The last few days of my epic roadtrip, unlike most of it, didn’t have any particular plan. If your itinerary includes National Parks, even if you are going in the chilly off-season as I did, you will be planning and booking RV parks and events months in advance. This flies in the face of what you think a roadtrip should be: a freewheeling, wind in your hair, go where the highway takes you adventure. That open road concept sounds more exciting than it is, especially when you leave the last few days of your trip open-ended and unbooked.
That’s how I found myself unable to get an RV spot in Sedona and had to reconfigure my last few days. Since I was already on Route 66 — or actually Interstate 40 that replaced most of it — I thought I’d just head down the road.
Most of my long drive to the California border involved looking at the geology of the Mojave Desert and trying to revive my hazy memory of The Grapes of Wrath to figure out if I were passing any important milestones in the Joads’ journey.
What I did see were evidence of ancient lava flows and cinder cones. Who knew? I didn’t realize volcanic activity was this far off the Pacific Rim of Fire. However, I saw cinder cones in the Grand Canyon and in Moab, so I guess I need to brush up on my geology. I also found that out in this empty quarter, someone had taken the time to name and affix a sign to almost every single dry wash. Most of those names were fanciful — Old Dad Wash, Chuckwalla Wash, Desolation Wash. Clearly someone comes out here and someone cares. What I missed in this desert was the whimsical artwork made of found objects that you find in Nevada’s Great Basin. I also passed through a Route 66 town whose sole claim to fame was as the birthplace of Andy Devine. If anyone remembers the gravelly voiced perpetual sidekick from old John Ford movies, you may think, as I do, that a little Andy Devine goes a long way. And John Ford tended to serve us up way too much Andy Devine. So I resisted any temptation to detour down Andy Devine Boulevard.
In any case, I was headed for Needles. I’m not sure why. There was that Joad connection, but as I cruised into town, I also remembered that Charlie Brown’s Snoopy used to have a brother, Spike, who lived in Needles. Although I agree with Spike’s philosophy, I also resisted the temptation to drive down Spike Road or visit his likeness in the town’s Shell gas station.
I have to say that Needles was more enjoyable than I’d expected. Not checking the geology of where I was going, I’d frozen at high altitude desert areas where the mornings were routinely in the 30s. It was about 90 when I pulled into Needles and it never dropped below a comfortable high sixties.
My next day was one I’d been dreading: skimming the upper part of LA on its freeways — which I don’t like driving at any time, let alone in an RV. But the fates were smiling on me. As I headed toward the 210, temporary signs were flashing that there were hold ups everywhere and alternate routes were recommended. Everyone got the memo. I chose to ignore it. And I cruised on a nearly empty freeway all the way to the Autry Museum of the West.
My overnight in Buellton — the epicenter of Sideways country — was uneventful. Besides the obligatory Hitching Post filet mignon, grilled artichoke and local Pinot Noir, I was beat and ready to head home the following day.
Only one mystery remained. Coming into California on the remains of old Route 66, I couldn’t find an important landmark. Where was that point in Grapes of Wrath where the Joads emerged from the Mojave Desert, stood on a hill and saw the green expanse of the Central Valley open before them? It certainly wasn’t in Needles, as there was plenty of desert still ahead of them at that point. I vaguely remember that they went through Tehachapi, so they must have veered north. I drove through Tehachapi on my way to Utah. There was certainly the elevation, but I forgot to look back and see the view if any. What were the Joads looking at? Bakersfield? Can you see the Central Valley from Tehachapi?
That’s a challenge for the next Southwestern roadtrip. Note to self: look behind you not just ahead to where you are going.