June 12, Ojai to Fairfield
By 7:30 am we were climbing the mountains behind the camp, in the Sespe Wilderness, a place that seems to be particularly wild to me, partly because we rarely see any other cars on the road. The 33 runs from Ojai to Maricopa, and most people never have any reason to visit Maricopa, but it also takes you from the 101 coast route to the I 5/99 routes North without taking the Grapevine, which is why we were heading that way. The Grapevine is fine in a modern car, and even my old Volvo could do it (I think I can, I think I can was her mantra), but people driving near LA can be really aggressive and weird, and the Bus was never going to climb that hill at any speed, so we thought we would save our stamina for the Siskiyou Summit, the highest point on I 5, and take the scenic route.
Highway 33 twists and winds through obscure mountains with jagged, upthrusts of rock showing a long and violent looking seismic record, and the road hugs a tiny river. You climb the mountains slowly and then see huge vistas, the Carrizozo plain, mountains upon mountains, and no towns, houses, or people. Just rugged desert plants, some pines at the higher elevations, and blue, blue sky. We stopped to blow bubbles by the side of the road, and then made out way out to the thriving metropolis of Ventucopa (no services), through the still inexplicable newly planted vineyards and alfalfa fields in a land that is so dry as to make me think of Mary Austin’s “The Land of Little Rain” the whole time we were driving there.
Once you go down the long downgrade outside of Maricopa (gas station!), then a long farm road, you have a choice between the I 5 and told Highway 99. We decided to take the 99 partly because it would take us through my father’s homeland, and partly because it is much mellower than the I 5. We rattled into Bakersfield and started noticing the highway signs: religious, Republican, and quite a few advertising Sikh owned business. By now, I was feeling sick. “It’s your allergies,” Robert kept telling me, but I knew it wasn’t. There’s something about the way you feel when you first come down with a virus—some sort of tingling sense, an awareness that your body is under attack. Still, I tried to ignore it.
We rolled up the 99 marking time in place names, into the land of my father’s childhood, and mine. Every summer my father would drive the Bus down to visit the family in Clovis, Dinuba, Reedley, Visalia, Hanford, Kingsburg, Selma, Parlier—place names that I remember from my childhood, and riding in the Bus in the heat to visit people I sort of knew, hoping we would go to my aunt Joanne’s soon so I could swim endlessly in her pool, eat cake warm from the oven with as much frosting as I wanted, and then swim some more. When we visited Clovis in the Bus a few years ago for my Aunt Martha’s memorial my cousin told me, “I always knew it was summer when I saw Uncle Bill’s bus parked out front.” And now here we were, the oleanders flashing white/pink/white/pink taking me on a journey through the poem (“Wild Blue Yonder”) I used to begin this blog. Time is a circle, I thought.
I called out to my best “beast” friend, T, as we passed her town, and yelled at passing cars that she was the best person ever. “Crazy lady in VW van,” they must have thought. We hoped to make Lodi or maybe the Delta to stay the night, and I wondered if my throat hurt so bad because I had been yelling so much. We also passed through Turlock, where I remember a bad Bus breakdown as a child, and a man in a Cadillac with long horns on the front picking us up in a diner, staying a few days before heading home to Oregon. I assured the Bus that we would NOT be stopping in Turlock this time.
The weather turned muggy as we approached the delta, and this time we actually found the town of Lodi, but we were road weary, and the Bus had started making an ominous noise. Every time Robert braked, the front passenger’s wheel let out a series of tortured shrieks that caused considerable alarm. “Oh, well,” we thought. We will stay in Rio Vista—we stayed there on the way up to get the Bus, and it had a nice symmetry to stay there as we drove the Bus home. Driving across the wide delta fields on a narrow, two lane highway with many signs about “Drive Right/Stay Alive” and “Turn Headlines on for Safety,” and “2500 fine for any unsafe driving” we started to notice the wind was rising again. Robert had some trouble with gusts coming from side to side back on the 99, but the wind on this road was persistent, scary, and the impatience of the other drivers stuck behind the Bus was palpable. Twice we were passed in a terrifying manner, and had a cop been around, Solano county could have made 5000 $. But we made it through, and saw the mighty Sacramento, and went to the old River’s Edge lodge…only to find they had no rooms. The same depressed seeming guy from last time told Robert, “Try Lodi or Fairfield.” Backtracking to Lodi seemed like a bad idea given the road we had just survived, and Fairfield was equidistant, so we made the call, which brings me to the first official lesson of the trip: Don’t Drive Towards a Wind Farm in a 1966 VW Bus.
The Bus is basically a big box on wheels, and his high profile can make him act like a sail. In fact, much of drivers of the Bus have to learn about driving in wind is how to tack, like you are sailing, or so my father explained to me. On this trip, we did notice a large wind farm in the direction we were headed, but neither of us thought too much about it. As we started It was a harrowing ride to Fairfield, but Robert was very safe and went slow, steering us to a place to stay. But it was scary to feel the wind, and looking out the windows at the wind machines whirling, I realized: don’t drive towards a wind farm, full stop.
By the time we made Fairfield, the front brake now SCREAMING at us, things were not going well. I felt increasingly worse by the minute, and Robert was panicked about the Bus, and we were both exhausted. I fell into a sort of panic I can only describe as Post-Covid-Stress-Disorder. In a normal year, getting sick on a trip would suck, but it wouldn’t be a cause for a major hell storm of anxiety. But 2020 was not a normal year, and I was suddenly worried—what about the 95% effectiveness? What if I had eluded this virus thus far, and now my time had run out? We bought a thermometer, but I had no fever, but I felt terrible. Driving in circles after checking into the hotel, looking for somewhere to eat, I actually felt delirious. If I did somehow have Covid, or even a flu, what should we do? Should we turn back? Could we risk exposing my 90 year old father with serious health problems to any illness? By now Robert’s repeated exhortations that it was only my allergies were less believable. I was sick, I was in a state of exhaustion and anxiety, and now my nose was running like a faucet. I passed a sleepless night coughing, blowing my nose, and basically falling apart.
We went to bed and hoped for the best, and even though I was worried about being sick, and Robert was worried about me and the Bus, it was a comfort to know that we had each other.