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  • MANNY CRISOSTOMO / mcrisostomo@sacbee.com

    The first must-see Highway 99 stop is a 50-foot thermometer with 4,000 LED lights in Galt. It's in front of Giddens Brothers Heating & Air Conditioning.

  • MANNY CRISOSTOMO / mcrisostomo@sacbee.com

    This A&W Drive-in, built in Modesto in 1957, helped inspire the film “American Graffiti.” Waitress Jessica Briseno, like all the car hops, must be nimble on skates.

  • MANNY CRISOSTOMO / mcrisostomo@sacbee.com

    A decaying sign is all that remains of Stockton’s Pollardville Ghost Town, an amusement park with an Old West theme that included jails and mock gunfights.

  • MANNY CRISOSTOMO / mcrisostomo@sacbee.com

    The "Pioneer Exhibit" at Bright's Nursery in LeGrand houses farm equipment, old cars and the school bus used in the botched 1976 Chowchilla kidnapping of school children.

  • MANNY CRISOSTOMO / mcrisostomo@sacbee.com

    Tom’s Smokin’ Barbeque in Tulare serves up food in what used to be the fuselage of a 1951 T-29 Air Force navigation training plane.

More Information

  • Call to readers: What's your favorite road trip transportation?
  • There's more than one way to get from Sacramento to Southern California. Starting today, travel writer Sam McManis explores the options and – if you make it as far as Los Angeles – takes you on an unforgettable tour.

    NEXT SUNDAY

    • Interstate 5 – The interstate journey offers fewer stop-worthy places, but it gives you an appreciation of California's agricultural essence.

    APRIL 22

    • Los Angeles of the 1930s and 1940s had a gritty side, and McManis takes you on a tour de noir, stopping at places like the Biltmore Hotel, where Elizabeth Short, "the Black Dahlia" was last seen before her gruesome 1947 murder.
  • Galt

    Giant Thermometer
    Giddens Brothers Heating & Air Conditioning
    578 Fairway Drive
    Reason to stop: On a blazing summer day, get your picture taken when the thermometer hits 100.

    Lodi

    The Original A&W Root Beer Stand
    216 E. Lodi Ave.
    Reason to stop: Become immersed in nostalgia and sudsy root beer.

    Stockton

    Pollardville Ghost Town
    10464 N. Highway 99
    Reason to stop: Look at the sad remains of a once-prosperous theme park.

    Manteca

    Hob Nob Hot Dogs
    1315 N. Main St.
    Reason to stop: Eat an ice cream cone in a structure built like an ice cream cone.

    Modesto

    A&W Drive-In that inspired "American Graffiti"
    1404 G St.
    Reason to stop: "George Lucas' old stamping grounds, inspiration for his 1973 film, which is set in 1962.

    Turlock

    Building Shaped like a bulldozer
    United Equipment
    600 W. Glenwood
    Reason to stop: To gawk. An office building looking like a huge piece of farm equipment.

    Hilmar

    Hilmar Cheese Tour
    9001 N. Lander Ave.
    Reason to stop: Cheese tasting, anyone?

    Livingston

    The Last 99 Stoplight
    604 Main St.
    Reason to Stop: Take a peek at what Highway 99 used to be like.

    Atwater

    Castle Air Museum
    5050 Santa Fe Drive
    Reason to stop: Some 55 military aircraft, including the "Peacekeeper" that carried a thermonuclear bomb. The bomb's there, too.

    LeGrand

    Bright's Pioneer Exhibit
    5246 S. Plainsburg Road
    Reason to stop: Take a gander at the school bus involved in the notorious 1976 Chowchilla bus kidnapping of 26 students.

    Chowchilla

    Fossil Discovery Center of Madera County
    Fairmead Landfill
    19450 Avenue 21 1/2
    Reason to stop: A museum created because of a landfill.

    South of Madera

    "The Palm and the Pine"
    in the Highway 99 median
    Reason to slow down: It marks the meeting of Southern and Northern California.

    Kingsburg

    Sun-Maid Raisin Growers Store
    13525 S. Bethel Ave.
    Reason to stop: Guinness World Record holder for largest raisin box.

    Kingsburg

    Swedish Village
    Draper Street, downtown
    Reason to stop: Sardine sandwiches, anyone?

    Tulare

    Tom's Smokin' Barbeque
    240 North L St.
    Reason to stop: Who doesn't want to eat a pulled pork sandwich in the fuselage of a 1950s airplane?

Take Highway 99 for a weirdly wonderful drive south

Published: Sunday, Apr. 8, 2012 - 12:00 am | Page 1H
Last Modified: Saturday, Aug. 4, 2012 - 7:20 pm

You, like most freeway travelers heading from Sacramento to Southern California, want to make good time. That, above all, is the goal. Make good time. Set cruise control and point the car south. Beat the traffic. Avoid the rush. Gas up and go.

Yeah, it's a long haul, the broken-white-line monotony enervating, the convoys of big rigs and RVs annoying. But, remember, you've taken Interstate 5 – a straight shot – and you've made good time.

May we, however, be so bold as to suggest an alternative route? May we offer a trip back in time on your trip down south?

It will mean scaling back your rigorous, clock-watching travel schedule. It will mean embracing spontaneity and a willingness to take offramps to the offbeat. It will mean adopting the near-Zen attitude that the journey is the destination.

And it will mean – gasp! – taking Highway 99.

We know what you're thinking: That's crazy talk. Highway 99 is blistering hot in the summer, tule fog-shrouded in the winter, a magnet for accidents, what with local traffic constantly entering and exiting at an endless succession of Central Valley towns.

True enough. But where else can you eat a swirly ice cream cone from a joint shaped like a cone (Manteca) or scarf barbecue aboard a '50s-era luxury aircraft (Tulare)? Where else can you visit museums that house the bus involved in the infamous Chowchilla school kidnapping (LeGrand) or prehistoric mammoth tusks next to a pungent landfill (Chowchilla) or a thermonuclear bomb next to a housing tract (Atwater)?

That, and so much more, awaits those willing to slow down enough for a look-see.

And, who knows, you might learn something, too. Highway 99 is historic, anointed with its number and identity in 1926 when federal officials allocated funds to connect chaotic roads into contiguous routes. By 1928, according to Jill Livingston's seminal book, "That Ribbon of Highway II" (Living Gold Press, $17.99, 216 pages), the U.S. government called 99 "the longest continuously improved highway in the country."

Back when car travel was an adventure, not simply a swift means to an end, 99 was four lanes of fun, replete with roadside attractions featuring oddly shaped structures as well as blinking, come-hither neon signs luring motorists to stop and spend. It was a different world then, before air travel and the Eisenhower- inspired Interstate 5.

Progress, along with its cohort, the ravages of time, has leveled much of the original 99. Many roadside motels have been reduced to free-standing signs with missing letters peeking above sound walls. Most architecturally whimsical eateries are reduced to dust. (R.I.P., the Mammoth Orange drive-in south of Chowchilla.)

Yet much is left to see, thanks to the allure of kitsch and the pull of nostalgia. Come with us on this road trip, as we meander down to Bakersfield, where you'll be on your own to get over the Grapevine. (One other ground rule: We're skipping Fresno. Why? Because it's no longer William Saroyan's Fresno but a thriving metropolis. Save it for another trip.)

So, hop in. We'll even let you call shotgun.

Mile 24.2: Galt

Giant Thermometer

578 Fairway Drive

Strange that the first roadside attraction would be the newest. It's the 50-foot thermometer with 4,000 LED lights, finished a scant two months ago in front of Giddens Brothers Heating & Air Conditioning.

Bill Giddens wants to attract customers to his business on a 99 frontage road. He recalls coming back from the coast in the family station wagon and pining to see "two giant 30-foot-tall soldiers that were lit up" by a Stockton sign company (now, alas, gone) and pestering his dad by asking, "Are we close to the soldiers yet?"

Mile 31.6: Lodi

Original A&W Root Beer Stand

216 E. Lodi Ave.

The birthplace of A&W sits on a commercial strip mall near 99. Memorabilia dating from the 1919 opening are on display, including the priceless record "Vic Damone Swings With A&W." Ruining the mood: a flat-screen TV. Adam Beach, behind the counter, confides a secret. "This is not the original site," he says. "It was on Pine. It's a dog groomer now. They didn't move here until 1955."

Mile 38.2: Stockton

Pollardville Ghost Town

10464 N. Highway 99

All that remains from Stockton's once-thriving amusement park is a decaying sign. Opening it in 1957 as a chicken restaurant, the Pollard family lured travelers with an Old West experience, including jails, saloons and mock gunfights in the streets. It was closed in 2007, demolished in 2010.

Mile 54.8: Manteca

Hob Nob Hot Dogs

1315 N. Main St.

It's a hot dog stand shaped like an ice cream cone. Go figure. Then again, this is Manteca, which was supposed to be called Monteca, but a misprint on train tickets in 1873 sealed its fate to be the Spanish word for lard. Actually, you can get ice cream at this hot dog place and sit on snazzy red stools inside "the cone."

Mile 75.4: Modesto

A&W Drive-In

1404 G St.

What? Not another A&W. Yes, another. But not just any. This is a drive-in, built in 1957, that resembles the one that inspire Modesto homeboy George Lucas' film "American Graffiti." Current owner Johnny Matthews makes sure that all his "car hops" are nimble on roller skates, including 20-year veteran Julie Adams. The dining area sports a standard '50s motif, with posters of Lucas' bearded mug prominently displayed. "We get a lot of tourists," Matthews said. "We often get European tour guides coming here on their way to Yosemite."

Mile 96.2: Turlock

Bulldozer Building

600 W. Glenwood Ave.

You see it out of the corner of your eye right before the Lander Avenue exit: Man, that's one mother of a bulldozer. But it's not; it's Highway 99's best example of "programmatic architecture." The United Equipment office is built to resemble what it sells: heavy equipment. Specifically, a Caterpillar bulldozer.

At 2,400 square feet, the office is 2 1/2 times the size of a bulldozer. From its wooden tread to plywood and stucco yellow body, it's realistic looking even up close. "At least once every other day, people take pictures and sometimes they want to come in," owner Mitch Logsdon said. "It's kind of fun to work in a unique looking building."

Mile 101.3: Hilmar

Hilmar Cheese Tour

9001 N. Lander Ave.

Those lactose intolerant might want to steer clear, but for the rest of us, it's worth the four-mile drive west of Turlock to find out how cheese is made – even though some kids may respond with "ewww." More savory is the cafe, which holds tastings and other cheesy events. Turlockian Rob Depos, who often brings his family here after church, recommends the cheese chowder ($5.75).

Mile 113.8: Livingston

"The Last Stoplight"

604 Main St.

Until the early 1980s, Highway 99 still had stoplights in some Central Valley locales, called "Blood Alleys" for some reason. The last one to be uprooted was in Livingston in 1996. One newspaper account said the 99 bypass had been on CalTrans' "drawing board" since 1958. To mark the occasion, Livingston planted the stoplight in front of the history museum. We looked closely – no blood stains.

Mile 127: Atwater

Castle Air Museum

5050 Santa Fe Drive

Three miles east of 99, just past a handsome ranch-house development, is the Castle Air Museum on the decommissioned Castle Air Force Base. Director Joe Pruzzo says it's the largest aviation museum "between Southern California and Northern Oregon." We were enthralled by the MK-17 Thermonuclear Bomb that weighs 20 megatons and can be carried only by the massive airplane on its left – the RB-36H Peacemaker.

Jennifer Lagdon, visiting her mother in Merced, brought her toddler son, Jax, to view the military hardware. "He loves airplanes and stuff. I'm hoping it'll tire him out so he'll take a nap."

Mile 156: LeGrand

Bright's Pioneer Exhibit

5246 S. Plainsburg Road

Drive three miles east, out to a fallow field with four cavernous warehouses breaking the horizontal hold on the skyline, and you'll find a most unusual museum in a most unusual place with a certain infamous object.

One of the four warehouses at Bright's Nursery is dubbed the "Pioneer Exhibit," a collection of steam-powered tractors, old street cars, antiquated farm equipment and – what's that? – a big yellow school bus? According to museum curator Virginia Bright, whose late father, Arthur, started the collection, it's the very school bus used in the botched 1976 kidnapping of a bus full of Chowchilla school kids. (The kidnappers left the bus but took the 26 kids to Livermore, where the children escaped.)

"My father knew the bus driver, Ed Ray," Bright said. "He got the bus from him. I guess the school gave (Ray) the bus when he retired."

Mile 168: Chowchilla

Fossil Discovery Center of Madera County

19450 Ave. 21 1/2

Who knows what you might find at the dump? Maybe some bones, teeth and tusks from 14-foot Colombian Mammoths. In 1993, a worker carving space into the county landfill scraped against a tusk – and the rest of (pre-)history. These days, the scientists and dump truck drivers share space at the site. You can visit, too, by plunking down $8 ($6 for seniors) at the Fossil Discovery Center, opened in 2010.

Mile 184.2: South of Madera

The Palm and The Pine

Highway 99 median

Pump the brake pedal, will ya, a couple miles south of Madera (shortly after Exit 152). In the median is a palm tree next to a pine tree, marking where Southern and Northern California meet. Our view was somewhat spoiled by a biker gang ("Team Flatline") roaring by.

Mile 220.1: Kingsburg

Sun-Maid Raisin Growers Store

13525 S. Bethel Ave.

Swedish Village

Draper Street, downtown

Leave Fresno in your rear-view mirror, but stop in Kingsburg to bow at the Raisin God – at least that's what we called the ginormous raisin box constructed outside Sun-Maid's headquarters, built courtesy of California State University, Fresno, business students. It stands 12 feet high, 8 feet wide and 4 feet deep (yes, it's Guinness Book of Records certified).

Kingsburg's other oddity is its Swedish heritage, where the blue-and-yellow flag flies next to Old Glory and a mural of the homeland fills an alley leading to the town water tower shaped like a Swedish coffee pot. The town's Swedish Festival is in May but they serve smoked sardine sandwiches (open-faced, $8.95) at the Stockholm Cafe anytime.

Mile 263.2: Tulare

Tom's Smokin' Barbeque

240 North L St.

Sure, you could go to Tulare's Heritage Complex Farm Equipment Museum (4450 S. Laspina St.), but why not lunch in the fuselage of a 1951 T-29 Air Force navigation training plane? Fortunately, Tulare snagged this aircraft from the clutches of the Castle Air Museum.

Until March, the plane housed Aero Dogs, a hot dog joint. Now, it's become a barbecue joint. And, while in town, we had check out the Olympic cauldron next to Bob Mathias Stadium, named for Tulare's 1952 decathlon champion. As we gazed at the cauldron, willing it to be lit with every fiber of our being, we reflected on the Olympian task we have completed. Did we see everything on Highway 99? No, but darn close.

Well, there's always the return trip. But we've decided to take I-5. Got to make good time.

© Copyright The Sacramento Bee. All rights reserved.

Read more articles by Sam McManis



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