Not glamorous but it’s the swiftest way north.
Given a chance to drive or fly, I chose the road. It might be my stubbornly independent spirit or an American upbringing. Cruising down a freeway that is dependable and open, without tariff or detours, is a luxury, the ultimate freedom, and California is full of highways lying in wait. Going solo on a long distance drive up through California’s Central Valley can revive a worn spirit if done well.
A well worn route
Mom and dad met in San Francisco but settled in Southern California. Several times a year they’d stretch sleeping bags in the back of the station wagon, my siblings and I would pile in and we’d drive up over night. My parents took turns napping and driving while we slept – or that was the plan. The car trembled each time trucks rushed past us on the narrow two lane highway. I shuddered as well often too scared to sleep but loved arriving in San Francisco at dawn. Today there’s an asphalt ribbon running up that valley – a multi-lane, state-of-the-art divided highway.
Having fuel that is affordable makes driving a joy as well. Given a choice, the carbon offset between what an airplane burns and a car disgorges makes driving more ecologically effective for medium distance trips.(Public transportation is best for short trips and flying is best for long journeys, such as cross-country.*) I drive a small, compact car which, while nearly ten years old, still gets decent mileage. These factors make driving solo between San Diego and San Francisco an easy decision. I wanted the car’s freedom to pull over on a whim too.
I love having company on the road but if that’s not an option I’ll drive by myself. It means being vigilant on several levels. Without someone to spell me, pulling over to stretch and eat, staying alert and doing my Drivetime Yoga stretches helps the ride go smoothly.
As a woman alone on the road there are safety concerns but having driven the Interstate 5 dozens of times over the years gives me confidence. I don’t take chances. It’s like developing street smarts, you learn to be cautious and prepared.
A few safety issues
No one should spend an inordinate amount of time in a dark, deserted rest stop. But given the choice, there’s relative safety in numbers. I pull through, checking out how many cars versus trucks are there, how well lit it is and if I can find a parking space close to the bathrooms. I’ve napped and taken advantage of clean facilities, stretched stiff muscles and admired the scenery while pulled over with a small crowd of travelers.
- Fill the tank and keep an eye on the gas gauge. Running out of gas on a pounding, vast freeway far from stations is no fun. Avoid the annoyance, loss of time or danger of getting stuck in a compromising situation.
- Make sure the tires are adequately inflated and in good condition. Properly inflated tires also improve mileage.
- Pay attention to the temperature gauge. Regular oil changes and fluid checks are important long road trip or driving at home. If driving up mountain passes, watch that the car doesn’t overheat.
- Travel with insurance and road service options. I’ve been a Automobile Club member for decades. They’ve helped me change a few flat tires over the years.
- Let family and/or friends know where you’re headed and your route. Share progress reports online with texts, Skype or Facetime (but never while driving!)
Not the lonely traveler
I’m not alone. For company there’s nothing like an audio book. Long road trips or commutes are the only time I have to really listen. Downloading favorite podcasts is simple with my smartphone. My old buggy has a CD player and I rent books from the library. I love browsing the stacks for interesting titles and favorite authors.
Bugs – An issue on a long drive.
The joy of discovery
I love having the freedom to pull over on a whim. I’ve discovered some cool truck stops, eaten my share of fresh pie and locally roasted coffee. There are interesting, little towns to poke around in when you need a break. On the last trip I ended up staying over in Stockton. With a few hours before meetings in the Bay area, the few hours walking around the downtown core were packed with cool discoveries. Roadside attractions are plentiful on smaller roads like Highway 101 but not as much along the I-5 corridor. A parallel route like the smaller, Highway 99 are more interesting but also packed with narrower and fewer lanes. It’s a toss up.
View from the top of the historic Orestimba viewpoint.
Don’t be a road ninja
Not an energy drink fan, I knew that I would be too tired to do the trip by myself in one swoop. Where to spend the night? Apps are a great help for last minute booking but it’s easier to have a destination in mind and know where you’ll be sleeping. On the recent trip I choose a budget hotel, knowing there were less than 12 hours between checking in and out. Hotel rewards program can work in your favor. I’ve booked with Hotel Tonight, used Trip Advisor for referrals and have never had a bad experience with Airbnb. I always call the hotel directly before arriving to make sure they know I’m checking in late and to confirm. Before booking, I like to call and see if there’s a better rate with my AAA membership.
The historic spot, Orestimba marker.
On my return trip I needed a rest and pulled over for a brief stretch. The viewpoint road curled up and away from the freeway. A few other cars were parked there, so I felt comfortable getting out to walk around. Once out of my air conditioned capsule, the heat was punishing.
It was an unusual pinnacle, braced between that asphalt ribbon and the aqueduct carrying water to the parched Southern Californian homes. But there was more to discover. Rolling hills swept to the west, dotted with a few cattle. A cluster of green trees stood in contrast to the dry, golden hills. To the East the flatlands was a patchwork of fields, industrial outcroppings and clusters of homes. A rock memorial stood at the top.
Orestimba is a local Indian word meaning “meeting place.” Nearby are famous Indian rocks and a Sycamore grove where mission padres met with Indian leaders. The marker points to “The Old Road,” that traversed the west side of the valley from San Pedro to San Antonio. It was erected on April 20th, 1974 by Estanisla Chaper 58.
I’d found my meeting place, not with other people but my own spirit. Perhaps it was the ghosts of the padres and native Americans, but I felt strong, connected and happy. It was a good long distance drive. A few more chapters in my audio book remained between me and home.
If you go:
The distance between San Diego and San Francisco is about 460 miles. That means nearly 8 hours of driving. The road going up the San Joaquin, or the Central Valley, is almost a straight shot once you get over the ‘Grapevine’ pass. It’s not the most interesting drive, often hot and the traffic zips through between 65 and 80 miles an hour – most often on the high side. Lots of trucks use this route as well. Amenities and rest stop facilities are about ten to thirty miles apart.
Have you ever taken a long distance drive? How did it turn out? Found your ‘Orestimba?’
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