there is probably 1,500 or 1,800 feet. Then you’re in a valley through Medford, the big town in the region. Then you noodle around through Grants Pass before you come to the three summits.
Q. Three summits?
A. Well, you hit them one right after another. I always tried to keep the order straight. Northbound, I think you hit Sexton Mountain first. Then … Stage Road, I think. And last … Smith Hill. I think the last is the highest, about 2,000 feet. Then there’s a little break crossing a valley, and then you hit a fourth pass, Canyon Creek, which is also not very high but has a long, long descent to Canyonville and then the Seven Feathers Casino.
Q. How many times have you done this drive?
A. Over the last four or five years maybe 20, 25 times. Enough to get to know it. That’s the last named pass that I know of, Canyon Creek. Though there are rivers.
Q. That’s a different species of geographic phenomenon. Which ones?
A. Well, from the south, you’ve got the Sacramento, which you cross and recross half a dozen times from Red Bluff up to Dunsmuir. Then the Shasta, which is a tiny thing, and maybe the Little Shasta. The Klamath. Bear Creek between Ashland and Medford; has enough water running to be called a river. The Rogue. The South Umpqua and the North Umpqua. The Coast Fork of the Willamette, and the southern end of the mainstem Willamette just as you get into Eugene. Maybe other rivers. But a whole bunch of creeks, too. One name that comes to mind: Jumpoff Joe Creek, north of Grants Pass before you go up Sexton Mountain.
One more from the road: a drive-in we passed in Wasco, between Highway 99 and Interstate 5 north of Bakersfield. The featured role of pastrami is notable, but pales next to the claim, “The Best Food in Wasco.” I can’t testify one way or the other.
We pretty much stuck to the route that Google Maps or Mapquest might give you between Barstow and Berkeley: Highway 58 to Bakersfield and Highway 99; then up to Highway 46, through Wasco to I-5. Then all the way up the San Joaquin Valley to I-580, which takes you into Oakland. The route is simple and it is fast, and the traffic in the valley mostly behaved itself. We hit the front door here at about 5 p.m. straight up. Total driving for five days: 2,685 miles. Not a killer, but in a mini-Toyota it was a little bit of a challenge. Now that I think of it, I don’t recall seeing a single Echo on the road between here and Chicago (plenty of Priuses, though).
Sunday evening, on the way home from Eugene. We were in the Grand Caravan (174,000 miles); Thom and his friend Elle were driving a U-Haul truck somewhere ahead of us. We got down into the Sacramento Valley just before sunset. On the way north Friday, we had seen a big fire burning in the mountains to the west. A northerly wind had been blowing for several days and carried the smoke well down the valley. By Sunday, the wind had shifted to the southwest, and a long tail of smoke was visible in the northern valley. Just after sunset, a big tower of smoke came up from the fire, and we pulled off to take pictures. This is on Road 7, in Glenn County, just south of the Tehama County line (the “tower” or “puff” or whatever it was is visible in the left center; the clouds in the distance are smoke from the blaze, which I later learned was called the Whiskey fire, near the town of Paskenta, in Mendocino National Forest. It burned about 8,000 acres–a relatively small fire by California wildland standards).
Just south of Red Bluff, about 11:30 this morning, northbound on Interstate 5: Thom, who was riding in the front of the van, pointed out a bird and said he thought it was a bald eagle. I looked up and spotted a turkey vulture. Nope, not an eagle. But the bird he was pointing to was flying roughly at our level over a little arroyo within about half a mile of the Sacramento River. We were going 70 mph, but somehow Thom managed to switch his camera on, get the bird in the viewfinder and shoot. It’s not a terriibly crisp frame, but it’s still astounding to me.
As mentioned in a road-addled state earlier this week, I drove up to Eugene on Monday, then drove right back. Not that it was a world-class ironman stunt or anything, but still: 512 miles up there, 512 miles back. We were actually rolling at 9:14 a.m. (projected start: “8 o’clock at the latest”), and we pulled into Thom’s driveway near the University of Oregon at 5:37; that was with one fairly long stop (40 minutes) in Ashland gas up and then sit down and have lunch (Pangea; wraps highly recommended). I got another tank of gas in Eugene and was driving south again at 6:12 p.m. There was no traffic to speak of all the way south, but it started to rain when I got about halfway down the Sacramento Valley. It started to rain, and I started to get tired. Along the way, I experimented with some night-time windshield pictures. The one above is from southwestern Oregon, north of Glendale, Grants Pass and Medford (as the road sign indicates several times). The one below is from Interstate 80 in Vacaville, just after leaving i-505. Things were starting to look a little fractured at that point.
Monday into Tuesday: Drove up to Eugene (to take Thom back up to school) and back (to be in time for my first day of school). Full moon tonight. Overworked word: magical. But the moonlight on the mountains up north was just that, magical. Going over one of the higher passes, a meteor came down nearly directly in from of me in a long, green, sparking arc. Then, on the way down the grade to Yreka, I could see the clouds around Mount Shasta had cleared. I pulled off to the vista point that commands the view of the high valleys sweeping south to the mountain and tried a couple time exposures (not perfect because it was very windy and cold and I had to try to hold the camera steady on top of a railing). A couple of them turned out OK.
Interstate 5, north of Medford, Oregon. Drove up to Eugene today, on my way to Portland, where I’ll pick up my friend Pete to go up to ride our bikes in Coeur d’Alene, Idaho, on Saturday. More on that later. The sky was beautiful the whole trip, though it started to rain off and on just south of Mount Shasta for the rest of the way north. Lots of opportunities for windshield photography. (I insist: It’s not as distracting as cellphones or torch-juggling. Perfectly safe.)
In Eugene, Thom and I went out for dinner, then went back to his house. Isaac, one of his roommates, was surfing YouTube for musical treasures. Here’s a pretty amazing one: a guy dong an acoustic cover of Outkast’s “Hey Ya.” I mean, I liked the original. But I didn’t realize the thing actually had lyrics, and I never imagined it might work as, gulp, a sensitive ballot. Check it out.
And last: The place we went for dinner had the second Cubs-Diamondbacks game on. Damn. That’s all there is to say about that.