BISHOP, Calif. — Driving for the pure fun of the road is one of my secret pleasures. Speeding along a highway going no particular place, windows down and the wind blasting my face, is an indulgence I usually choose not to resist.
And of all the roads in my life, U.S. 395 is like a love interest that I never quite get enough of.
Highway 395 is one of California's great scenic routes, skimming the edge of the Mojave Desert and climbing up the Owens Valley of water-war infamy and into the Eastern Sierra as it cuts into Nevada. Still two lanes wide for long stretches, the road passes through groves of spiky Joshua trees, quirky desert outposts and awesome volcanic displays.
It's the only highway in the country where you drive in a desert between two opposing ranges of 14,000-foot peaks. If you're lucky, as I was on my recent three-day drive, an afternoon thunderstorm will lighten the air and entertain the senses.
Admittedly, the terrain is not to everyone's taste. When I declare my periodic urge to drive up 395, some friends groan about too many miles of desert sameness and bad road food. Skiers who race up to Mammoth Mountain several times a year come to loathe the highway. Only those who rarely get to the high desert fully appreciate the soft colors and the carved granite face of the High Sierra looming above the road.
On this foray, with some of my favorite driving partners, I took the time to explore historic and volcanic sights I usually speed past. From Los Angeles the preferred route is up California 14 to Mojave, the wind-swept junction town where railroads and highways meet in a desertscape of fast-food outlets, semitrucks and aging motels. Those 747s parked on the edge of town are no mirage--a ghost fleet of mothballed jets stored at the local airfield until the airlines find buyers for them.
At the second stoplight, we swung north and followed Route 14 up the desert through rugged Red Rock Canyon State Park. Just before the turnoff to Lake Isabella, a white cross marked where a 1940 accident claimed Father John J. Crowley, the so-called "Desert Padre" who helped bring tourism to the area. After Highway 14 is absorbed into U.S. 395, a large water tower proclaiming "Hub Cap Capital of the World" was enough reason to stop and investigate Pearsonville.
There were acres of gruesomely twisted truck and bus carcasses--a junkyard of sunbleached highway wrecks--but not the mountain of runaway hubcaps I imagined. Inside a dusty trading post packed with old bottles and knickknacks, I had to ask: "So where are they?" Patiently, the storekeeper nodded toward a gleaming white building. A peek inside revealed thousands of wheel covers, cataloged and stacked neatly on shelves. Curiosity sated, I returned to the highway.
A landmark for me on 395 has always been Little Lake, the site of a burned-out lodge with a Confederate flag flying atop it. The region's turbulent geology begins to reveal itself here, and the far edge of the private lake sloshes against a black volcanic cliff. A few miles north, a cone of red cinders rises beside the highway. A dirt road around the south side of the mound leads to a lava gorge and a landmark known as Fossil Falls.
A faint line at the base of the mountains rising west of the highway gives away the other great force that shaped this landscape. The 230-mile-long Los Angeles Aqueduct, built across the desert by William Mulholland, began siphoning water out of the Owens Valley in 1913. Irrigated farms and apple orchards once dotted the valley floor, but now it's covered in a dry blanket of sagebrush, creosote and rabbit brush.
Now the L.A. Department of Water and Power is the biggest landholder along 395, a source of great local resentment, but also the reason that in a state where outlet malls and other sprawl seem to pop up in unlikely places, the views here remain as wide and unobstructed as ever. The DWP forbids any new use that competes for water. Even billboards are rare.
About two hours from Los Angeles, the desert breaks and tall old cottonwoods appear along the highway. Horses and cattle graze in the only green pastures seen for miles. This is Olancha, a former stagecoach station with creeks and shallow wells not controlled by the DWP. In this part of the Owens Valley, some ranches remain in private hands, including the Cabin Bar in nearby Cartago, bought by Anheuser-Busch for the water rights to ensure a supply to its Van Nuys brewery.
I stopped for lunch in Olancha at my usual spot, the Ranch House Cafe. Mounted ducks and a stuffed black bear give the cafe an authentic atmosphere, and the sandwiches are no worse than elsewhere along 395. Only later did I discover a surprising alternative, the Still Life Cafe, run by a French couple who promise "gourmet food with a French accent." The day's menu, written on a blackboard, and the Spanish melody playing were enough to ensure a stop here next time.