Heading east from Santa Maria yesterday, we watched a guy in a nice SUV at 75 mph passing on blind curves on two lane Highway 166. Quite impressive. He had been passing while going uphill just before the crest, and it was so exciting a flock of other cars joined in. We slowed way down to avoid any unnecessary annihilation and let them get far ahead of us. At one point we crested a hill and had a spectacular view of the white SUV, without any accomplices now, occupying the oncoming lane as it rounded a curve between cliff and canyon. Any second we could have had a cinematographer’s dream of a fiery head on collision. But no, by sheer luck the white SUV pulled ahead of the other cars and over just as a another SUV came round the bend, its driver never knowing how close he came to being on CNN.
Blood Alley, someone at Jocko’s in Nipomo had warned us over lunch. All the three day weekend beach traffic trying to get back to Bakersfield asap. It had been calm and bloodless for the most part. The drivers had been behaving. I remember crazy scenes on the 126 (in Ventura County) and the 138 (in the upper Mojave) in their two lane days, blood alleys both, but nothing so far on the 166 equaled either. Then appeared the driver in the white SUV. He took reckless passing to a whole new level, made all the more exciting because our view was so cinematic. I felt like Sir David Lean about to watch the train plunge into the River Kwai. Madness, I would have said, madness. Alas, the moment passed without death and violence and nightmares for who knows how long, and the drive was safe and groovy and from thereon quite sane, and we made Maricopa with 8 miles to spare in the gas tank.
Gorgeous drive, the 166, one we’d never done. One waits a lifetime for perfect days on empty highways in the middle of nowhere. This had those moments, only three or four hours from L.A. and in the middle of nowhere. It had been 64 on the coast and 95 in Cuyama. 93 in New Cuyama. 95 again in Maricopa and 95 all the way down deep into the Central Valley. So flat that, the Valley. A perfect graben. Right there, in fact, on the Antelope Plain just north of Buttonwillow might be the flattest surface on the face of the globe. The horizon seems to extend northward forever without any topography at all between you and the curvature of the earth. The land is empty of people but lush with carefully arranged vegetation. Vineyards stitch away into the distance, almond groves stand silent and thirsty. The 166 ends without flourish at the 5 and we headed south. The 99 folded into the traffic flow. Suddenly, brake lights. The Grapevine was a parking lot, you could see cars parked all the way up the grade. So we got off at the last exit in the San Joaquin Valley, turned round and headed back towards Bakersfield and headed east on the 58, up and over the Tehachapi Mountains. Lots of trains there. Trains going round and round in tight circles, engines passing over cabooses. The Loop, they call it. You hang around Keene, California and you see little knots of Englishmen in engineer caps with binoculars watching those trains go round and round the Loop. Trainspotters. Every nation needs their hobbies. They watch trains, we play chicken on a two lane road at 75 mph.
At the top of the Tehachapi Pass the land levels out into a wide plain. We stopped for coffee and a stiff wind blew over us and into the arms of giant turbines. Another train passed, bound for the Loop. We got back in the car and headed east on the 58, plunging headlong into the Mojave desert in the dark.