Tuesday, January 06, 2009

Holiday Travels

We drove to Las Vegas between Christmas and New Year's, to visit my sister and brother-in-law. From our house this is about 550 miles one way, and takes between 10 and 12 hours depending on how fast we drive, how often we stop, and whether we stop for a meal. We could fly, but then we'd have to stand in lines, sit in uncomfortable seats with no leg room, and put all the fluids and gels in a quart Ziplock bag. On the other hand, flying only takes about 4 hours. You pay for everything in either time or money, and this time we decided to pay in time.

We got some payback for the decision, too. As we came over the Altamont Pass, around 9 AM, we saw a (now) very rare sight: the Sierra Nevada mountains. The air was clear enough to show a full view of the snow-capped peaks, and the Central Valley between. This doesn't happen much these days; if you can see the mountains at all, it's usually over a haze of smog. We watched the mountains all the way across, and down Highway 99 as far as Fresno; by then it was early afternoon and the daily cloud bank was covering up the mountains. It's much more interesting to drive down 99 than to take I-5; 99 goes through towns. Before 99 became freeway bypasses, it had the Oranges - big round orange buildings by the roadside, from which people sold (originally) fresh orange juice; but the last Orange is now gone. Driving down 99 lets you see what life in the Central Valley looks like now.

I'll do some other posts on the trip, but for now I want to mention 2 other things I saw that charmed me:

I saw a roadrunner cross the road in the red rock country west of Las Vegas. It looked astoundingly like the one in the cartoons.

Coming back up I-5 on December 30, at 6:48 in the evening near Patterson, I saw a meteor. I was staring blankly out the passenger window, and a bright light streaked across the sky and vanished in a small flare of more bright light. No, I didn't get a photo; we were driving in a car at 65 MPH, and apart from the meteor it was black as the inside of your hat, not the ideal situation for low-light photography.

Coming back up the central valley, we had no more views of the Sierras. We could barely see the side of the road. OK, that's an exaggeration, but if you've never driven past Bakersfield on a damp winter day with no wind and an inversion, you really can't envision how bad it is. I estimate maybe half a mile visibility at the worst. When you read that the Central Valley has the worst air quality in the country, think about driving through a thin brown soup, which blurs out the power lines paralleling the road.

By the way, a road trip for you California types: if you're coming back from Nevada over the Tehachapi Pass, heading for I-5, don't cut straight over through Bakersfield. Endless stop lights and town traffic, believe me. Go north on 99 to highway 46 and cut over to I-5 through Wasco. No traffic to speak of, only 3 lights, and you get to envision Cary Grant running down the rows of orchard trees, because Wasco is where North by Northwest was filmed. It hasn't changed much since then, either.


  1. Anonymous6:44 AM

    Whoa! I have been over that road, years ago, both in snow and no snow. I recall the snow as lovely to look at. Personally, after reading about your road trip to Vegas, I'll stick to mine: four and a half to five hours over the back roads (95) through the desert. Stop at Blythe or Needles for petrol, and on up the road.

    I went up once during the dark of the moon. It was as black as your meteor night. Just out of Blythe, two lane road, I ended up behind two massively long tractor rigs, with that quilted tinfoil type pattern on the containers. My headlights, on low, reflected wonderfully and lit up the road directly in front of me perfectly. The rigs appeared to either be empty or the drivers were busy beating a deadline. They were hitting way above the recommended 55mph for tucks and trailers.

    I just let them be the point for our little caravan all the way up. In fact, it was so dark, outside of the nicely lit road directly in front of my car, and we were going so fast, I missed the landmarks outside of Needles and Searchlight completely. Basically, I focused on staying a reasonable distance away from the rig in front of me and not letting that distance widen. It was the quickest trip up I've made. I won't say I've never hit 90 miles an hour before, but it is the only time I've done it following a big rig. A little less than four hours and bang, we were in Vegas.

  2. I've been in that Bakersfield routine before. The people living along the route sat in deck chairs in their front yards with jeering signs "how's the commute going?" etc., waving delightedly.

    Don't get a flat tire in the desert!