In the cool comforts of my folks’ home in Santa Barbara, Colin and I had poured over maps and plans for our trip through the greater part of the length of California, some 700 miles. The beautiful beaches and rugged coastlines were calling, but we had begun to worry. California’s west coast was populous and known for a certain inaccessibility to travelers like ourselves, day-to-day planners unwilling and frankly unable to make our way through the complex online system of various booking agencies employed by national forest, national parks, state parks, BLM, etc., especially with sketchy and inconsistent internet service. More eager organized vacationers had booked half a year or more earlier, left their dogs at home but taken the plumbing system (two requirements for many beach spots), and even some of them would be disappointed – sections of Highway 1 along Big Sur collapsed 3 times around the time were there, and were impassable anyway. Then the clincher – Katie didn’t seem that big on big water; what would we do? Spend 600 miles with her pulling at the end of a 50 foot rope to get away from the waves? We decided that California’s gorgeous, romantic Coastal Highway would be another trip; this time, we’d take the little red trailer a different way altogether.
A little web surfing turned up a gem in the nick of time – a lesser-known north-south route called 395. The more we learned, the more we loved the idea of it – every time we mentioned it, people would exclaim it was their favorite, their faces literally brightening and bringing on a smile. They would use phrases like “hidden gem of California,” “so much to see,” “best highway in the state,” “plenty of places to stay,” and – key words to us – “probably 10% of the population you’ll see on the coast.” Sold.
Route 395 turned out to be all of that, and a bag of organic chips. Over the next few days we took in a national historic sight, fresh-made Chinese food, Hollywood’s go-to hill-country backdrop, hot springs, a hike to a natural arch, and postcard-perfect lakes nestled at the foot of mountains. For those looking to experience “The Other California,” read on.
Lake Isabella – A Night on the Water
Even getting to 395 is a joy. Along Route 178 we stopped the night at Lake Isabella. Actually, at the lake isn’t quite accurate – nearly in the lake might be better. We arrive very late that night, pulled into the Lake Isabella National Recreation Area, and right onto the shore. Both night and day were blustery and beautiful.
Hiking (a Very Tiny Piece of) the Pacific Crest Trail
The Pacific Crest Trail runs 2,655 miles through California, Oregon, and Washington, and takes grit, tenaciousness, stubbornness, good gear and better planning, to make it through. Where it crossed 178 at Walker Pass (just a few miles before the turnoff to 395), we stopped and hiked about a mile of it. Eating lunch in the rest area, we chatted with the more serious walkers. They were cold and
weary from the wind, but grateful for the cool weather rather than the usual heat. I asked what I could offer them, but the true trail angels – folks who regularly help the hikers with everything from rides to and from the trail, to laying in snacks and water at critical points – had already provided water and other supplies (crackers, cookies, soft drinks, and beer – luxuries to a PCT hiker) in coolers on a designated park bench under a tarp covered pergola and amongst comfy camp chairs. I offered them some fresh fruit and chatted a while, enjoying their stories and varying personalities; PCT hikers form an instant community through their constant contact and shared trials, though certainly hikers have different approaches. One woman we met was chatty, inquisitive, and positive, two guys were more… gritty, and an older hiker who’d started at Campo, the southernmost point near the Mexico-California border, was practical and amiable, grateful for access to our maps as he planned the next steps in his journey.
Alabama Hills – Hollywood’s Backdrop
Remember Tremors, with Kevin Bacon? Remember that weird landscape? Those giant worms were living beneath the Alabama Hills. Old Timers might recall How the West Was Won, The Lone Ranger, and Gunga Din. Or perhaps something more recent, such as Star Trek Generations, Gladiator, or Iron Man? All were filmed here in Alabama Hills. We picked a spot near Hopalong Cassidy rock, under an overhang for shelter from the wind, with a clear view of the snow on the Sierra Nevada Mountains. In the afternoon we hiked to Mobius Arch, a diamond in this wacky geological crown.
Lone Pine – Merry Go Round Chinese Restaurant
Thank you cousin Julie for this amazing tip – “Stop for fresh-cooked Chinese cuisine at the Merry Go Round, and make sure you have the snow peas.” We arrived at 11:01 for the Chinese Buffet, picked an outside table, and helped ourselves to the cornucopia of dishes – firecracker shrimp, 5-spice mussels, crab cheese wontons, a specialty fish dish of Vietnam, chicken with lemon, fried rice and Chinese noodles. The chef/owner came out to check her dishes; we mentioned that we’d been recommended to visit, and that we’d heard her snow peas were worth a detour from Big Sur. She positively beamed, and rushed to add snow peas to the lemon chicken.
Kuei, as we learned was her name, checked on us often during our lunch, fussing over Katie and telling us about her own dogs. tiny place was full, with a stream of folks in overalls and loosened ties alike filling big plates.
For dessert there was fresh fruit, coffee cake, two kinds of pie. “Did you make them, too?” I asked. “No, I buy them – how could I do it all? I am busy enough making all this food!” She was a one woman wonder in her kitchen. Could we have a photo? “Yes, yes! With the dog!” We’d return again in a heartbeat; we promised we’d bring Katie.
Manzanar – One Camp, 10,000 Lives, 10,000 Stories
During World War II, 110,000 Japanese Americans living along the west coast of the United States were forcibly removed from their homes by the President’s Executive Order, and moved to 10 interment camps around the country. Over 10,000 of them were sent to Manzanar at the foot of the Sierra Mountains, where they set up lives and society and schools and gardens as best they could amongst the armed guard towers and barbed wire fences that kept them in. The site is now a National Historical Site, and we spent the afternoon learning and feeling a piece of our American history. Much of the structure is gone, but the feel of the place, bolstered by an excellent visitor center, is strong. I met a family from Chicago whose own relatives had been here, and who were piecing together stories they’d heard as children. We listened to a man, who had himself been there as a boy of seven or so, recount his experiences. Afterward I asked him, now that he looks back, what did he think of his time at Manzanar? I was intrigued by his answer. “My parents never held a grudge, and that rubbed off on me. I was happy with my life.” His response is one amongst 10,000, as varied and as personal as the people who managed a life here. We walked amongst the grown-over rock gardens, through the living quarters, past the cemetery, and I tried to wrap my head around it all. The absurdity of hatred against a subset of people (the edict applied to anyone with “a drop of Japanese blood” – 1/16th Japanese was enough), of taking a portion of the population (62% of whom were US citizens) and locking them up… and of the prisoners’ serene fortitude of spirit to make the best of the time for themselves, their families, their communities, and their eventual future freedom. Heart-heavy, thought-provoking stuff.
Hot Springs, Au Naturel
Even the words are soothing. Eve, whom we’d met at Carrizo, had clued us into the fact that the Benton area is geothermal, with several hot springs. Some are well-publicized, managed like public swimming pools. Others, however, are known only to the locals, unmarked, and open to those who know how to find them. Thank you Ranger Rick, the amazing (from amongst an already amazing set) park ranger “Richard” whom we met at the visitor center at the south end of 395, who shared with us many treasures of this awesome route. He told us how to find a hot springs au naturel. “Turn at the church… cattle guards… hard right down a path… ” (those wanting the specifics will have to ask me; it’s way too much of a gem to publicize widely), and as dusk fell we found it. A dirt parking lot, a few Subarus, old trucks, and VW busses (make your own conclusions) with bikinis hanging from the mirror and cold weather gear draped over camping chairs. A boardwalk passed over a quarter mile of spongy ground, leading to two small hot springs with clear views of the Sierra Nevadas. They were occupied by a random assortment of folks, all soaking in the magical natural waters. In one, young couples were quietly enjoying a beer and smoking pot. In the other, two gals, a mom and daughter were chatting, a changing-color inflatable camping light floating on the water. We joined these two and struck up a conversation. The daughter lived in nearby Mammoth Lakes, and her mom was visiting. Daughter spoke proudly of her new truck, well-earned and perfect, just what she’d wanted, and Mom told us of her own travels, passing on advice for where to go in Oregon and Washington, and offering thoughts on the unfathomable Manzanar. We soaked and nibbled Trader Joe’s peanut butter pretzels, and watched the stars, looking for the lucky one to which we’d hitched our little red wagon.
Convict Lake – Fishing and Blogging
Colin had bought a 10-day fishing license, and on our last day along 395 he put it to use at Convict Lake. I love fishing – it’s the perfect time to watch others do the slow, mostly unsuccessful work of it (that’s why they call it fishing, not catching), and leave me undisturbed with plenty of time to write a letter, post a blog, enjoy a snack, and generally relax lakeside before a serene, crystal clear mountain view.
Goodbye 395, For Now
By late morning we were ready to hit the road. We had many miles and two mountain passes to go before reaching my cousin in Jackson in time for lamb dinner at 5pm, a treat we did not want to miss.
We had hardly seen all that Route 395 had to offer – there was still Mono Lake, the historic Mount Whitney Fish Hatchery, the ancient bristlecone pine forest, the courthouse at Independence. What’s more, we’d miss Yosemite and Sequoia National Park, both inaccessible because the two passes were still closed for the winter. Clearly we had found, and merely begun to sample, this Other California.