“Right turn ahead. After 800 metres, bear right, then take the motorway.” The crisp, instructive voice of the GPS sometimes startled us as it interrupted our thoughts or conversation. A gift from our family and a new toy, we were eager to try it out. So far, so good. Travelling the I-5 highway, it had successfully guided us through several major U.S. cities - Seattle, Tacoma, Olympia and Portland - as we headed south for what we hoped would be an exciting adventure and three weeks of California sunshine.
Winter had been depressingly long, cold and damp. Spring wasn’t happening. We needed a break. It was mid-March and chilly when we left Vancouver, but our spirits rose as we buckled up. Except for the time span, our holiday was unplanned. With no fixed schedule to keep, we could travel at whatever speed we were comfortable with; take time to wander, stop and stare and explore new interesting places.
The weather turned warmer and our sense of anticipation increased as we negotiated the Siskiyou Pass at the Oregon/Northern California border and pulled into the small town of Yreka. It was lunchtime, and we needed to stretch our legs. Yreka (pronounced Y-reeka), we discovered, had developed as a gold rush boomtown when, in 1851, Abraham Thompson, a mule packer, discovered gold in Black Gulch. Soon, a large influx of gold seekers arrived from the Sierra Nevada diggings to set up camp and test their luck.
Legend has it that Yreka’s mysterious name was derived from a Shasta Indian word meaning “north mountain,” or “white mountain” in reference to nearby magnificent white-capped Mount Shasta. But Mark Twain, in his autobiography, had a different version. He maintained it was an accident of fate that a young man named, Harte, who had arrived in California in the 1850s, wandered up to the surface diggings of the camp at Yreka, during the days when it was nameless. There was a bakeshop with a canvas sign, which had been painted and stretched to dry in such a way that the word BAKERY, with the exception of the B, showed through and was reversed. The stranger read the wrong end first, YREKA, and assumed that was the camp’s name. Yreka the town became.
On the road again, we travelled through the wide Shasta Valley, multi-shaded in beige, browns and greens, dotted here and there with large herds of black, and sometimes tan, cattle. Our eyes were irresistibly drawn to majestic Mount Shasta, which rose in solitary snow and cloud-capped splendour from the forested valley floor. Visible for 40 miles [64 km], Mt. Shasta, 14,179 ft (4,322m) is the second highest mountain in the Cascade Range. Area Native Americans, whose ancestors have inhabited the north side since at least 600 BC, regard it as the centre of creation. In recent decades, the mountain has also attracted New Age followers, who believe it to be a source of mystical power.
We decided on an overnight stay at the central California town of Madera, near Yosemite National Park. Madera, too, had experienced gold rush fever in the mid-1800s, but owed its development to the lumber industry (Madera, in Spanish, means “lumber”). A huge log flume, an engineering marvel at the time, had been built in 1876 by the California Lumber Company to carry lumber to the railroad. The use of specifically constructed log flumes facilitated the quick and cheap transportation of lumber and logs down mountainous terrain by using flowing water. The watertight, trough-like channels could be built to span long distances across chasms and rough terrain, and eliminated the need for dangerous mountain trails. Far from being an old sawmill ghost town, Madera has prospered, grown and evolved into a thriving young community.
Our next overnight stop was in the Tehama County town of Corning, also known as Olive City. Open for tasting, a delight to the olive connoisseur, the Olive Pit store in Corning boasts 120 varieties of olives. Olives - small, large, huge (the Queen olive), stuffed, many flavoured, green and black - the Pit has them all. Rich in agriculture with a variety of crops, Tehama County also supports industries in olive oil, almonds, walnuts, peaches, plus cattle and sheep ranching.
Farther south, travelling through to Bakersfield, we opted for the scenic route to Barstow, our next stop. And scenic it was. Rolling green and gold foothills gave way to craggy, forested mountains, then, as we dropped again to the valley floor, mile after mile, far as the eye could see, of parched cactus, sagebrush covered desert.
Barstow bakes in the hot desert sun. The Mojave Desert, arid, flat, broken only by windblown tumbleweeds, green patches of scrub and distant hills, stretches for miles in all directions. The sandy, long dried up bed of the Mojave River snakes aimlessly through the valley. In the fading light, distant coyotes howl an eerie evening chorus.
Barstow was once a busy rail centre and popular stopover place for immigrants travelling west on legendary U.S. Route 66. Made famous by John Steinbeck’s novel *The Grapes of Wrath*, and sometimes referred to as America’s Main Street, Route 66 played a significant part in America’s history. Not the oldest or longest road in America, started in 1926, it had its greatest historical significance from 1933 to 1970, during the time of great social, economical and political disruption.
The motor car and new national system of public highways brought geographic cohesion and economic prosperity to the widely disparate regions of the country. From Lake Michigan in the Midwest to Santa Monica on the Pacific Coast, as a component of the federal network, Route 66 linked Chicago with Los Angeles. An all-weather highway, it could be travelled at any time of year and reduced the distance for motorists by more than 200 miles [322 km]. Unlike any other highway in history, Route 66 developed its own popular culture.
Leaving Barstow, we headed for Hemet and a week of rest and relaxation. Hemet, in southern California, is a quiet older town some 50 miles [81 km] from popular Palm Springs. We enjoyed daily walks in the sunshine and short drives to see nearby places.
One such day, we visited Palm Springs. On route, we were surprised to see an abundance of wind farms like bunches of silver three-petalled flowers; vast arrays of giant power-generating wind turbines whirled above us on the high desert hills.
Unexpectedly, folks in medieval dress (who must have been roasting in the 90 degree heat) greeted us in downtown Palm Springs. A Renaissance Festival to promote literacy was taking place. We enjoyed strolling along the main street, talking with some of the actors.
Later, we visited hot spots Cathedral City, Rancho Mirage and Palm Desert. El Paseo, a super-sophisticated shopping district in Palm Desert, intrigued us. It features over 300 world-class shops, such as one might find in London or New York. Art galleries, clothing boutiques, jewellers, restaurants and more, all lined on one elegant picturesque, flower-bedecked mile. But we didn’t stay long. Overheated, too hot to shop, we treated ourselves to a cool drink then headed back to Hemet and cooler temperatures.
A visit to Old Town was the highlight of our next stop at San Diego. Considered the “birthplace” of California, Old Town San Diego is the site of the first permanent Spanish settlement in California. Here, in 1769, Father Junípero Serra established the very first mission in a chain of 21 Christian missions that were to form the cornerstone of California’s colonization.
Father Serra’s mission and Presidio (fort) were built on a hillside overlooking what is currently known as Old Town San Diego. In the 1820s, at the base of the hill, a cluster of adobe buildings were built and a small Mexican community formed.
Today, the Mexican influence in Old Town is still strong. We toured a small, very colourful arcade of shops, ate at a Mexican restaurant (cool midday margaritas - delicious!), we strolled the open-air market and visited the beautiful historic walled mission.
Reluctantly, after San Diego, we turned our wheels north towards home. Our trusty GPS guided us faultlessly through the complex, multi-tiered maze of motorways that is Los Angeles. Although not foolproof, due to the occasional detour or minor changes in highway construction, we had grown to depend on it. Amazing! No more poring over maps; no more nail-biting worries about road positioning and missed turn-offs.
Motoring along the breathtakingly beautiful but winding coast road after an overnight stay at Long Beach, we arrived at the captivating mission town of San Juan Capistrano. Mission walls surround the ruins of the historic, architecturally impressive church, once the biggest of the Southern California missions; sadly, in 1812, only six years after completion, it collapsed during an earthquake, killing 40 people. Inside the mission gates, an air of quiet tranquility and reverence pervades the ruined church, pathways and surrounding gardens. The one remaining chapel, called Father Serra’s church, is awe-inspiringly beautiful. Nearby, inspired by the design of the original, a modern church has been built.
Spring is not spring in San Juan Capistrano, los viejos (old timers) say, until the return of las golondrinas (swallows). Las Fiesta de las Golondrinas, a celebration of the swallows’ return to rebuild their mud nests in the ruins of the old mission, is held each year on March 19, Saint Joseph’s Day.
Again, rolling past acres of vineyards, bright orange and lemon groves, tantalizingly brief stops at Santa Barbara, Big Sur, Carmel, Pismo Beach and the Hearst Castle at San Simeon only served to make us wish we could stay longer, but our time was nearing an end.
We travelled 5,310 kilometres, learned much about the people and places we visited, and picked up some useful travel information too. For example, most large chain stores in the U.S. now accept debit cards, and they often offer cash-back, which saves on ATM transaction fees and bank charges.
Also, when using a Visa card (we didn’t try other types of credit cards) at gas stations that require a zip code, there is no problem if you use the numbers in your postal code and add two zeros (A4B 4C1 would be 44100).
California, America’s third largest state, is huge and spectacular in its diversity. Miles of rugged coastal beauty; fertile and desert flatlands; rolling foothills, snow-capped mountains; huge cattle ranches, farmlands, lush fruit and nut growing areas - and an abundance of sunshine. California has it all.
APRIL 2010 SENIOR LIVING MAGAZINE VANCOUVER AND LOWER MAINLAND
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