Tuesday, April 15, 2008

Road Trip! Or, Why I Love California

I'd had a stressful few weeks, and though I'd planned a long weekend's road-trip, put it on the calendar and everything, I was really tempted to cancel. It just seemed too hard. Everything seemed too hard. Especially writing. Even a blog post. I couldn't summon the energy or enthusiasm to compose anything beyond emails here and there. 

I started wondering, am I losing my mind? Is this early onset Alzheimers? 

Maybe I'll never be able to write another thing. I sure could not imagine sitting down and starting something new. 

On Friday, the day I was to leave, I managed to accomplish a little business in the morning, enough to lift the exhaustion that had been sapping my enthusiasm like some sort of vampiric shroud. Well, okay. I packed a bag and fed the cats and got in my car and started driving.

Because I'd gotten such a late start, I decided to take the 5 North to San Francisco. Lately I'd been taking the coast route, exchanging speed for beauty. But I was tired, I had a pinched nerve in my back, and I was late. So, the 5.

If you've ever driven this route, you know what I mean. The Great Central Valley is one of those landscapes that is so featureless, it almost defies description. Flat. Endless. Dust. Broken up by cattle feedlots now and again, with their characteristic smell. Truck stops. Denny's. Fields stretching to the dust-obscured horizon. 

Well, not the first hour or so, leaving Los Angeles.  The Grapevine and Fort Tejon are dramatic enough, stark hills and crags, trucks and older cars struggling up the incline, burning transmissions and brake pads and radiator fluid. The pass was particularly beautiful this week, thanks to the rains we've had this winter. Not a lot grows on some of these hills, they are not forested, like in the north; there is scrub, chaparral, grasses of various sorts — to be honest, I'm not really sure what it all is. My knowledge of plants and trees is pretty sketchy. But on some of the hills, there's very little beyond grasses, and whether this is their natural state or the aftermath of brush fires, I couldn't say.

This spring, these bald hills are covered with swaths of color — purple lupine, golden poppies, green grasses, undulating in the wind like some massive natural acid trip. 

Once you go down into the valley, you have to expand your notion of scenic. There's not a lot to draw the eye, especially because what there is tends to be washed out by the omnipresent haze.

When I drive this route, what I usually do is stop at Harris Ranch. Or, as I like to call it, the Cattle Concentration Camp. The feedlots come after the Ranch, proper, and I guess they really aren't so bad, but it still sobers me, seeing all those cattle standing around, crowded together in fields of dirt, shielded by tin roofs and cooled by misting sprinklers. The smell is pretty bad too.

But Harris Ranch is a nice place to stop — a complex of pinkish "adobe" buildings, crafted in a vague "Ranchero" style, several cuts above your typical truck stop or Days Inn. They have a great bar, a casual diner and a nice restaurant, with good food, especially if you're partial to steak.

I wasn't particularly in the mood for steak that day, but the options on the 5 are few if you don't want a burger.

So I was intrigued to see the hand-painted signs for "Taste Of India — Wraps to Go — Authentic Indian Food — Everything Cooked Fresh!" as I approached the McKintrick/Buttonwillow exit. 

I could see "Taste of India" from the freeway. Housed in a typical chain-restaurant building, like where you'd expect to find a Denny's, except with a blue roof (maybe they'd taken over some defunct chain gone bankrupt?). What settled me was the adjacent Starbucks. I needed a cup of coffee.

I was reassured by the "A" rating on the door. Inside, "Taste of India" is a big, open room, with cheap, moveable tables covered by plastic tablecloths. Faded silver striped wallpaper with posters of Indian women, a cooler filled with Indian beer, and a counter where you could order "To Go" Biryani wraps. 

Best of all: a flat screen television mounted on the wall that played some absurd Bollywood musical that I couldn't begin to describe.

I had Lamb Korma (spicy), garlic Naan and a Yeti Premium Beer. All delicious. Complimented the waitress (owner?), an Indian woman. Caught sight of another worker, in a yellow turban (her husband? Who knows?) taking orders at the "To Go" counter.

After I ate, I went outside, passed the Super 8 Motel and the truck stop and grabbed a fresh Starbucks coffee (the new Pikes Blend).

I love California.

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