Roadtrip, weather or not.

If you would like the short version of this blog entry, here it is:  500 miles later, I’m back at home base.

But there’s so much more to it than that.  The day started beautifully in the best fashion of southern California, with a light summer fog in the air that was quickly giving way to sunny skies and views of green desert hills.  I opened up the car windows and sped over to meet Uwe for breakfast in Orange at 8 a.m. We talked for over an hour, sitting at one of the outside tables at the Watson Drug & Soda Fountain, watching as very fit-looking men in blue Fire Dept. t-shirts ran around the block a few times.  The second time they came by I felt like getting up and joining them (and I don’t run, that’s how inspiring the morning was), but then I came to my senses and tucked into the waffle I’d ordered.  Extra maple syrup, please, I’m going to have a long day.

After dropping Uwe off at his shop, I automatically headed east on CA-91 toward Riverside, but a few minutes into the trip I realized that I didn’t really want to rush back into the desert heat.  It was still gorgeous where I was, near the coast, and it seemed a shame to have to close up the windows and turn on the air conditioner.  I’ve been doing that all summer.  So I took a right onto the Rt 241 toll road instead, with the vague plan of enjoying a scenic route along the California coast all the way to San Diego.

This turned out to be a bonus.  Being a toll road, Rt 241 is lightly traveled, and it rises up dramatically into the hills on smooth new pavement.  The toll charge of $5.25 was well worth it for this driving experience — at least once — and after about half an hour I was dropped off at I-5 in the traffic south of Irvine.

Nearer the coast, the way became foggy and even cooler, to the point that I eventually rolled up the windows just to stay warm.  Listening to the radio and distracted by scenery (I took a quick stop at San Onofre State Beach), it wasn’t until I was well into the Camp Pendleton area that I realized I hadn’t gotten gas, and now the car was running drastically low.  I exited I-5 at the first opportunity south of Pendleton to fill up and consider exactly what I was doing heading toward San Diego.  This plan wasn’t making a ton of sense.  Here I was, eighty miles from my starting point and still only a few hundred yards from the Pacific Ocean.

Well, I had all day, so what the heck.  I don’t get to just wander around aimlessly very often (or at least, not often enough).  Despite appearances, my travel usually has a definite purpose.  Besides, it had warmed up a bit, and that meant I could I roll down the windows again for a few minutes before the upcoming plunge into the desert heat.

Only a few minutes later, I picked up I-805, and then finally I-8 to head eastward for the next 300 miles or so. The road climbs out of the San Diego area, through La Mesa and El Cajon, past the inevitable & lonely Indian casino, and up to 4,000 feet over the portion of I-8 known as the Kumeyaay Freeway. This is a beautiful stony scenic area through the Cleveland National Forest, followed by a long descent right back down to sea level through a series of fantastic twists to the flat desert floor near Ocotillo.  At that point there’s little remaining to see, and the speed limit opens up to 70 MPH.  As I traversed this part I had to fight the urge to hang a left onto Rt 79 and drive the road up toward Julian — there just wasn’t time for that detour.

As I left the San Diego area I was watching the temperatures climb and the landscape grow steadily more arid.  By Ocotillo, it was a rousing 113 degrees and only Mexican stations could be picked up on FM.  I tried to remember that only a couple of hours earlier I was freezing in the cool fog of coastal California, but it seemed to be only an impossible dream.

I-8 runs tightly to the border from here all the way to Yuma, tediously straight most of the way, and there aren’t many places to stop for a cold one.  Fortunately, I had a cooler full of drinks and lots of calls to make.  For a long portion of this road you are south of the Salton Sea and below sea level.  The highway gets pinched between canals (like the one that formed the Salton Sea) and the fences along the US-Mexico border.  Then there’s the Imperial Sand Dunes, and then you’re seeing another Indian casino and the AZ border at Yuma, followed shortly by the welcome increase in speed limit to 75 MPH.

Somehow I managed to completely overlook Dateland (AZ), which is a great place to try a date shake and pick up fuel.  Not much else.  Having missed that opportunity, I paused in Gila Bend instead, where it was still 106 degrees under a cloudy sky.  Thunderstorms were threatening in the distance, and I knew at that point I was going to have an exciting end to my trip whether I wanted it or not.

Five miles later, the temperature plummeted 20 degrees, and for the rest of I-8 was buffeted by winds and sprinkled by the remnants of thunderstorms.  Lightning was everywhere to the east and south.  By the time I reached the end of I-8 where it merges with I-10 near Eloy, the rain was occasionally torrential, the desert was puddled with water, and kamikaze tumbleweeds were blowing across the road.  I clipped one with the right wheels and saw the tumbleweed explode into a thousand dry match sticks in my rear view mirror.

The weather was getting seriously threatening. I stopped to check weather radar on the iPhone at a gas station, and the gas station turned out to be closed for lack of electricity.  I saw one serious accident with police & rescue on the scene (two cars in the median, heavy damage), then another a few miles later.  Brief sections of the road were flooded a few inches, and the radio was filled with warnings about dust storms and lightning.  I had that feeling again — was it really only an hour or two ago that I was blinking in the burning sun at a rest area and marveling at 113 dessicating degrees?

Finally, Tucson: 72 degrees in light rain, wind blowing, flashes of lightning over the Rincons, carport half flooded.  Whatever.  It didn’t matter if it was snowing, I was home.  Time for laundry, dinner, and a few days of catchup.  It’s nice to be back, but the trip was so great that I’m wondering if I shouldn’t zip out for a roadtrip somewhere again this week.  I have only seven days before my TBM license expires.  Hmm… what next?

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Editor & Publisher of Airstream Life magazine