So, after leaving the Redwoods we headed south and east and hooked up with US-99, one of the twin north-south highways that runs through the middle of California. (I-5 is the other.) We ended up in the Sacramento Valley, a long flat stretch full of pasture land and a variety of blank and similar mid-size cities and towns. (I'm sure that Merced and Fresno are more different than alike, but it would have to be proven to me.) US-99 is hard like washboard, more narrow than most interstates, and truckers raced alongside us, shaking our windows as they blurred by. Every thing that could rattle in the RV rattled. Stuff in the sink banged against each other. The VCR and DVD player above us bounced up and down like Iggy Pop after some espresso and a couple of diet pills.
After 100 miles of this we were dreaming of mountain roads again, twisting roads like US-101 in Oregon. At Fresno, we entered the San Joaquin Valley (south of the Sacramento, running from Fresno all the way to Bakersfield), and at a gas stop we pulled out the map and looked for the tiny gray roads that we hoped would take us off the interstate. We picked 180 to the east, up and toward the distant Sierra Nevada mountains.
We started at 240 feet above sea level, but quickly it was clear that we were going higher in a hurry. On the right were thousands of orange trees. They swept away from us into the rapidly deepening King's Canyon. On our left was scrub brush, some trees, rocky terrain. We passed a 1000 foot sign, quickly followed by 2000, 3000, 4000. Winnie was straining, and every mile or so we'd pull over into a scenic turnout to let cars go past. At 5000 feet I could smell the engine's running hot so we pulled over for lunch.
It was absolutely dead quiet. Occasionally a car would go by. But we stared out into the canyon, the gigantic 11,000+ foot peaks of the Sierra Nevada ahead of us. We had sandwiches and soup - a pretty frequent meal in the big rolling tin can. And we looked out the window and soaked in the quiet of the canyon. It was a jarring experience for us, just months ago locked - it seemed - into a different world.
Afterwards, we pushed Winnie up the last 500 feet or so, and started back, this time going down on the opposite wall of the canyon on Highway 245. The first sign we saw said "Winding Road, Next 31 miles. And it wasn't an exaggeration. The switchbacks were tight. I pushed it into 2nd gear, and I pulled the wheel hard left and right all the way down. It took 95 minutes to get down. We never popped over 30 mph except at the bottom, once we were back into the valley.
We stopped twice on the way down, once as the sun is dropping below the foothills. We stood on the side of the road, looked at some big cows a thousand feet below us, and not one car went by us in all those miles. We'd seen some houses, some ranches, horses, cows. (I think I heard a snake, but who knows?) But it was quiet and it was clear that this was one of the things we'd been looking for.
We both grew up in small towns, but since our late teens we've lived in cities. Listen, I love cities. I love the convenience, the energy, etc. I like to be able to get Ding Dongs at 11 pm. I like to pick one of 25 movies at the mall. But once I reached 40, all of that seemed less important.
Human beings. That's the rub.
I've lost patience with the "getting along with human beings" part of the contract. I have 3 friends and a wife. I have some family I can stand. I know my limits, my urges, my remarkable ability to disappointment all I meet. So why do I need to live someplace where I'm surrounded by thousands of new people who will only bring about sadness. (Not to mention the crushing ennui folks feel when they meet me. "Oh, you're an academic. Wow, is that the punch bowl over there?")
But the sun went down and we rode Winnie's brakes down to the valley again and joined the racing throngs on US-99.
We found a nice campground, backed the RV into the spot and stared out at 40 more motorhomes just like it. We were in a town whose name I've already forgotten. It was on a big sign when we pulled of the highway. It had a big street full of fast food joints. I spotted a nice Wal-Mart where I knew I'd have to go tomorrow to get a can of three-in-one oil. But all I was thinking about was the forest, that place, the canyon, trees, the sound of wind rushing somewhere. A billion stars.