Coming down off the Grapevine, negotiating the curves as skillfully as a stock-car driver, you get momentary glimpses of the Valley floor. Then, just past the runaway truck ramp, the hills part and the view widens. Spread out in front of you is a vast expanse of Interstate 5, miles of shimmering road heading off to the horizon.
A depressing sight.
A beautiful sight.
It's a matter of perspective, of course.
You, the Sacramento driver, have every reason to see the return trip from Southern California as a six-hour slog, a test of patience as much as gas-mileage performance. To the untrained eye, it's just a whole lot of nothing. Sure, there's always another Denny's up ahead to break the monotony of ag fields and mitigate the malodorous combination of manure and diesel exhaust. But that's cold comfort when the radio is picking up only exhortative country preachers and your iPhone's 4G connection is spotty.
Looked at another way, though, traveling what has been called the backbone of California can be nothing less than an unfolding historical drama, writ large on a canvas of scruffy grassland bracketed by tawny hills.
Take in those stitched rows of grape vines, arranged with a Euclidean cleanness, and admire the orchards of almond trees in full pinkish bloom, and you summon Steinbeckian (or Cesar Chavez, if you're into nonfiction) narratives. Contrast the sparkling, meandering path of the California Aqueduct and the Delta-Mendota Canal with the parched, fallow fields dominated by the invasive star thistle weed, and you are presented with each side of the state's centurylong argument over water rights, a political fight to this day.
It can be argued, too, that motorists from the state's metropolises could use a good, long look at one of the world's most productive agricultural regions if only to acknowledge, however briefly, where their food comes from. (Hint: It's not Safeway.)
I-5, be it bountiful and barren, may lack the kitsch value of its parallel artery, Highway 99. It doesn't boast many roadside attractions or a series of offramp-close Central Valley towns. That was by design. In the 1960s and '70s, when I-5 was built, the goal was to get motorists where they were going as swiftly as possible, which meant avoiding major population centers and giving truckers a straight shot from factory to market.
But this Woody Guthrie-an "ribbon of highway" does have its charms, both obvious (ubiquitous billboards touting Harris Ranch and Andersen's Pea Soup; orange tree branches swaying in the breeze) and unexpected (an impressive collection of lunch boxes to be found in the middle of the trip).
What's needed to truly appreciate the I-5 drive is a strong meditative streak.
Let the landscape flow into your being and you'll start to notice things you would've missed while fiddling with the radio dial: the lone crow, blacker than black, perched on a fence post; the fall of the white almond tree petals forming circles of dandruff against the brown soil; the creak of pterodactyl oil derricks competing with the hiss of rainbird sprinklers on a square of toiled earth; the dive-bombing planes dusting crops and suicide-mission bugs splattering windshields.
The mile markers might go by just a bit faster, the tedium might be a little more palatable, and you might reach civilization (er, your destination) slightly more enriched.
Mile 23.6: Taft Highway and I-5
Sign in a field dominated by dirt clods: "Farm Water Cost = High Food Cost"
Mile 26.8: South of Buttonwillow
Enos Lane and I-5
It's a splash of color amid acres of beige. Red, blue and white stadium seats peek out of the half-constructed grandstand, encircled with nonfunctioning light poles and out-of-place looming palm trees.
This is the foreclosed Kern County Raceway Park, partially built before being abandoned in 2008 when its owner filed for Chapter 11. The only races you'll see on the half-mile oval are tumbleweeds angling for pole position. Yet, according to the Bakersfield Californian, NASCAR might soon roar into the area and we don't just mean wannabe drivers careening down I-5. New investors plan to finish the construction and open by fall.
"Obviously, the excitement's been rekindled," project coordinator Dan Smith told the paper.
Even the tumbleweeds seemed more animated when we stopped for a gander.
Mile 32: Stockdale Highway and I-5
Sign: "Stop Boxer, Costa, Pelosi. Stop the Congress Created Water Crisis."
Mile 36.2: Buttonwillow
Taste of India restaurant
20687 Tracy Ave.
A vegan restaurant? Off I-5? The bright-red billboard touting Taste of India's vegan options ("Eat Fresh, Feel Fresh") compels pulling off the freeway to check it out. In a culinary landscape dotted with Jack in the Box and Subway, Taste of India is almost a mirage.
In business for nine years and owned by a family in Bakersfield, the restaurant has held its own quite nicely against the array of fast-food offerings.
Julie ("Just Julie, please") the manager put it bluntly.
"You wouldn't expect this in the middle of nowhere," she said. "But we're right around the corner from the offramp. It's a great spot."
She couldn't talk long. It was the lunch rush. But she said 50 percent of Taste of India's business comes from vegan customers parched for dining options. Indeed, nowhere else along I-5 can you find a waitress who asks, "Would you like naan with that?"
Mile 71.8: Near the Kern and Kings counties border
Sign on side of harvest truck: "Congress Created Dust Bowl"
Mile 92.2: Tulare 'Ghost' Lake
Highway 41, Kettleman City
The California Aqueduct runs through the nerve center of the Valley and dispenses water diverted from rivers. It curves under the freeway to the west and then back east at Kettleman City. Drive to the top of a small hill, near the offramp, and you can gaze down onto the Valley to the east. It's parched. Look a bit north and the view changes considerably. Multihued squares of farmland, like something out of a Wayne Thiebaud painting, burst into vision as a testament to hydration.
Kettleman City is the southern point of erstwhile Tulare Lake, once one of the largest freshwater lakes west of the Great Lakes. Until the mid-1800s, water covered nearly all of Kings County and a good portion of Kern and Tulare counties. But in 1860, diversion by settlers began. By 1900, it was dry.
Since then, the 440-mile California Aqueduct has provided irrigation to farmers by diverting water from rivers and parsing out allocations. It's this diversion of a precious resource that leads to all the roadside signs and decades-long fight between environmentalists and farmers, the Delta smelt against crops. Farmers say the state is diverting water belonging to the Valley to the Delta and San Francisco Bay.
A federal bill passed by the House of Representatives and opposed by Sens. Barbara Boxer and Dianne Feinstein would block state-imposed water restrictions and, in the words of one Republican representative, "places senior water rights holders in a safe and secure position."
Mile 112: Coalinga
Jayne Avenue exit
Sign next to a closed fruit stand, touting eight pounds of oranges for $5: "Open when we're here. Closed when we're not. Sorry we missed you!"
Mile 121.5: Coalinga
24505 West Dorris Ave.
Back in the 1930s, long before I-5 was built, the Harris family just happened to build its ranch right where I-5 would later run, about halfway between Sacramento and Los Angeles. Once traffic started flowing by, the Harrises built a restaurant and hotel. Today, like a beacon in a sea of sameness, this carnivore's delight summons tourists on their way to somewhere else.
Jeff Starling, heading north to visit his mother in Shingle Springs, always makes a point to stop and gobble down a berry tart from Harris Ranch's bakery.
"It's a little tradition I have," he says, "a treat for myself."
Janet Kornblum's Harris Ranch tradition is procuring some of Harris Ranch's beef jerky for the drive to L.A.
"The beef jerky, it's awesome stuff," she said. "It doesn't have a lot of preservatives, not filled with junk. My girlfriend in the car likes the packaged stuff, but I like this. It's expensive, but "
Counter worker Cami Chase interjected: "The butchers make it daily out back."
Kornblum: "Oh, I don't want to think too much that it came from a cute little cow."
You can't help but rethink the array of red slabs at Harris' meat counter when, 4 miles north, you come upon the ranch's huge and pungent livestock pens, where the cows gaze upon motorists with wide-eyed bovine melancholy.
Mile 156: Firebaugh
46272 West Panoche Road
Pass up the McDonald's, Subway and Taco Bell at this exit. Go directly to the Apricot Tree, a family-owned restaurant that serves up a hearty slice of kitsch with its fare.
More than 400 metal lunchboxes the real deal, not those flimsy plastic kind line the shelves and walls over the booths. It's said to be the largest such collection in the United States, and who are we to argue? From "Howdy Doody" to "Lost in Space," "The Flintstones" to "The Jetsons," generations of schoolyard memories are housed here.
Phil Garcia and family happened to stumble upon the Apricot Tree on their way south, and the sight of so many boxes dominated their lunchtime conversations. Garcia is old enough to remember when those boxes were new.
But family member Jessica Perez lamented, "I had a plastic 'My Little Pony' one, but it's not the same as this."
Mile 195.8: Santa Nella
Andersen's Pea Soup
12367 California 33
The lure of viscid and verdant soup has filled the dining room on this day, but travelers Gene and Cathy Cox of Washougal, Wash., stopped at this legendary windmilled diner for the memories.
Cathy: "We were here 30 years ago. Wait, when was that?"
Gene: "Yup. We were here with a travel trailer. Cathy always liked pea soup, so we parked in a nearby RV place. We set up our water hose and everything, and then came down here to eat. When we got back, fire ants had followed the hose up into the trailer. They were everywhere."
Cathy: "It was awful. We cried a lot."
Gene: "They were in our food and clothes and stuff. We used spray that smelled like heck. Since then, we always called this place Anta Nella."
Cathy: "We always wanted to come back."
Mile 262.2: Lathrop
"Alien" Tower Mart
192 Lathrop Road
Three gas stations greet you at this exit, all with the same prices per gallon. So which are you going to choose: a standard-issue Valero or Chevron, or the Tower Mart, which has an "alien" space ship crashed into its roof and little green men waving at you?
This may be I-5's only dash of whimsy before entering the structural sameness of Stockton, Elk Grove and, at last Sacramento. Enjoy. It's been a long trip.