Monday, November 29, 2010

Impressions of the I-5

Sorry, only photo I could get this time.

Down the western slopes of California’s Central Valley runs Interstate Highway 5. It’s a journey south my wife, Elizabeth, and I take a couple of times a year to visit her sister and family in Pasadena, California.

The I-5 starts way up north at the Canadian border and runs nearly 1,400 miles south to Mexico, the only U.S. Highway to stretch border to border. The section running through central California, from south of the small valley town of Tracy to Grapevine, is called the Westside Freeway. 

I’ve heard it called the most boring drive in the state, an approximately 200-mile, four-lane ribbon of windswept drear where cars wrestle for road space with menacing truck caravans that sway in the high winds. There’s not much good eating beyond ubiquitous McDenny’s, and tourist snares such as Andersen’s Pea Soup and the famous but overpriced, Harris Ranch. Hell’s Highway.

I don’t quite agree. (Highway 99, in my view, is the road to nowhere, through towns like Turlock, Merced, and Fresno, a litany of strip-mall despair, through areas that are said to be among the most polluted in the United States. I-80, down the East Side of the San Francisco Bay also has little to enchant habitual sightseers. There, the Bay is carefully concealed, so you're not distracted from shopping by nature's intrusive, capital-draining beauty.)

For long sections of its sunlit path under broad skies, Interstate 5 is pleasantly scenic. Elizabeth and I live in the Bay Area and our journey begins about 70 miles east of Emeryville, where East 580 sews itself into the I-5 as it descends from Sacramento. From there, it serenely rides above the Central Valley and below the hills and mountains to the west.

Because it’s a favored commerce route between the Bay Area and Los Angeles, the drive does require close attention. Elizabeth, the more confident city driver, handles the chores at either end, while I take most of the long middle section, often with Duke Ellington or Gordon Lightfoot on the stereo.

When not at the wheel, I closely watch how the sunlight plays its splash and trim on the distant hills to my right, their contours like the backs of sleeping animals against the dark blue of the low ragged mountains—what I believe is the Diablo Range--that rise and fall under clear skies.

Most of the nature in the valley below has been gone awhile now, its Iowa-flat, checkered table sunk under a scummy brown mist. While the hills seem soft pillows of untouched gold, various veins of poison have flooded up from the valley below, along with a range of invasive species. By one account, only 1% of the original species of native grass, Nasella puchra, remains anywhere (though occasionally we glimpse the patches of scrub that once dominated the area). A hundred years ago, the north valley lay under a seasonal inland sea upon which ships could sail from the San Joaquin River and bays west. But the sea is gone and only wheeled vehicles roam the valley floor now. I seldom look out that side for too long.

The town of Kettleman City, near the mid-point, is said to suffer from a cluster of birth defects. Responsibility for this has been laid at the door of a company called Chemical Waste Management. I hold my breath a little as we pass through this area, keep my eyes on the hills.

Overall, the central valley seems always sunk in glowering anxiety. It’s the nation’s food basket, but an unnatural field, a gift forced from Nature. Once semi-desert and chaparral, it was ruthlessly dug up for a garden and wears its vegetable raiment uneasily—Nature, or (the farmers in the central and south sections say) the government, is always threatening to take the water away. But water wasn’t really there in reliable quantities before the dams and other huge irrigation projects were built to redirect water from the San Joaquin Delta and the Sierra.

Along the interstate, signs erected to protest government policy a few years ago have drooped and faded. Maybe passions have been dampened by last year’s rains. But, reports say, weather patterns have abruptly flipped from El Nino back to El Nina, promising another dry year. The rains will fade again and, someday, sooner than we realize, be absent too long for things to grow as they have been. Nature has never cared for our status quo. She always bats last.

To some, maybe the world around I-5 never changes, but when I look closely, I notice new things from trip-to-trip. This Thanksgiving, we saw what appeared to be a new water treatment facility south of Tracy. For the first time, I noticed sheep grazing in the fields, looking like clumps of scattered
crumbs. I may have missed them before or this may be a response to changes in the ecological economy.

Near the town of Alpaugh, the mountains fade west while I-5 sinks southeast into the valley. Boredom at lasts set in for a hundred miles or so through towns like Buttonwillow (where Elizabeth and I spent our first honeymoon night at the Super 8 Motel, unaware that area too has its own toxic story) and
nearby Wasco (more about that on the trip back).

There is one unmissable attraction though--the Kern Wildlife Refuge in Kern County: 11,000 acres of wetlands both original and restored. It's a soulful place, especially during an early fall dusk when thousands of birds rise through shafts of sun into purple skies. The only thing wrong with Kern is that it's 15 miles east of the I-5 and local accommodations are laughable.

Finally, we turn toward the mountains again. At Grapevine (named for groves of wild grapes they say still grow along the roadside,) I-5 rises quickly into the wild rugged Tehachapi Mountains and the Angles National Forest. Mostly known as “The Grapevine,” for a few regrettably short miles the
“Ridge Route” is the most scenic part of the drive. The high-desert Tehachapi range may not be high, but it’s brawny, defiantly rugged and gorgeous, especially when storms unfurl across its rocky summits. It beckons to hardy explorers, promising mystery and a Wild West ambiance. There appear to be few roads winding among them and I encourage myself to someday check on that, to explore a little their fabulous ridges and ravines.

This rough beauty doesn’t last long enough. Once past the Angeles National Forest, there’s Castaic, Magic Mountains/Six Flags and so on. The only truly interesting feature I can point to now is William S. Hart Park, the home of the movie’s second great cowboy star after Broncho Billy Anderson, William S. Hart. Located outside of Newhall, his Spanish Colonial Revival-style is a cozy wonder, striking and pleasant to wander in, especially its lovingly tiled wood flooring. Don’t stay too long, or you’ll ask to move in and they’ll say no.

Somewhere in here, the mysterious local custom of appending the article “the” to Freeway names begins: I-5 becomes “the I-5” and U.S. 210 becomes “the 210.” I always feel a foreigner. It may have something to do with Southern California vs. Northern California.

After another fine and pleasant Pasadena Thanksgiving, we left earlier than usual, both because of an approaching storm (which might have closed the Grapevine, as storms do) and an unspoken concern about an adored and elderly friend

Going north, I noticed bales of cotton stacked along the road, next to white-dabbed cotton fields. Once again, as we approached the exit ramp to Wasco, we recalled this is where Jack Nicholson jumps into the back of the open-bed truck to joyfully bang away on an old upright in his 1971 classic Five Easy Pieces. (This also near where Hitchcock filmed Cary Grant being nearly dusted off by the winged assassin in North by Northwest.)

Our sinuses shriveled and eyes teared up as we passed through a methane cloud, past  fenced-in wastelands where unhappy California cows sagged on their feet, their noses in the bare soil (Though occasional beef eaters, we darkly refer to these muddy industrial pens as “cow-centration camps”,
or, even more tastelessly, “Cow-schwitz.” I’m not at all vegetarian, but this I believe: Food animals should always live as good a life as we’d wish for ourselves and should die swiftly.)

Just before our first rest stop, a bit past Buttonwillow, a flock of birds in the distance swam through a blue sky, swirling and whirling, funneling and flying as one in delightful patterns like a school of fish in the sea. We hurriedly parked at the rest stop and leapt out to look closer, but by then their search for food had ended, while our long drive still stretched ahead.

(Re-edited 11/30/10 & 12/2/10)

Copyright 2010 by Thomas Burchfield

Photo by Author

Thomas Burchfield's contemporary Dracula novel Dragon's Ark will be published March 15, 2011 by Ambler House Publishing. Other of his essays and postings can also be read at The Red Room website for writers. He can also be friended on Facebook, tweeted at on Twitter and e-mailed at tbdeluxe [at] sbcglobal [dot] net.


AL said...

thanks for a fun read.

Anonymous said...

I really enjoyed this one, Thomas. You praised all that's praiseworthy along I-5, and properly dissed the rest. I've been admiring those big rolling hills to the west for years. And cussing "Cow-schwitz."


hypnoid said...

I didn't know that highway 5 was the only north-south border to border highway in the US. I've driven it many times as part of my commercial travel and wished I could have had Mr. Burchfield's added dimensionality during those times. I've always made note of the grassy hills, usually tan since my travel has been in the summer. So this is all fake grass? Invaders? Amazing.

Thomas Burchfield said...

Thanks everyone for commenting!