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California and the West | ON CALIFORNIA / PETER H.
KING

Driving I-5: A Traveler's Companion

November 26, 1997|PETER H. KING

KETTLEMAN CITY — Pilgrims, start your engines. This is it, the day before Thanksgiving. It is a day when by tradition half of California drives north on Interstate 5 to watch football and carve turkey with kin, while the other half of California pushes south in order to do the same with relatives living below the Tehachapi.

Who does this leave behind to greet arriving travelers? And why can't everyone simply agree to meet here, at the midpoint, and thus cut the travel agony in half? These are but a few of the mysteries to be pondered today by those poor travelers sentenced to make the Turkey Day run up, or down, I-5. Here's another: Who was John "Chuck" Erreca, and what compelled officialdom to name a roadside "rest stop" after him?

Rest stops, of course, are not places of rest. Rather, the term is a euphemism, describing cinder-block pit stops that let children do what their parents tried to make them to do back home, before they climbed into the car. Sometimes these freeway toilet opportunities bear the name of unknown individuals, and typically they are not of the household variety.

And so today, just outside Los Banos, the hordes will encounter the John "Chuck" Erreca Rest Stop. Who? Why? How did it come to be? One can almost imagine that grand day, as his proud relatives returned home from the ribbon-cutting ceremony. Good old Uncle Chuck. So maybe he didn't make Mount Rushmore. At least he got his rest stop.

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There are place names to ponder, marked exits to little towns like Gustine, Buttonwillow, Coalinga. These names evoke California history, as a flip through the pages of Erwin G. Gudde's "California Place Names" demonstrates. The late historian's work of etymology, in fact, can prove a more useful travel companion than any road map. The map will indicate a straight line, to be followed north, or south. Gudde at least can relieve tedium, and tedium can constitute a peril on this particular journey.

And so Gustine, Gudde informs, was named by the great Henry Miller, whose vast cattle herds once grazed unfettered on holdings that stretched from the Oregon border to the bottom of the San Joaquin Valley. The crude old cattle baron laid out the Merced County town and named it in honor of his beloved daughter Augustine, who had been killed in a fall from a horse. And Buttonwillow owes its name to a lone tree that provided 19th century cowboys with a landmark. And Coalinga derives from its origins as a Southern Pacific coaling station; settlers later added the "a" to make the place sound romantically Spanish.

Of course, if the name game grows old, there's always radio. The dial through these parts tends toward country or Jesus or Spanish. For variety, there's also country-Jesus, Spanish-country and some Jesus-Spanish. And sports--which brings us to one more riddle for the road.

Last Monday night, while driving north on I-5, your correspondent heard a football broadcaster tell listeners that the Raiders were "moving from left to right on your radio dial." That was fine, as it helped the mind's eye better imagine the action. A question, however, occurred: If the Raiders were moving left to right on my radio, how could they also be moving from left to right on the radios of the oncoming, southbound traffic?

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As for scenery, it can be desolate and austere and spooky. Mostly it's sagebrush and cotton fields, broken every 30 miles or so by little gas station cities. More and more, however, vegetable fields and fruit orchards are popping up along the way. The explosive suburban growth along the valley's eastern flank, in Fresno, Merced, Modesto, has gobbled up rich cropland and forced cultivation into the more arid west side. Whether this represents a sensible stewardship of land and water is a question worth debating on the drive.

The main thing, though, is survival. On these holiday runs cars stack up bumper to bumper for miles, and still speeds will push 70 mph. Should fog arise, sanity prevails and everybody slows to 65. It can feel like riding a runaway train, with cars unhooked but rocketing along the same track. Should a motorist jam on the brakes by Bakersfield, the chain of collisions, one imagines, would back up to Los Banos, home of the John "Chuck" Erreca Rest Stop.

And now, to solve one riddle anyway. It turns out a plaque on the cinder-block restroom wall explains all. In a proclamation containing 19 whereas clauses, Erreca is described variously as a son of a Basque rancher who went on to become mayor of Los Banos, a highway commissioner and, lo, a champion of roadside rest stops. Moreover, as state public works director 30 years ago, he oversaw construction of I-5 through the valley. And so, dear motorist, that's who Chuck Erreca was: He's the fellow who got you in this mess. Now drive on, drive on, drive on.

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