Travel — April 28, 2011 10:19 am

Roadtrip: Goin’ Back to Cali


Four days. Two brothers. One ’87 Mazda. And 2,000 miles to the West Coast.

The red beast rests while the sun dips under the horizon. Photo Credit: Eamon Queeney


Dominatrix after dominatrix clad in ass-less leather chaps streamed out of the Holiday Inn Golden Gateway’s automatic sliding doors into San Francisco’s cool ocean air. A steady echoing cacophony enveloped me as I stepped out of a bright red 1987 Mazda Rx7. “BRAP BRAP BRAP!” the exhaust boomed, underneath the hotel’s stone awning. I drew more looks than the curious motorcycle maidens (as if no one had seen a racecar before); it was going to be an interesting day. Four days and 2,422 miles had transported me to the 26th floor of a downtown San Francisco hotel near the Golden Gate Bridge; the gleaming orange superstructure were visible from the three-foot plate glass windows.  The end of a journey was beginning. The cross-country road trip from Dayton, Ohio, to Monterey, California, my brother and I embarked on was coming to end. We had driven night and day to deliver our enlisted friend, Airman Teddy Porumb, his car and he couldn’t be happier.

In Needles, Calif., 48 hours earlier, the hot desert air whipped around the gas pumps while I sated the thirsty red beast for the 20th time. Or was it the 21st? Who knows. I lost count somewhere in Arizona. Needles — how appropriate a name, I thought to myself.

The Mojave Desert surrounds this first “city” inside California along Interstate-40. The heat and bleak emptiness was a sharp reminder of nature’s ability to take as well as give. I wondered how many Midwestern families stopped here during the Great Depression, escaping the harsh realities of the Dust Bowl for the greener pastures of California. I don’t think Needles would have lifted my spirit as a hungry and out-of-work sharecropper.

My brother Liam walked out of the convenience store, his aviator sunglasses already fixed in place. I tried to remember a time we were not viewing the scenery of America through dark polarized lenses; the pitch-black desert nights might have been the only time we let our eyes breathe. He nodded, I replaced the pump, we fell back into our seats (pilot and navigator, our roles changing every gassing) and fired up the engine, rumbling back to 80 mph. We rolled the windows down— our replacement for the nonexistent air conditioning — and let the thick desert air swirl around us. To say it was hot would be an understatement, but I preferred our method of cooling off. There is an extra dynamic to driving with the windows down. It’s about feeling the rush of wind, tasting air and listening to the world pass by. It is freedom.

Interstate-40 had been our path for a little more than 1,000 miles. The third longest west-east interstate highway, it covers 2,555 miles from Barstow, Calif., to Wilmington, S.C. Explorer, navy man and military general Edward Fitzgerald Beale first blazed our path along I–40 in 1857.

His attempt to find the fastest way to the Colorado River was a success, but his experimental caravan of camels wouldn’t convince the military to change their pack animals.

Seventy years later, his general route would become the famous U.S. Route 66, which eventually became or was bypassed by I-40. Journalist and traveler Charles Kuralt criticized I-40 upon its completion in the 1980s: “Thanks to the interstate highway system, it is now possible to travel from coast to coast without seeing anything.” Kuralt said on his CBS Evening News feature “On the Road.” I understand that quote now. The Texas Panhandle was painful, but Kuralt was not completely right.

The Mojave Desert stretched like a golden sea on either side of winding black highway, broken only by the lone scrubby cactus-like Joshua trees in the distance. Rising heat melted our perception of the road in the distance like a plastic toy burning under with a magnifying glass in the sun. The various mountain ranges keeping us grounded, we continued to close the 145 miles between Needles and Barstow. Zigzagging around and over the small mountains was like trying to navigate the surface of the moon. The instant one giant rock ended, the next began, with scrub brush the only sign of life.

The constant elevation changes and heat were starting to take their toll on the little brute of an engine. The water temperature gauge ticked steadily higher, nearing dangerous levels. My brother dropped the speed and blasted the heater as we focused intently on the digital green readout, willing it to drop. Stereo and mouths silent, we felt the sweat stream down our faces.

Our efforts were to no avail; even though the sun was low in the sky, the heat and strain were too much. After all, the 23 year-old car was not state-of-the-art engineering. We puttered to a halt, luckily, in a wide emergency shoulder on the side of the highway, about an hour from any civilization.

“Shit,” my brother exclaimed, followed by a stream of consciousness we would not utter in front of mother. I could not agree more. “The engine isn’t blown,” I replied. “We’ll just have to wait for it to cool, or for the sun to set. Whichever comes first.” I tried to keep my wits, but frustration bubbled out of both of us. “We have come so damn far, “ he said. It was far: almost 2,000 miles we had pushed the 23-year-old two-door as the third day of straight driving began to wind down. We hopped out of the car to stretch our legs, take a bathroom break, pop the hood and to try to pass the time with crazy solutions to our heating problem.

The ’87 Mazda came from the factory with a 1.3-liter rotary engine with an optional turbo model. This small engine-end Japanese sports car produced more horsepower than cars with twice the displacement. Our exact model sported an upgraded computer, turbo, suspension and exhaust — all of which combined made for an exciting drive making 140 mph all too accessible. The only downside was the machine’s thirst of gas and the land’s excess of heat, not a good mix for open rural roads and desert conditions. These were the conditions that led to my brother and me dumping tools onto the hot California pavement for any hint of inspirational engineering.

After a 10-minute phone argument with the car’s owner to convince him of my authority to leave the hood somewhere along the side of the highway, I built a shred of a plan. “I’ve got it!” I exclaimed at Liam, my right hand flipping open his 6-inch foldable knife. “Why would you need a sword?’ he asked with a hint of trepidation, perhaps hoping I had not jumped to a survival of the fittest conclusion. Thankfully for him I had cooling modifications on mind — not fratricide. In reality, I would need much more than a knife to tackle his 6-foot, 4-inch frame and red beard (it would look more at home on an ancient Celtic battlefield than among today’s society). I crouched next to the front bumper and began hacking away. Liam laughed; it was a giddy yet crazy sound. I knew we had been in the desert too long.

More airflow was needed. I soon had large section of bumper cut away leaving the car with the toothy grin of a shark. It was only then, while I wiped the sweat from my brow and stilled my beating heart, that I stopped to notice my surroundings. It was incredible. I walked across the deserted highway, trying to take it all in.

We were parked on a mountaintop. The car with its hood popped, trunk ajar and doors wide open resembled a giant ladybug ready to take flight. The sun hung in the air mere feet above the horizon offering us a last glimpse of its massive ethereal presence. Its final rays extenuating every sharp edge in the Shadscale bushes lining the hillside with a golden glow. Deep blue sky saturated the air above our heads fading to a bold orange at the western horizon while wisps of white cirrus clouds painted themselves across the expansive view. Small mountain ranges jostled for a place in the scene, their definition relative to their distance.

At that moment nothing else mattered. I could sit on the black Californian pavement and happily watch the sun set night after night. But there was work to be done.

The sun had set and the front bumper grinned when we hit the road with fervor. We felt alive, even energized, and considered driving through the night to finish the last six hours of our journey to Monterey. Barstow was the end of I-40 and a safe bet for a gas stop. The town of 20,000 first appeared as a cluster of lights in the inky blackness. It was our Mecca

Barstow is one of the California cities dropped in desolate scenery, but, in the night, it resembles a haven of civilization. A quick stop for gas at a generic station shifted just as quickly into a sticky encounter as three vagabonds materialized around our car instantly, with questionable sanity. Their outstretched hands told the stories their mouths did not have to.  They didn’t take the first eight “nos” for an answer, but nine and 10 came much louder as we frantically squeezed the car back onto city streets and drove northwest toward Bakersfield.

If our small cross section of the population was accurate perhaps it is for the best that Barstow sits on the edge of the Mojave, separated from the populated and fertile San Joaquin Valley.

We left I-40 and the streetwalkers behind in Barstow and headed northwest on California State Route 58. The east-west Tehachapi Mountains lay ahead, marking the southern end of the Sierra Nevada Mountains, and the border between Northern and Southern California. The night’s darkness robbed our senses of any landmarks. Only the headlight-illuminated highway gave us any idea of changing elevation.

Up and over the Tehachapi Pass we drove, oblivious to the massive wind farm around the peak. Down the northern side, the road became a slide, rocketing us through the darkness at more than 100 mph in neutral gear.

Not dashed to pieces on some mountainside, Liam and I cruised into sight of Bakersfield, another gas stop thought to be safe.

The stubborn needle on the gauge forever reads E, so we did the math and every 200 miles, at 17 miles per gallon, was our guess for a full tank. Two days earlier, the emptiness of New Mexico had tested our range like a child with a wind-up car. Sirens blared in the distance and a helicopter with a spotlight flew overhead as we entered Bakersfield’s city limits. My overactive imagination played out unseen civil unrest in the streets, but I reassured myself: Anywhere was better than Barstow. I piloted our red workhorse off exit 26A, down the off-ramp and up to the stoplight. Route 58 continued west to the left, but the gas stations lay ahead. The second the light turned green the engine sputtered and died. I turned the key. Click. Nothing.

The five drivers backed up behind us began to honk impatiently. Perfect luck: broken and stranded four hours from our destination. Liam and I traded expletives as I jumped out to wave the cars on and make sense of our problem under the hood. Nothing I tried worked. Fuses, starter, ignition: it all seemed to be in order. We were tired, stressed and out of ideas. It was time to call it a night. I helped to install this very engine months ago at home in Dayton, but my frustration clouded any semblance of logic. At that moment, I hated that damn car.

A pair of good samaritans came to our aid as I pushed the car across a four-lane intersection with Liam at the wheel. Things couldn’t get any worse, I thought to myself, when a Bakersfield police cruiser suddenly pulled up alongside. My heart sank all the way down into my shoes. His lights flipped on and blocked traffic for us to pass. Thank God. I screamed to Liam, “Pop the clutch!” The car jerked and roared to life, screeching tires to a nearby La Quinta parking lot. I ran to catch up, happy laughter bubbling away.

The scent of smoke filled my nostrils when I awoke in the second-floor hotel room the next morning. Liam was already fully dressed. “Let’s get the hell out of here,” he urged. We push-started the car back to life, topped the tank at a nearby gas station and push-started the car a third time. Curious onlookers smiled at my attempt to catch up with the temperamental automobile. If only we had known how beautiful those next four hours would prove to be. We drove and drove and drove some more, covering 244 miles of California’s central valley: our last 244 miles.

Roughly the size of the state of Tennessee laid north to south, California’s central valley runs for about 450 miles. Characterized by flat, fertile land perfect for farming, the valley is locked down by the Sierra Nevada Mountain Range in the east and the Coastal Range in the west. One of the most prosperous farming areas of the U.S., it produces 8 percent of the nation’s agriculture. We followed Interstate-5 due north, and marveled at our surroundings. The rolling green coastal hills sat outside the driver’s window the whole way. Vineyards and farms of almond trees swept by us, their perfect rows creating a beautiful staccato pattern of green and brown.

The farms gave way to sweeping green fields reminiscent of the British Isles (with way more sun and no rain).  Under the clear blue skies, cows, like tiny ants, walked in single file lines along the hillsides. A person could have a simple, relaxing life tending to the land of California’s valley and not want for any other scenery. Not that they would have to go far to find beach, redwood forests, deserts or snowy peaks.

Three road changes west over the hilly Coastal Range and a short stint on the famous Route 1 along the Pacific led us to oceanside Monterey, Calif. The air cooled and suddenly the smell of salt becomes apparent.

We bustled through the small, curving city streets. European- and Spanish-influenced architecture was visible in the building’s facades. We passed by, but could not gain access to the U.S. Army’s post at Presidio of Monterey, where the Defense Language Institute is housed. Our friend – the car’s owner – Teddy Porumb had been stationed there since his Russian language courses began three months prior. It had been at least that long since we had last seen each other. Now here my brother and I were, delivering our friend his pride and joy: a red 1987 Mazda.

With nowhere to go and hours to kill before defense school let out, we parked on a hill in sight of the ocean. We walked the steep streets of Monterey until we found ourselves on the beach, staring out as the Pacific Ocean lapped lazily at the rocks around us. The rocks turned out to be seals of every shade of black, white and gray. They lay on the beach, soaking in the sun, part cat and part fish; they had a playful quality. We stayed away.

The hours passed by slowly and painfully, as much for as for us as for Teddy. The ocean grew predictable and the seals wasted the day away, so we sat on a curb in a beautiful Californian city. Finally, Teddy walked into sight around a corner and smiled from ear to ear. Here was his car (covered in playful stickers, smeared with bugs and missing some lips) and two great friends in a city full of people he couldn’t connect with. His expression was worth the 2,500 miles, and the thought that the damn car was now his burden. We fixed the starting issue (blown fuse), joked, ate and laughed all night.

The morning found us on the road again, San Francisco bound. Liam and I, in Teddy’s girl friend’s car, tailed the couple in his red coupe. California’s infamous Route-1 wound along the glistening Pacific Ocean. We would spend two more days in San Francisco, finding ourselves accidentally among the leather convention attendees, and fly home one adventure richer.

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