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JACK SMITH

On the Road Again, a Hard Drive to Bakersfield

November 23, 1989|JACK SMITH

"Why don't we go home through Bakersfield?" I asked my wife when we left San Luis Obispo, knowing she would like the chance to visit her family.

One must look at the map to see that Bakersfield is actually north of Santa Maria, though Santa Maria is 168 miles north of Los Angeles and Bakersfield only 100. (Because the state angles so far to the west, San Francisco is almost as far west as north.)

"Isn't that a hard drive?" she asked.

I was looking forward to it. I had been told that the road was good but lonely. "You won't find any MacDonald's out there."

They said the road to take was Highway 166, which cuts off State 101 just north of Santa Maria, and goes east through Los Padres National Forest and across the steppes of the San Joaquin Valley to Maricopa, finally connecting with Highway 99.

We had no sooner left Highway 101 than we were swallowed up in the kind of wilderness I had not seen in California for many years. The road was good, but there were never more than two or three other cars in sight. Now and then two or three of us would crowd up behind a truck on the narrow road before we could pass.

We climbed through low mountains, skirting grotesque geological formations thrown up millions of years ago by an angry earth. The brown earth was dotted by cows and oaks. On the far side of the Sierra Madres, the downgrade was so steep that I had to brake to keep our speed under 70.

We came to a town called New Cuyama. It did not look new. We saw no large buildings or public accommodations. If there was a MacDonald's we missed it. The only structure of any size was the school. We passed through the entire town in 30 seconds.

Five or six miles down the road we came to old Cuyama. It looked no different from New Cuyama. It was equally small, equally horizontal. Its most imposing structure was also the school. We passed through it in 30 seconds.

For miles no other sign of human tenancy appeared but there were cattle feed bins behind barbed-wire fences. Finally tin shacks and white oil tanks began to appear in the foothills below the rugged escarpments. Then oil pumps turned up, scattered, lonely. They looked like fastidious dinosaurs drinking as they lowered and raised their enormous heads.

Much of the landscape was uncultivated grazing land. At one point we passed a small stand at which a woman was selling apples. She sat on a stool in front of her wares, staring at the horizon, monumentally patient. She was utterly alone on the earth. We looked about us in vain for an apple orchard.

Soon the western reaches of the San Joaquin Valley spread out before us. It is a part rarely seen by travelers who traverse the long valley as quickly as possible over Highways 5 or 99.

It was a world untouched by civilization's ills. Uncrowded, spacious, serene, unhurried. It belonged to hawks, rodents, coyotes, rattlesnakes and owls. Man had barely scratched its surface. My tensions drained away.

We passed through the arid Elkhorn Hills and came to Maricopa, a small oil and farming center whose most famous neighbor is Taft, of oil and high school football fame.

Beyond Maricopa, heading for Highway 99, we crossed the California Aqueduct, a blue thread on its journey across the wasteland toward the thirsty metropolis below.

Once we reached 99 and turned north toward Bakersfield, I turned on our radio and tuned in a country music station, as I always do on that stretch of highway. Bakersfield is known as Nashville West; it has produced some great country music.

I was not disappointed. Soon we heard a man singing in that nasal style, a style that sings of love, betrayal, heartbreak and redemption. "Don't we all have the right to be wrong now and then?" he sang. There was an ad, and then a man sang, "I don't remember loving you. I don't recall the things you say you put me through."

I was in a proper mood for my periodical return to Bakersfield, the town where I started my career, as a sports writer, and where I met my wife, a local high school girl. The most romantic city in the world.

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