I had directions to Interstate 580, which led out of town, and following the notes I ended up... in the parking lot of a recycling center. I backtracked and tried again, but found only miles of businesses. I stopped at a gas station, and following the mechanic's directions I ended up... in a residential addition. I was starting to get a little frustrated. After a half hour of wandering around, I came across the on-ramp for 580 east completely by dumb luck, and immediately I was on my way. Troy was right about one thing: most of the cars that time of day were going in the opposite direction, towards San Francisco, so traffic wasn't a problem at all. A relentless ribbon of headlights streamed out of the hills past me towards the Bay.
The light traffic gave me time to think, and not all of my thoughts were positive. The ghosts of depression tried to pull me down. The thoughts inside my head kept trying to depress me... but despite the ghostly voices I felt a warming sense of relief, like a weight had been lifted off me. I knew stuff I didn't know before, stuff I might not have wanted to know before, but at least now I knew. Dawn was certainly right about Interstate 5: it was a long, straight, flat, boring road. Coming back from Santa Cruz, she told me Interstate 5 was so boring that sometimes commuters have sex while driving that highway. I didn't see anybody having sex while I was on Interstate 5, except for that one car (and the passenger might have just been getting something out of the back seat). Lon and Troy also warned me that drivers frequently drive 90 or 100 MPH on that highway, so I kind of figured I'd be going home by way of the slow lane. On the interstate, however, I kept to the speed limit (70 MPH), and I was the one passing other cars.
Coming out of the Bay area, closer to the coast, there were some lovely
golden hills. The dead grass of summer. As I headed southeastward, the
highway passed through some of the flattest landscape I'd seen since Texas.
I stopped for some gas, and just over an hour later I passed the exit for
Paso Robles. Had I kept to my original schedule, that was where I would
have got on Interstate 5 after driving the Pacific Coast Highway. It was
close to lunchtime, so I stopped at a Wendy's near Lost Hills. The girl
at the counter was a little surprised when I ordered a burger, but she
got it for me. While I was eating, I realized: it was 11:30 to me, but
9:30 AM to the locals. They were still serving breakfast. I got more gas
and headed down the road. Ahead, about Exit 268, the horizon was shrouded
with a bank of hazy, yellowish-grey mist. I thought it was smog from Los
Angeles, not that far to the south, but a sign warning of gusty winds told
me it was dust, blowing in from the east.
Right after the Buttonwillow Rest Area, I exited the interstate and headed due east on the 2-lane Highway 58. Acres of farmland spread out on either side of the road, and I drove through orchards of trees. I think it was Greenacres where I passed Karla Street. A "Gas Wars" gas station was not that far ahead. Shadowy mountains loomed in the east. At 10:43 local time, I made it to Bakersfield. That was where the dust cleared, and blue skies came out to play. Immediately outside of town, the road turned into a comfortable 4-lane highway, and began a long, slow climb into the noble Sierra Nevada mountains. The views were tremendous. Beautiful, golden hills, dotted with trees and laced with outcrops of stone. Strewn boulders looked like the discarded teeth of some great forgotten leviathan. The bare mountaintops looked like they came from the opening scene of "The Sound of Music." I continued my climb into the hills, passing Bear Mountain and Black Mountain. A vast windmill farm appeared in the distance, and lined the horizon like so many advancing Zulus.
About an hour out of Bakersfield I passed the Tehachapi Summit, 4,000
feet above the sea level I had my feet in just the day before. Once past
there, I began the long, slow descent into the scariest part of my whole
trip: the Mojave Desert. It was the section I was most apprehensive about,
even more than the lonely Highway 50, and it was poor planning on my part
to time my desert traverse with the hottest part of the day. I topped
a short rise, and I could see the highway for about 20 miles ahead. At
just after noon, local time, I passed the exit for Edwards Air Force Base.
I could see a bunch of planes parked way off the road, but the only airplane
I saw in the air was a little two-seater, landing on a nearby runway. The
divided highway ended at the town of Boron, and the road turned 2-lane
for about 10 miles.
At the next town, I stopped to stretch my legs and to fill up my canteens with water. I wanted to be sure I was prepared. I got to Barstow, California just after 1 PM, local time. I crossed a bridge over a wide, sandy scratch in the landscape which a sign told me was the Mojave "River." Barstow was odd in that I don't think I saw a single billboard along the highway. That was where an exit put me on Interstate 40 east, which I would follow all the way to Oklahoma. I was also back on Route 66, which would take me all the way back to Tulsa. A sign told me I was 2,554 miles from Wilmington, North Carolina, the easternmost end of Interstate 40. I understand there's a similar sign in Wilmington telling the distance to Barstow. A big "B" spelled out in white stone marked the side of a hill. Lots of towns in that part of the country liked to mark mountains with their initials. Just outside of town, I passed the famous Baghdad Café.
I passed through Needles, California and out of the Mojave with no problems at all. About 10 hours after leaving San Leandro, I crossed the lazy Colorado River and into Arizona. I saw lightning ahead. It looked like there was a storm brewing on the horizon, but the wind still carried the hot desert kiss. The thundercloud spanned the horizon and towered over me as I drove on east. Cowering under the cloud, the mountains ahead became obscured in blue mist. I passed Lake Havasu, where they moved London Bridge. My Uncle Harold used to have land around there. Sprinkles hit my windshield near Exit 26, where the shells of Route 66 motels sit at the mercy of nature. The air turned cool, and I could smell rain somewhere ahead. At Mile Marker 35, I passed Black Rock Wash, and I had to stop for a picture.
The road twisted and climbed through some dramatic cuts in the rocks
beyond Holy Moses Wash. My gas light came on, but fortunately I was only
14 miles from a gas station. I was about an hour into Arizona when I stopped
in Kingman. Flagstaff was still over two hours away. Just outside of Kingman,
a vigorous shower of rain came down. It was just a light squall, and quickly
moved on, but it confirmed my record: every time I'd been through Arizona,
it had rained on me. The atmosphere cooled off dramatically– and quite
pleasantly. Appropriately, the radio station I was listening to played
"Riders on the Storm." Once past Kingman, I was back on familiar territory.
It was the same road I'd driven the previous year. I climbed into a range
of mountains. Road signs alternated between "Watch for Rocks" and "Watch
for Elk." I watched the storm I'd just passed under slowly lumber off to
the south. At Mile Marker 89 I topped 5,000 feet. The rest of the drive
was pretty uneventful. At 9 PM Oklahoma time, I rolled into the wet streets
of Flagstaff. I missed the turnoff for the Motel 6 I'd stayed at the year
before, but there was another one just a mile down the road. The air was
wet and chilly. I checked in, and treated myself to a wonderful hot shower.
Once I was settled in, I called home, then made an early night of it and
went to bed. I still had a long drive ahead of me.