It’s clear that, if I’m going to RV in the Southwest, I’m going to have to develop a meteorologist’s grasp of prevailing winds. Because, on the long haul to get out of California, my main battle has been not the distance, but the winds.
For those of you who don’t live in the San Francisco Bay Area, you must realize that to get to points east to another state, you have only two choices: up and over the Donner Pass and through the Sierras to Reno, or south to Bakersfield and through the deserts. Especially if you are driving an RV, you don’t want to climb up the Donner Pass with any chance of snow. That’s how I found myself headed down the I-5 again. Many people hate the I-5, which is in some ways, a road through nowhere. From the Pacheco Pass down to Bakersfield, it goes through no towns and little natural beauty. It’s asphalt, farmland and truck stops. But I’ve always found it fascinating. There are so many strange sights bringing so many questions. The problem is, there is no place to pull off and take a picture. So you’ll have to trust me when I describe the oddities that puzzle me every time I go down this highway:
1. There is a place just before the San Luis Reservoir where you pass a road through a pasture lined with hundreds and hundreds of prickly pear cactus. Is this a cactus farm? Why do the cactus only grow on either side of this road? And what are they doing in a place that isn’t a desert?
2. Then there is a point, right about at Kettleman City where a sign announces that you are entering Southern California. But if you flew west with a crow, you’d land at Paso Robles which very definitely thinks of itself as Central California. So where are we then and who decides these things?
3. I-5 is always awash with homemade billboards — usually a banner slung over an abandoned rail container — and the message is almost always aimed at environmentalists, Governor Brown, Nancy Pelosi, Congress or anyone who doesn’t agree that the Central Valley should get every last drop of water in California. When Trump started gaining traction, the Interstate became a never-ending parade of “Make America Great Again” banners. On this trip, however, many of those MAGA signs were torn down or obscured by tarps. Has the Central Valley become disillusioned with Trump? Actually, I question how much they were ever for him. Almost all the farming along I-5 is done by large agribusiness — and I guess they still like him — but I can’t imagine the predominately Latino farmworkers were ever that enamored. So what is happening to the MAGA signs? Disillusionment or stealth vandalism?
4. The I-5 mostly follows the trail of the California Aqueduct which takes all our Northern California water and pipes it down to the Central Valley, where the thanks we get is a load of MAGA signs. Did I say “pipes”? Actually the Aqueduct is a big open concrete sluiceway. I’ve always wondered, given the fierce sun down this way, wouldn’t pipes or at least some sort of covering have made more sense?
There is so much more, but I have no answers and can’t get any photographic documentation. One truism I’ve found on many roads in the West is that the scenic value or intrinsic interest of a roadside sight is in direct proportion to the lack of any turnouts or scenic vista points from which you can take a picture. If anyone can demystify the oddities of I-5, please weigh in.
All this is a long prelude to why I found myself pounding down that long highway when I usually try to limit my driving in the RV to 3-/12 hours or less. But again, there is really nowhere between San Jose and the point where I think I’m not going to be able to drive any more. Sunday was a triumph of highway driving. I blasted out of the driveway just at official sunrise and didn’t stop until I reached my go-to I-5 refueling stop, The Harris Ranch Inn complex. I got a good country breakfast for myself and a full tank of diesel for Buffalo Soldier and we were off again. I can tell you that Spring has sprung this far south. All up the Tehachapi Pass, the bright green hills looked to be covered with gold dust which were millions of California Poppies. Then over the summit and —BAM — the Mojave Desert looking very deserty. I did see some of the large white flowers on some Joshua Trees, but again, this route has no place where you can pull off and take a picture.
Surprisingly early, I made it to my destination: Red Rock Canyon State Park. I almost stopped early at the only RV park for miles around, lured by the thought of wi-fi and hot showers. Budgets have made Ranger patrols skimpy around here and, the few times I’ve stopped in, the Visitor’s Center has been closed and there were no other RVers. I told myself, if it looked spooky, I could always double back and stay at the RV place twenty miles away.
I’m glad I pushed on. The park features some amazing eroded cliffs as a result of softer sandstone crumbling under ancient lava tops. AND JOSHUA TREES! If one can have a Spirit Plant, mine is the Joshua Tree. These crazy looking trees are only found in the high desert between California and Nevada with a few stands in Arizona. When I made a pilgrimage to Joshua Tree National Park, I learned that they used to have a wider distribution. But it seems the seeds of the Joshua Tree (in the fruit) are so heavy that nothing can move them, not the wind and not any animal. At one time, the now extinct Giant Sloth used to love Joshua Tree fruit. They moved slowly, but apparently they eventually got around. And when they did, they spread Joshua Tree seeds to a much wider area. I have a request: instead of using cloning to bring back Barbra Streisand’s dog, can we concentrate on reanimating the Giant Sloth? Because that would be very cool. And the Joshua Trees would thank us.
My plan was to be up bright and early to photograph the sunrise and Joshua Trees. But about those winds! I spent the night hoping my little RV wouldn’t get blown in a ditch. I wondered why every other RVer was tucked up under the cliffs, instead of down where I am with the great view of the rock formations and in a Joshua Tree grove. Suddenly the fierce Mojave winds kicked up and I understood why I was so lucky to get what looked like a prime spot.
Monday was another long haul day — this time to Nevada’s Valley of Fire State Park. My plan was to snag one of the sites in the small first-come-first-served campgrounds in the park. But battling headwinds all the way had me pulling into the park hours after I’d planned to. “Not a problem”, the friendly ranger assured me, “There are still plenty of sites.” Well, I cruised around in the park for an hour, found nothing and learned I would have to drive 25 miles further to Lake Mead to find a camp site. Of course, the misleading ranger had relieved me of the $10 entrance fee while he sent me on a fool’s errand. This, folks, is why Park Rangers have risen up to be the voice of the #Resistance. They’ve sent a lot of time messing with people — but probably for the good of the park which got an extra fee out of me. The long road along Lake Mead to the campground was an exercise in terror as the winds slammed little Buffalo Soldier broadside. Then I found myself — rather than in a camp of hipster Millennial rock climbers — in a campground full of redneck fishermen. But the good thing about fishermen is that they get up early, so they go to bed early. Not that it mattered that night. Every fisherman in the camp could have been engaged in a loud drinking party and I wouldn’t have heard it over the howling winds — winds the camp host told me were the strongest he’d ever experienced in his six years there.
I’m told that Spring is the time of the greatest windstorms in the Southwest. But, short of avoiding travel completely during this time, I won’t be able to miss them. Unless I want to brave the Donner Pass and cross the Sierras when snow is a possibility. Good thing I’m getting lots of practice driving in them.
More of my pictures on Flickr, here.