Summer road trips are not just a means to an end, or only a destination between two endpoints. Road trips are about the journey. The selection of junk food at truck stops, cloud formations and rain or dust storms, lightening, bumper stickers and license plates, route 66 motel signage, late-night talk radio in the great in between with Rev. or Sis. moonbeam rapping elegant about alien illuminati, and the repetitive thrum of rubber on concrete and asphalt. Stretching ones legs at roadside Indian ruins or souvenirs, national park drive throughs, and occasional ghost towns. Who lived here? What did they do? And, where did they go?
My 2012 trip through the southwest and west, through mountains, deserts, and plains, through cities large and barely breathing along Interstate 40 and Highway 95 was the most harrowing of passages I've made over the last 10 years. Rain and dust, yes, rollicking strong winds and triple-digit temperatures, yes; however we did not break down, crash, or encounter highwaymen. Traffic was less than difficult, fuel more plentiful than our small vehicle could ever drink, and we found several clean comfortable beds, sans bedbugs.
On the return trip, we spent a day at Lake Havasu, and for the last leg, we choose a more northerly route through Las Vegas, stopping at the Hoover Dam, continuing along the edge of Death Valley, and then the northern reaches of Yosemite. We were too ambitious for the day and totally unprepared for the road ahead.
It should have be an leisurely journey across the Sonora Pass on CA highway 108. Nothing to worry about for an average road tripper; our average consumer GPS system choose the route for us. It is dark, but I've driven many a road at night; and the biggest challenge is staying awake. A night drive is much more monotonous and hypnotic. It is too easy to stare too long at the tail lights in front of you. Traffic disappears completely and then we begin to climb.
I should have been suspicious from the signage about a 26% grade and warnings for trucks to choose an alternate route. I comment, but snicker doubt out the window. The speed limit is 55 and passing slow moving trucks is simple on a two lane blacktop. Hold back and watch the road ahead for oncoming traffic; if clear speed up to the rear of the truck trailer; and pass into the opposite lane, keeping an eye our of any traffic. I had done it many times on this trip without incident.
The deeper into the pass the more my traveling companion expresses her dissatisfaction and fear with gasps, sighs, loud warnings, and semi-shrieking. I couldn't grip the wheel any tighter or straighten and widen the climb, so I told her to close her eyes. What the hell have I got us into? I am glad it is dark, so she can't see the cliff faces off 108 as the road shrank narrower and narrower, the forest engulfing any remaining visibility. She says she can't, but manages to hold it down to gasps and whimpers.
A 90 degree or better switchback and climb every 35-50 feet made it difficult for the automatic transmission to maintain a specific gear. I downshifted into 2nd and crawled along at about 30 or less. Coming to a stop at the bottom of several turns, I downshifted into 1st, climbed, and then back to 2nd. It was slow going and we could not see anything. I switched to high beams and turned the fog lights on. I am glad the CDTput 5-foot reflectors every 15 feet or so on both sides of the road, other wise anticipating turns would be impossible and progress even slower. A road sign registers 8000 feet with no indication of topping out. We come upon one other vehicle, creeping along more slowly than us. We stay well back, but their anxiety must have been much greater. They pull off the road on an inner turn next to a mountain wall and allowed us to pass. The speed limit still registers 55 on the GPS.
I don't have to worry about falling asleep on this traverse; adrenaline is a great stimulant. My pupils constrict to pinholes, my hands and lower back sweat profusely, also my back aches from sitting too stiff on the edge of the carseat. It was double duty, not only did i have to focus on the road with extreme attention, but I also had to keep my passenger calm as gravity pulls us tight against the seat belts, from one side of the cabin to the other, occasionally revealing a substantial dark chasm mere inches away from the door or true ahead.
How many miles is this pass? I wondered too myself. I only have a 1/3 tank of fuel. I didn't anticipate being so far off the grid and traveling at such a difficult pace. I nonchalantly assumed I could stop at a truck stop almost at will. I was 100% wrong. Not only are there no convenience stops, but few people live out here, and their is no cellphone reception. If anything happens or we run out of gas, we are on our own. I wonder if these hills have eyes and the sharp teeth of backwoods mountain cannibals, Sasquatch?I can't believe how naive I was about this pass. I could have stopped in a mountain town just before we turned off the main road, spent the night or at least consulted a map.
Should I turn back? The journey back would be no cake walk and I will still need fuel. I have blankets, water, and a few road snacks; so if the worse comes to pass, we should be able to hold out until someone else comes along. This is the high summer travel season, and I can't imagine no one traversing the pass at some point in the next 24 hours. Doubts, stress are yes, but the only Footnote is to press on. Other trippers must do this all the time.
Above 9000 feet, just before we cross the apex and start down, I see something dark moving on the side of the road. It's a straight climb and I give it little attention until my travel partner yells out. “WHAT THE HELL.”
A large brown mass moves across the front of our vehicle just feet away. My speed in 1st gear is 25 MPH, so stopping isn't a problem. At 9000 feet, in a dark dense forest where no dwelling lights can be seen for miles, a brown jersey or angus cow lumbars across the roadway. Dog, raccoon, or deer are most probable; coyote maybe, large cat or bear is rare but not impossible, but a domestic cow? It this real or am I at home tucked away for the weekend dreaming this trail across the mountains?
We both turn and look in each other's eyes, confused. It's like all those chips of wood and bark in the painted dessert that are not wood at all, but are heavy rocks. It is a conceptual disconnect, or some giant prank and we're the mark. We laugh and giggle for miles on the descent. The speed limit is still 55, but we have enough fuel to find the first mountain town. Who the hell can drive that fast in this pass? And, forget about dogs, skunks, or leaping in front of your vehicle, and always watch out for the local cows.
It is true in this state, you never know what you are going to see. Man wearing pink tutu riding his unicycle through the financial district; woman dressed as a vending machine stand with actual treat dispensers strapped to her chest; school of salmon swimming/running against the route in a charity foot race; or leather chaps and chain mail shirt sans undergarments or any level of undress at any opportunity. I've even seen a two story Victorian home being driven around the block to pickup friends. I now know that the wildest, ruggedest areas of California are not immune; you may think it is a bear, a mountain lion, or coyote, but in fact it's just a happy cow out for a stroll.