May 17, 2009

Road Trip to the Mojave

162 miles. 3 hours. 1 sleepy son.

A drive I haven't made in eight months.

I traveled to Yucca Valley this weekend, the town where I grew up and lived for 18 years before moving to San Diego and becoming a city girl. My dad still lives in the house where I was raised. When I visit, I sleep in my old bedroom. It may be the Middle of Nowhere, USA, but the desert will always be treated as an old and cherished friend. Take the drive with me, and follow along as I get reacquainted with my old home.

8:11 pm
I left La Mesa later than I wanted to. Que sera sera. As I cruise down the 8, I watch the marine layer rolling in from the coast. The sky behind the clouds isn't completely dark yet; a little light remains. The wet air from the ocean drifts into my A/C; it leaves a moist, exhaust-fumed city smell behind.

8:39 pm
We're headed north on the 15. San Diego is behind us, and we speed past all the towns and cities that make up North County: Miramar, Rancho Bernardo, Escondido, Fallbrook. Caleb and I listen to Baby Einstein's Traveling Melodies. It is quite possibly one of his favoritist CDs, and I hope that the soft classical music will put him to sleep.

9:04 pm
I crest the hill leading down into Temecula and pass my second police car of the evening. I remind myself it's a Friday night. The cop is pulled over to the side of the road behind an unfortunate SUV. I check my speedometer out of habit.

9:11 pm
We exit the freeway onto Winchester Rd. which takes us through the heart of Temecula. We pass restaurants of all kinds, along with the Promenade Mall where Star Trek and Angels and Demons are playing. We've entered what I call The Gauntlet; for the next fifty miles or so, Caleb and I will leave the busy freeways behind and travel on surface streets and back roads in a roughly northeast direction. I call this stretch The Gauntlet because of all the traffic lights that have been put in over the years. These roads used to be traffic-light-free, but not anymore. Caleb isn't asleep yet, and he won't be any time soon. The constant stops and starts will keep him wide awake. But since he's being quiet back there, I don't really mind.

9:18 pm
Winchester Rd. takes us out of Temecula and I notice a slight change in the air coming through my vents. It's still humid, but it's lost the city smell. I sniff long and hard. More of an earthy dampness, I'd say. No sea air, no man-made humidity from golf courses and landscaping. I love it.

9:25 pm
I turn right on Domenigoni Pkwy. You know, I've never been able to pronounce that name. Neither has Jason. And we've probably made this trip a million and one times.

9:29 pm
I make a left on Warren Rd. This is the longest of the back roads we will drive down tonight. We've left the city far behind; no street lights to give guidance or reassurance. We pass only the occasional house or gas station. But oncoming traffic on our two lane road keeps us company. It's southern California, after all. Even in the middle of nowhere, it's impossible to be alone.

9:40 pm
Still on Warren. A change in the air alerts me that we are passing the dairy farms. I can smell the manure. In daylight, you can see hundreds of cows chewing the cud around feeding troughs on both sides of the road. But tonight, we just get to smell the after effects of their meal. Welcome to Hemet.

9:46 pm
I turn right on Ramona Expy and check my rear view mirror. Guess who's still not sleeping?

9:53 pm
Left on Sanderson, and I lose cell phone reception. The road takes us through the foothills of the San Jacinto mountains. Here, it is truly dark. No lights on the hills, no lights near the road. Even the oncoming traffic has dwindled down. The speed limit sign says 60 mph, but I drive the twisty road slower than that. I'm not interested in setting a speed record tonight; I'm not anxious to meet the concrete guard rail, either. I move into the slow lane and allow more intrepid autoists to go around me.

10:02 pm
I should be on the 10 by now. But the Beaumont City police have set up a DUI checkpoint right before the freeway entrance. Did I mention it's a Friday night? In southern California? I wait my turn behind a ginormous brown van, driver's license in hand. No Officer, I haven't been drinking. Yes, my registration is current. Yes, I'm opening my door because my window is broken and won't roll down.

10:09 pm
Yes! Interstate 10 at last! The Gaunlet is over; now we're in the home stretch! The speedometer reads a comfortable 75 mph as we zip past Beaumont, Banning, and the gigantic outlet mall, Cabazon. The air dries out rapidly now and the temperature begins to rise. We pass the Morongo Casino, built on Indian land. The flashing neon lights illuminate the sky for miles around: bright pinks and greens and golds. They stand in stark contrast to the utter darkness on the other side of the freeway where the San Jacinto mountains march eastward. Nothing lives on the north facing slopes, except for the stray Tamarisk tree. They are barren and brown by day and a black void by night. The highest peak reaches 10,000 feet into the sky, blotting out the stars on my right-hand side as I drive.

10:15 pm
If I follow the 10 much further, I'll end up in Palm Springs, or what we call the "low desert." But instead of heading towards the golf courses and country clubs, I exit onto Hwy. 62 and turn north. Yucca Valley is considered the "high desert" around these parts and for good reason. Palm Springs lies virtually at sea level and temperatures regularly reach 110+ in the summer. Yucca sits at around 3,000 ft. of elevation, and my dad's house, built on the mesa above the valley, sits at 3,400. Temperatures are cooler here, although "cool" is a relative term in the desert.

10:20 pm
Checking the rear view mirror again, I notice that somewhere between the Beaumont DUI checkpoint and Hwy. 62, my son fell asleep.

10:29 pm
Driving through Morongo Valley, a blink-and-you-miss-it town with exactly one stop light, a new scent invades the car: creosote. These desert bushes are more pungent at night, though I don't know why. They have tiny yellow flowers that turn into little white puff balls after pollination. And I have loved their smell ever since I was a little girl. They smell like rain, fresh cool rain on a hot day. Mmmmmm. I smell creosote and I'm a desert girl once more.

10:38 pm
We're officially in Yucca Valley! Population: 25,000. The town is well-lit but quiet. Nearly everything is closed at this late hour, but I don't mind. I could tell you stories about every fast food joint, every side street, almost every business. Hwy. 62 is called 29 Palms Hwy. as it traverses Yucca. But to me, it's Memory Lane.

10:45 pm
So close. Up Old Woman Springs Rd. to the mesa, down Buena Vista, a left on Avalon, another on Pimlico, a right on Hilton, and one last left on Belmont. I haven't passed many cars since leaving the town. Most of the mesa is undeveloped and after the close confines of San Diego, I'm loving the feel of wide open space. The lights from my childhood home wink in the darkness, welcoming me back. Dad and Anne are up, waiting for us. As soon as I pull up and turn off the car, Caleb wakes up.

We're here, I tell him.

Stepping out of the car, I inhale deeply. The air is cool, dry, pure. Desert-y. Home-y. And I've missed it.

(Pictures coming soon!!)

1 comment:

LeAnna said...

Aaah, loved the story telling! I felt like I was there in the passengers seat. Home is such a wonderful place. :) Can't wait to see pictures!