I have been driving the length of the San Joaquin valley for almost as long as I have been driving. My first trip, in September, 1981, ended in failure, as the fuel pump on Scott "Soot" Moores' Pontiac wagon blew outside of Tulare, leaving us sitting on a curb outside a gas station for eight hours until my father could get to us from Turlock, where he was moving my sister into the condo they'd bought (for something like $40,000) for her to live in while attending Cal State Stanislaus.
Being sixteen, it never occurred to Soot and I that we didn't have to sit on the curb the whole time, watching lowered pickup trucks drive by, all of them, improbably, playing the same song: "Tom Sawyer," by Rush. We could have gotten up from that curb and walked to a restaurant, maybe eaten something besides the Chevron food available at the gas station.
We could have explored Tulare. Maybe if we had, I would feel differently about it today. It could have stood out from the rest of the valley towns, not to say that it doesn't anyway. It stands out as one of my least favorite places in the world, sharing time with the entire Antelope Valley and parts of Snohomish County, Washington. In the dozens of drives I've taken up Highway 99 since -- a number which, by the way, pales in comparison to the hundreds I've logged on I-5, I've never stopped in Tulare. I may step on the gas a little bit harder, actually, to get through it as quickly as possible.
After eight hours of sitting on that curb, eating Doritos and listening to the far-off strains of "Tom Sawyer," my dad arrived in a rented pickup truck. We emptied Soot's Pontiac into the truck bed and crammed into the cab. Three very long hours later, we arrived in Turlock.
Since then, I've traversed California's Central Valley too many times to count. Between 1984 and 1987, Greg Baker and I crossed it several times a year, eventually lowering the time spent driving from Orange, California to Santa Clara University to a record five hours and 44 minutes. We did that in a bronze-colored 1982 Toyota Tercel. By then, cruise control was not necessary. The car knew where to go.
The drive includes 180 miles of flat, straight road, passing towns like Pumpkin Center, Lemoore and Kettleman City. If you get bored, you can stop at the grocery store on Panoche Road and buy straw cowboy hats, then sit on a nearby split-rail fence and watch the sun set. You can learn all the words to every song on "The Eagles Greatest Hits." You can make up your own words, to make it more challenging.
I've driven across California at night and during the day, during impenetrable fog and blinding heat. I've driven over 100 miles per hour and, during one drive in the early 1980s, gone 55 in the fast line, running parallel to Greg's friend Howard, just to see if it would make all the other drivers mad. It did.
I've driven with girlfriends, roommates, siblings and acquaintences since lost to history. I've driven it alone and as part of a convoy.
And now, as of yesterday, I've driven it while hashing out very small details about a Bar Mitzvah that will take place seven months and ten days from today.
The trip between San Francisco and my sister's new digs in Simi Valley takes six long hours. If you're not driving, if, say, you've sprained your ankle playing basketball in the plush gym provided by your employer, whose largesse makes it a bad idea for anyone else to hire your spouse, lest he compare the meager benefits available at his company to the endless list of perks given freely at yours, you sit in the passenger's seat with your foot propped up on the dashboard, looking for things to do.
If this is you, and you are Sandra Bullock, that six hours is easily filled, thanks to your BlackBerry, whose "notes" function you have just discovered. "This is great," said my injured bride to me as I hit I-5 in Santa Nella. "I can write down all the questions I need to ask Bob (the General Manager of the Golden Gate Yacht Club."
"First, do they have a sound system upstairs? We can plug in your iPod and play music while the kids are downstairs with the DJ."
On three-days weekends, the road through the San Joaquin Valley ceases to be an easy -- though boring -- drive. Boredom is replaced with white-knuckle anxiety as you pick your way through traffic. Ninety miles per hours can become sixty-five in a heartbeat if a semi truck decides it's time to pass a bus. The trip becomes one long, frustrating sociological study in which the tendancy of drivers (often in minivans) to occupy the passing lane for miles at a time, oblivious of all around them, is a recurring theme.
So if my participation in this stage of Bar Mitzvah planning was less then enthusiastic, if my attention was skewered, I have an excuse.
"I also need to ask Bob about where we can play our slideshow. Do you have anything you need to ask Bob about?"
Right then I was about fifteen feet from the back bumper of a Prius, in the left lane. Before I could answer, I would need to change back to the left lane, hit the gas, pass the Prius while throwing a disgusted glance at the driver, then cut back into the left lane before hitting the eighteen-wheeler doddering along up ahead.
"Do you have anything you need to ask Bob about?"
Meanwhile, a few feet away, the Jawa was absorbed by one of two Star Trek movies he'd brought along as I silently thanked the technology gods for inventing every piece of equipment necessary to provide my child with this distraction. Otherwise, as we learned when the portable DVD player malfunctioned earlier, we could add non-stop vocal complaints to the increasingly stressful tableau unfolding before me. These are not the cute, high-pitched, benign complaints of a child. No, this is the pointed, sarcastic, uniquely worldly plaintive wails of a teenager. "It's not like I can hear anything with that music playing," he said when he first cued up his DVD.
From the front seat, dripping with road sweat, I answered: "I AM THE DRIVER," I thundered. "MY NEEDS COME FIRST."
My injured bride turned to stare at me in disgust, but there was no way I was meeting that glance. From the back seat, mumbled anger. And then, of course, two minutes later I felt like a fool, and the music I'd been listening to suddenly became embarassing, so I turned it off.
"Try my headphones," I volunteered cheerily. "They cut out all outside noise." Problem solved.
At eight o'clock, foresaking dinner and all other niceties, we descended into Simi Valley. By now, my nerves were shot in an exceptional way that doesn't exist when you drive with college buddies or girlfriends. This was the special mood that can only result from a family road trip. I pictured cartoon birds and short-circuits fizzing and popping around my head. My poor son was sentenced to single-word responses, lest he be told to "STOP TALKING PLEASE."
I got them here safely, in less than six hours, having only cut off two people badly enough to have high-beams flashed at us. Showing great judgement, my passengers pretended not to notice both times.
We staggered from the car, a tired and motley crew, poor Sandra Bullock dragging her bad leg behind her, only the Jawa and Shack possessing of enough energy to show excitement at my sister's new -- and mind-numbingly enormous, after twenty years sentenced to tiny, often military base-issued housing -- pad. And for the first time in my long and colorful history of driving cars through the middle of California, I reached my destination not having wasted six hours. Thanks to the efforts of my indefatigable and unbowed wife, we now have a long list of questions to ask Bob, all compiled during the drive.