Monday, August 04, 2008

High-Test Road Fest, Leg One: Outbound

I rose in the very early morning for my much-anticipated trip to San Diego with a sense of excitement and my three good companions: A cooler full of snack, my souped-up 2007 Ford Mustang named Baby-san, and the open road. Fully-prepped for the trip, waxed, and buffed until her fireglow scarlet paint took on a fathomless gleam, Baby-san communicated her eagerness to boogie with a throaty, crackling snarl as I fired her up and blipped the accelerator. I throttled up, released the clutch and let 320 horses out of the corral. With a saucy chirp from the Pirellis, we lunged into our coming adventure as the crisply-starlit night began its slow change of shift with the day.

Ahead of us lay 15 days and 3,000 miles of carefully-selected, winding, go-fast blacktop.

Wriggling my shoulders and hips for a few seconds, I settled myself more deeply into my seat until at last it curved into perfect conformance to my body. I dropped the steering column down until I was able to rest my wrists on my knees and still easily rotate the wheel a full turn either way without fully extending my arms. I closed the windows and took a sip of coffee. Drawing a deep sigh of contentment, I melted into the car and settled in for the long, dull, slow shot down a criminally-crappy stretch of bad concrete that Washington State has the audacity to call "Interstate 5." I gave myself a mental pat on the back for leaving well before rush hour and being far south of Seattle's stupidly-narrow bottleneck, which by 0630 always becomes, including weekends, the automotive equivalent of a large bowel obstruction.

By 0530 I had left the liberal septic tank of Olympia behind, having taken notice of how our state capitol's stretch of I-5 is so modern and lovely. ("It's your nickel," the roadside WSDOT signs declare, "Watch it work." The trouble is, you have to be in Olympia to do that, unless you actually expected to see your whopping gas tax go toward building a wildlife bridge or a bike path.)

I skirted Portland via the 205 bypass and made a beeline for Eugene, my first fuel stop. Oregon's speed limits being even more pedestrian than Washington's, it took a few hours to get to Eugene- and I still had a quarter of a tank of gas remaining when I got there. (Brute force and good mileage: who could ask for anything more?)

I took ten minutes to stretch and walk around in order to reduce the risk of deep vein thrombosis associated with long car and plane trips. (I also started taking 325mg of Aspirin a day two days before the trip in order to reduce platelet clustering. I reasoned that while I may bleed more in a bad MVC, that alternative was a helluva lot better than spending six months taking rat poison after developing a pulmonary embolus.) Rejuvenated after my stretch, I settled back into the car and returned to the interstate with a roar.

A little over an hour later, I reached the hills and curves leading up to Medford, Ashland and California beyond. The car seemed to wind up a little tighter, standing on her tiptoes, eager to prove herself. The Pirellis gobbled up the curves and asked for more. The engine, responding to the additional loading of the uphill climb, produced a deep, menacing rumble from the exhaust that reverberated off the rock walls, resonated throughout her frame and in my head and chest, and filled my heart with impish delight. I flexed my fingers around the steering wheel, dropped down a gear, and with a wicked grin led Baby-san in a jubilant dance on a hot, cloudless day through the serpentine passes and canyons of Southern Oregon and into California.

I passed into the Golden State just past noon and dined at the Denny's in Yreka (more on that surprisingly rowdy little town in an upcoming entry). After once again stretching and massaging my calves, I led Baby-san into the Siskiyous for another tango. The car was really kicking out her stride now, and the breathtaking Siskiyous were traversed with Stevie Ray Vaughn in the player and a really big grin on my face. (Man, Lake Shasta is seriously down this year!)

Just south of Mount Shasta, I left I-5 and turned eastbound on Highway 89 towards Susanville, where I would stop for the night. The road was occupied mostly by lumbering, lethargic motorhomes and lifeless construction equipment. The sweltering red-earthed high desert flew by, and the stands of spindly old pine trees flashed past like picket fences. I swung Baby-san through the awe-inspiring, tortured landscape surrounding Lassen Peak (watch that sharp left turn, boy!) and stopped at a nearby observation point to stretch my legs and gawk. If the reader ever wants a good picture of what an entire mountain exploding looks like, I recommend the trip there. Unlike the sloughed-off half-dome of Mount St. Helens, Lassen Peak looks like some enraged giant chose to vent his fury here and hacked the place the shreds. The place had an ominous, somehow-unsettled atmosphere. Munching on my ham and cheese on wheat and my Cheetos, I sat and contemplated my smallness. I finally took a last, deep drag of the hot-dry, clean air and returned to the road.

One does not merely 'arrive' at Susanville; Susanville hides behind a mountain and when you least expect it, jumps out and says, "Boo!" I was just driving along minding my own business, and suddenly- bla-DOW!- I was in Susanville. It's kind of like driving to Leavenworth, Washington from Seattle. (You have to watch out for those sneaky towns.) Also like Leavenworth, the town marks a dramatic change in landscape from winding mountain passes into broad, sweeping high-desert hills with the Great Basin lurking just beyond a distant rim of ancient, scarred hills. It was simply breathtaking. I fought off the urge to sing a Woody Guthrie song and pulled into the parking lot of my motel at around 5PM.

I checked in, changed, let the folks back home know I made it without incident (or speeding ticket), soaked in the pool, and baked languidly in the delicious early evening heat. Having broiled myself thusly, I bent to the task of finding a place to give Baby-san a good bath and wax and, having accomplished that, stuffed myself senseless at the local Black Bear cafe amid cheerful locals, a sooty-sweaty Forest Service fire crew, and a cute little pixie-haired waitress (who, while filling my water, regarded one of the above-mentioned sooty-sweaty firefighters with doe-eyed enchantment). I must say that in spite of her distraction, the girl provided fantastic service. I left a tip that was in direct proportion to my sincere, lethargy-inducing, overfed satisfaction.

Back at the room, I reflected on the long, richly-gratifying day. My hands were red and tired from gripping the wheel, and I still felt that distant vibration as if I had just finished pushing the power mower. I picked up my summer book (Samurai! by Saburo Sakai) and read for a minute, but could not focus. I closed the book, shut off the light, and went to sleep anticipating the coming day- and the long, long drive through the tortured, barren, eerie landscape of western Nevada that awaited me.