The Road Trip is what I consider the epic American experience.
We have all done it at least once in our lifetime. Whether it is a solo drive over miles of road or a family vacation, the absolute notion of freedom sets the road trip apart from anything we can set our minds to do. It is about forging a friendship between the driver and the undiscovered land.
Some road trips became moments of self-discovery. Some were simply a chance for a family to bond. There were some road excursions that bonded friendships for life. Others…not so much.
The beauty of taking the road is set in the framework of one's desire to discover something extraordinary. Uncharted lands for a person to experience for the first time – that's the first thing that pop's up when waxing poetic about the road trip. New places, new people, and new cultures – it keeps the American curiosity sharp and free.
The next series of posts explore some personal road trip moments worth sharing over years of getting behind the wheel. Circumstances may vary, but my personal desire to take a road never traveled before has been a constant theme in my driving history.
I begin in February of 1987 during my last months of living in Reseda. The July before, my father died. My brother and I attended his memorial and spreading of his ashes up in Marin County, California. Our relationship with him had been strained with his attitudes as being a father to his children despite not being completely there for us over the course of 14 years. When he left mom, it was a loss that took time to comprehend. Even today, my brother – a father of two teenagers – and I continue to sort out our feelings regarding our relationship with our father.
A call came in January of 1987 by my father's last companion to come up to Novato, where he last lived, and sort through dad's stuff. I was the one tasked to do so by consensus of my family. This is not a trip any child should take after the death of a parent. The plan was simple: Drive from Reseda to Novato, stay at my late Grandmother Stern's house in San Rafael and pack the car up with what belongings Sheldon left behind that was worth taking back to Reseda.
Since I was the one doing this trip, I figured the best way to do is to rent a car for the long haul up north and back. I was a regular customer of Hertz back then, so I took advantage of a long weekend deal on a full-size four-door sedan. After work on Thursday, I trekked down to Los Angeles International Airport and picked up a white 1987 Ford Taurus GL sedan.
The Taurus proved to be the star of the road trip. For one, its 3.0litre Vulcan V6 was strong enough to take America's hottest selling car over the Grapevine and on a sustained high-speed cruise on Interstate 5 towards the Bay Area. The original Bull had a large enough trunk to swallow anything his companion had of dad's easily. If there were some overflow, I'd throw the rest in the back seat.
A previous intercity run in a similar Taurus – from Reseda to San Diego – already gave me some insight as to how this road trip will go. Besides, I loved the Taurus enough to call it my favorite car of that era. It remains amongst my Top Ten of all time.
On Thursday night, I took my favorite alternate route through the Santa Monica Mountains – Beverly Glen Boulevard – to ready the car for the trek. My plan was to leave early to beat the rush over the Grapevine into the San Joaquin Valley. The only thought while plotting the drive was the fact that I never drove on Interstate 5 before. Heck, I never drove to the Bay Area before. My family never took the inland route to get to Grandmother Stern's house for all the times we did that trip by car. US-101 was our family's preferred route that included obligatory stops in Santa Barbara, Buellton for Andersen's Split Pea Soup, Solvang for mom's love of needlepoint and San Luis Obispo to gawk at the Madonna Inn.
Interstate 5 was completely different. When going northbound, civilization simply ended in Castaic. The Grapevine – officially known as Tejon Pass – rises at 4,160 feet above sea level. It challenges the motorist with its sustained climbs up and over the lowest point of the Tehachapi Mountains, before it transitions into the Coastal Ranges. Once up and over, the San Joaquin Valley emerges into view. This is the long valley where California's agriculture has its primary base. It takes a long time to climb and descend off the pass, hence why it challenges anyone driving it.
A few miles up from the northern foot of the pass, the highway splits in two. If you live in the various cities in the San Joaquin Valley – Bakersfield, Fresno and the like – you take old California Highway 99. If you want to break the land speed record to San Francisco, you fork over to Interstate 5.
During the 1980s, the speed limit on Interstate 5 was 65MPH. That was not fast enough for the average I-5 driver – a fact known to the California Highway Patrol. On that sunny morning on the Coalinga side of the San Joaquin Valley, we were averaging 75-80MPH.
Why that much over the posted limit? There was another law in California at that time which favored the driver: Speed enforcement based on the flow of traffic. In most states, state enforcement agencies wait for you to do something wrong, either hidden or in plain sight somewhere. In California, the CHP rode along with traffic, even setting the pace for proper speed and traffic flow on the highway. One false move and you will be ticketed. I was pretty lucky on this trip.
In the past, a trip from Reseda to San Rafael would take about eight hours with stops along US-101. By going on Interstate 5, it was cut down to six. With a lunch break in Coalinga, you make it to San Francisco in time for rush hour to start. That was exactly my case.
I'd spare everyone the details of what transpired while in Marin County that weekend. It was to the point where going through my father's stuff put me in a right mood. I was hankering for home. The month before, I grabbed a ticket for a Golden State Warriors game at the Oakland Coliseum Arena. My plan was to head home from the game.
This posed another first for me: I never drove overnight anywhere. Driving at night has its advantages and disadvantages. If one goes through an area where there is no scenery, there's no need to worry about missing anything. Then again, if you're hungry or need transfusions of caffeine anywhere, there may be a chance a place might not be open when you need it. Rest Areas help to pace the need for using the facilities or stocking up on overpriced driver's aids – soda pop and candy.
Overnight driving can be a diabetic's nightmare.
Complicating the midnight run on Interstate 5 was a cool February rain stretching from Oakland to west of Visalia. Before we had electronic aids on our vehicles, rain provided some challenges for a driver. We hoped for the best knowing we have a good set of tires and the brakes are in proper shape. Having front wheel drive certainly helped in traction on wet – things we take for granted in today's world.
To me, the rain can be soothing and some value to the drive itself. Somewhere near Coalinga, Bruce Hornsby and The Range's "Mandolin Rain" popped up on the Taurus's speakers. I was amped up on unhealthy sustenance with the cruise set around 70MPH. I knew would make it home sometime after the sun comes up without any guarantee of my condition once I hit the front porch.
The sunrise was not as visible once I reached the southbound downhill side of The Grapevine. Just south of Newhall (now also called Santa Clarita), the sky became fluffy white. I arrived around 7:00AM on Sunday in a state best described a zombie-like. As I opened up the door, I was greeted by my mom, my brother…and my bed. The trunk was emptied with what I brought down from dad's stuff. That I cannot recall what contents were worthy of keeping afterwards.
My sleep was interrupted by a mental reminder to return the car back to LAX. Honestly, I do not recall anything else afterwards.
From this – my first big road trip – Interstate 5 would be a well-trodden path I would take even after I relocated to the Bay Area in June of the same year. This particular drive demonstrated that I could accomplish such a drive – even if the circumstances were less than desirable.
My lessons were many as they happen to be repeated for the duration of my time in my home state. For one, Interstate 5 is a faster route than the old way – US-101. I took the old way twice – for old time sakes. Sure, there are plenty of stops along the ay, but nothing beats getting there faster than the desolate route along the western end of the San Joaquin Valley.
Then, there's the notion of being young. I couldn't imagine doing any overnight driving at this stage. Being young and somewhat foolish, that southbound overnight drive taken 24 years was a prelude to plenty more. However, after a late night drive from Chicago to Madison several years ago, I realized that if you don't have the stamina to do so, don't do it.
Caffeine helps and hurts, too. Then again, I won't stop you from downing one of those energy drinks to keep you hopped up on the road.
The February, 1987 journey between the polar magnets of my life fulfilled something I wanted to do since riding in the back seat of the parent's car on US-101. It certainly made me an adult. The drive was more pivotal than its original intention proved to be. In June of that year, I relocated to San Rafael to spend the next nine years in the Bay Area. My last drive down the San Joaquin Valley would be one of the final stages of my life in my home state. That was in August of 1996. A few months later, I said good-bye to California as a native son and resident.
There are many journeys to discover in this blog. This is why I'm telling them on V&R. This is just the beginning. That consequential drive on February of 1987 between Reseda and Novato was the genesis that forged this love for the subject I enjoy writing about. One cannot talk about the automobile without experiencing the unknown in one.
Cover photo by James Lin via Flickr