Heading East

If not for Lowell George, Tehachapi only would be famous for its state penal institution

There’ll be no Tucson, no Tucumcari, and I think we can cross Tonapah off the list on this beeline drive.

We’ll have to be satisfied with Tehachapi. Four thousand feet up in the mountains of the same name, Tehachapi is third of four stops in the refrain of Willin’, Lowell George’s timeless, wistful trucker’s anthem. It has trees taller than Max, however, so it passes for an oasis between dusty Bakersfield and the desert bleakness of Barstow.

As the sign says, Tehachapi is noted for its state penal institution. We’ve passed two state correctional facilities in the past 70 miles, offering a stark reminder that prisons rank at the top of American growth industries.

Out here in the middle of nowhere, they got almond trees by the million and nearly as many inmates. They even got Starbucks, too, to borrow once more from the grist-and-guts poetry of James McMurtry.

Agribusiness, prisons and Starbucks. What else you need?

After 10 days of loitering about the Bay Area and then breaking out for a breathtaking if harrowing trip down the Big Sur coastline in our unwieldy behemoth, we’re heading east with belated dispatch. My sister Debbie, whom Max knows as a walking, talking, 12-months-a-year Santa Claus, is embarking on a grueling battle against cancer. She has her first surgery Friday at the University of Pennsylvania hospital.

Suffice it to say, Max is in a hurry to get to Pennsylvania. Not being familiar with the rudiments of cross-country geography, he has high hopes we’ll be there tonight.

“Nana and Didi’s!” he said after our first stop, 68 miles east of Paso Robles, where California 46 meets Interstate 5. “No more stops!”

And we were still roughly 2,750 miles away.

Follows is a verbose, ill-considered snapshot of things we’ll see only in passing in our hell-bent-for-Philadelphia excursion:

About 56 miles in, we pass James Dean’s last stop prior to the untimely death that nonetheless cemented his legend. East of Blackwell’s Corner, the landscape changes in dramatic ways. Flaxen, rippling hills give way to a sea of flatness, giant farms with their army of migrant workers, vast skies and sizzling heat. And we’re still 50 miles west of Bakersfield.

Wires stretch overhead on old-fashioned “T” telephone poles, fostering the fleeting illusion that you might just past James Dean on his way to immortality. The vineyards have vanished with the muscular hills to the west, giving way to orange orchards, taco trucks and oil fields.

Our first stop is your typical 21st  century American dusty crossroads, all tricked out in adobe corporate. You got your veritable franchise buffet to sample from: Carl’s Junior. McDonald’s. Taco Bell. Jack in the Box.

Pilot, Love’s, Valero, Arco, Chevron. They’re all here, too. The flatness takes on a profound quality, and the sky drapes low over head, dangling fat clouds that seem just out of reach. The architecture features a low-slung angularity that matches the sere landscape.

Did I leave out Arby’s? Shell? Mobil, God forbid.

Palm trees rise up amid the concrete desert, standing mute as hulking 18-wheelers lumber by on their journesy east and west. If you buy two tins of Skoal or Copenhagen here, you’ll save 50 cents.


Before I forget, Becky reports overhearing this snatch of conversation this morning at the Paso Robles Walmart.

Three middle aged men, none of them suffering from malnutrition. One of them offers the following nugget of homespun wisdom:

“You know why these 99 Percent people are protesting? They don’t want to pay back their college loans. What do these doctors and lawyers want?”

If you see a doctor or lawyer out on the streets of America protesting their good fortune, you might ask them just what the fuck it is they want.


Thirty-one miles east, we stop again to top off the tank and visit the restroom. Outside the door, a tepid cover of Joni Mitchell classic “Big Yellow Taxi” drones on without apparent irony:

Don’t it always seem to go, that you don’t know what you got till it’s gone. Pave paradise, put up a parking lot.”

Lester is sleeping on the upper bunk, unawares of the change in climate and geology wrought by 68 miles. William Least Heat-Moon would have something instructive, even poetic, to say about the glacial work of the centuries, but I am a child on the road, noticing only broad outlines and fat shapes.

Laid-back feline traverses the country in apparent comfort.

I know nothing, therefore I pontificate freely.

Total spent so far in gas this morning: $45.03.

At the current petroleum usage, which varies according to whether we’re humming along at 55 mph on flat ground or lumbering up mountains at 39 mph, we’ll guzzle down 210 gallons in this haphazard race eastward, which at an average price of $3.85 per gallon will run up a tab of $814.42.

At the Flying J, maybe 15-20 miles west of Bakersfield we drop in another 2.282 gallons at $3.699, for a total of $8.44.

Inside the Flying J/Subway/Denny megaplex here, I eavesdrop on cowboy couple’s conversation with grandson Jackson.

Is there anything so universally hopeful and decent in the human character as a grandparent’s love for his or her grandchild?

Grandpa sports a silver belt buckle, bulbous nose, cowboy hat with brim bent upward on the sides, red-white-and blue suspenders that clash with the vertical stripes on his button-down shirt, pressed Wranglers, and, last but not least, white Air Jordans.

“It’s Papa, Jackson. I love you,” he says in squeaky voice, one that soundsl as if it might’ve been sapped of strength by throat cancer. “I have to give you to grandma now, I can’t hear very well.”

But he’s got a huge smile that tickles the corners of his crinkled eyes as he hands the silver cell phone off to grandma.

Jackson is going to be a big pumpkin for Halloween.

At least that’s what he tells granny, who says “I love you big as the sky! I love you big as the sky, Jackson!” as she stands in line with Gatorade and chocolate bars.

As for Grandpa, he coulda been the biggest bastard in his younger years, coulda could’ve ground down his employees to a barely living nub, coulda beaten his his suffering wife and cheated on her with $25-and-hour prostitutes. Coulda been a miserable overlord to his own children, but give him a 2-year-old grandson named Jackson, and he’s a contender for the Nobel Peace Prize.

Ah the humanity!

We ready to pull out, amid the ceaseless whine, rumble and roar and the brake-release whooshes of semi trucks pulling in, pulling out,  or idling while drivers get free meals at Subway.

We blow right on past Bakersfield, waving at Merle Haggard Drive and thinking wistfully of Buck Owens Boulevard in Bakersfield, where we drove around in the twilight looking for a motel room two years ago. Max delighted in a new game, “The light is geen,” he’d say in his exuberant 2-year-old malaprop, raising his hands skyward. “Cross the street! The light is geen.”

We eventually found a room at the Roadrunner, $26 for one person. Becky feigned being that one person and secured us a room. We parked near the back stairs and slipped up into our room, all three of us. Sneaky bastards.

We are, after all, the kind of people who would kill themselves to save a dollar. Or at least spend $1.50 to $1. We sneaked into Costco for years just to gain access to the $1.35 mocha and latte freezes. They after all, the best deal around, Becky avers.

We’ll we still got more than 2,650 miles to Philadelphia, and my computer is about to die. Where have all the McDonald’s with outlets gone?

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