A Glimpse of the American West
Written by Brett Weiss
I hit the road out of Tucson in search of the Pacific Coast and the true American West. Well, perhaps not exactly; but the road trip did not disappoint and left an imprint of the West on my psyche. In reality, I needed to deliver a car to my sister who just moved to Olympia, Washington. I suppose I was looking for a reason to leave Tucson during the summer months with 100+ degree high temperatures. At any rate, I agreed with other members of my family to drive the car up there alone. I prefer taking road trips like this on my own as I believe that one may not genuinely absorb the surrounding landscapes and cultural influences along the way unless one travels alone. Aside from that, I talked to no one in Tucson who had time or desire to make the journey with me.
The anticipation of starting the journey built up a few nights before leaving that early August morning. Restlessness and interrupted sleep ensued as the excitement of impending travel built up. The night before leaving, I hardly slept a wink and decided to head out around 3:30 AM. When 5:00 AM rolled around, I found myself passing through Phoenix, Arizona along Interstate 10. The sun came up around 5:30 AM; and I stopped in Goodyear, Arizona for gas and took some pictures. I knew then that the great expanse of desert in western Arizona awaited me. With a history of working in plant sciences in an academic setting, I had already learned a thing or two about how the desert changes as one heads to the western part of Arizona away from the ‘green desert’ near Tucson. I looked forward to seeing the vast horizons of creosote bushes along with saguaro cacti that get shorter and thinner as one moves to the hotter and drier desert of western Arizona.
I stopped at a rest stop about 40 miles west of Goodyear, Arizona to take pictures which would illustrate the changing desert cacti and plants. Further down the road came Quartzite. The town of Quartzite has abandoned mines and a current day population of about 3,700 people. This desert outpost sits about 20 miles east of the Colorado River in La Paz County and used to have a waterhole and stage station. In 1875, Martha Summerhayes described the area in her book Vanished Arizona calling it “…melancholy and uninviting. It reeks of everything unclean, morally and physically.” Twenty miles further down the road came a Border Patrol checkpoint just after crossing the Colorado River to California. The Border Patrol checkpoint presented me with no problems really as the agent said, “You’re good,” and waved me through. After the Border Patrol checkpoint came Blythe, California.
No saguaro cacti whatsoever exist in the state of California. I saw a few small saguaro cacti (relative to Tucson saguaro standards) in the terrain surrounding Quartzite twenty miles east; however, once one crosses the Colorado River, saguaros do not grow — a curious phenomenon. Instead, beige colored sand along with ocotillos and more creosote bushes stretch across the horizon in southeastern California. In the Mojave Desert of Southern California, I would occasionally cross canals that carry drinking water and water for irrigation. I passed large fields of cotton, alfalfa, melons, and vegetables in the desert west of Blythe.
I stopped for gas near Coachella, California and checked my phone. The temperature was around 105 degrees with a high that day of 119. The tall, majestic mountains around Coachella and the Mojave Desert give an appearance as if the fault lines of the area are less stable than those of the Tucson area in southern Arizona. Not far west of Coachella came Palm Springs, which abounds with towering wind turbines. A very tall mountain, San Jacinto Peak, lies west of Palm Springs at a height of 10,834 feet. Throughout much of the year, the peak has snow on it; however, I saw none when I passed in early August.
I passed through Palm Springs going a few miles over the speed limit of 65 MPH for a few hours. Along the highway of bright sand and sunny skies I drove until I reached the outskirts of west Los Angeles. Here, I stopped for gas in Redlands, California. I couldn’t help but notice the striking San Gabriel Mountains to the north. The San Gabriel Mountain Range lies northeast of Los Angeles. After filling up with gas near Redlands University, I struck out on Interstate 10 again heading west to Highway 101. I drove through this area around 2 PM in the afternoon on a Monday and got caught in heavy traffic to my surprise. I got off at an exit and took Highway 210 to Highway 134 and then to Highway 101. I drove through Pasadena at a snail’s pace it seemed. At one point, I drove through the foothills of the San Gabriel Mountains and could see the entirety of the Los Angeles skyline. The traffic speed picked up by the time I went through North Hollywood and Calabasas. I went through Camarillo, a beautiful city a bit inland from the coast. When I hit Ventura, I finally saw and drove along the ocean!
I saw the Ventura Pier, which I consider one of the most spectacular piers I’ve seen along the coast. Driving from Ventura to Santa Barbara, I found a magnificent radio station called ‘the Pirate,’ which played a mixture of classic rock hits. A song called “Spill the Wine” by the band War came on some 10 miles up the coast from Ventura, and I felt a rush of excitement. The beauty of the California Coast coupled with good music on the radio made for excellent driving conditions. Santa Barbara came with beauty unimaginable, superb coastline, and flowers growing along the roadside that appeared so appealing to the eye that the scene made for sensory overload. I got off 101 at Highway 154, which took me through mountains north of Santa Barbara. Grapes and olives grew in these mountains at ranches and farms along the roadside in some areas. I finally arrived at my destination where I would spend the first night on my way to Washington — Los Alamos, California. The valley that Los Alamos sits in has wonderous beauty, and the bandit that inspired the fictional character ‘Zorro’ used to hide in this valley near Los Alamos.
Following a good night’s sleep, I lit out on Highway 101 North from Los Alamos the next morning. I stopped for gas in a town called Santa Maria where I encountered two people speaking Spanish in the gas station. I understand and speak Spanish conversationally, so I started conversing with them. I spoke proper Spanish using formal words and exercised maximum politeness. I ended up having a five-minute conversation in Spanish with the two, and one of the gentlemen that I had spoken with complimented me on my skill in speaking Spanish. I told them to have a wonderful day and headed out of the store, happy that I had connected with fellow human beings in a foreign language.
Further up the coast, I stopped in Pismo Beach to take some pictures as I realized that this would constitute the last time that I would see the ocean until I reached the state of Washington. I found a spot to park my car and walked to the edge of a cliff overlooking the ocean. So many brown pelicans sat on rocks on cliffs, and flocks covered small islands out in the ocean such that I certainly could not begin to count them all. I got back in the car and drove north of Pismo Beach where I saw the most amazing cliffs I had ever seen. After driving through the cliffs, I approached San Luis Obispo — a stunning community on the central coast of California. Cal Tech, a prominent university, calls San Luis Obispo home. Researchers at Cal Tech have conducted seminal research in neuroscience using fruit flies, and Nobel laureates even hail from Cal Tech. I knew then that my drive had and continued to take me through special areas of the country.
Further up Highway 101 from San Luis Obispo, I found myself in an agricultural area a bit inland from the coast. Farmers grow grapes and olives in that region near San Miguel and San Antonio missions. Large mountains surround valleys with vibrant yellowish colorations to the hillsides. I wanted to stop at the San Antonio Mission; but in order to do so, I would have needed to take an exit that would have taken me on a backroad for 27 miles before reaching the mission. My travel schedule did not allow such a detour; however, I certainly would like to return to this region some day to explore the hills and missions.
I drove through the Salinas Valley, a major agricultural region of the USA. I saw many fields of romaine lettuce with ‘Dole’ corporation signs on them. I drove through Gilroy, which smelled heavily of garlic. Producers sold garlic at shops just off of Highway 101. I continued on to the city of Salinas where I stopped for gas.
Salinas lies northeast of Monterey; and while driving through the Salinas area, I listened to an ‘oldies’ station broadcast from Cannery Row in Monterey. During this period of the drive, I recall the song “She’s Gone” by Hall and Oates coming on the radio. I find it peculiar how certain songs can come on the radio when driving through beautiful surroundings that have a special effect on the driver. At any rate, this song had a special impact on me during that part of the drive. I continued on and saw southbound traffic backed up for miles due to road construction. I felt calm and thankful that I did not drive in the southbound direction.
I came to San Jose and drove through South San Jose and then East San Jose. At Pleasanton, I took Highway 84 to Interstate 580 East. At Tracey, I took Interstate 205 to Interstate 5 North, which took me through Stockton. I would follow Interstate 5 North to Olympia, Washington. I passed through downtown Sacramento and marveled at the skyline. I rode interstate 5 through the Sacramento Valley, where farmers grow tomatoes, rice, corn, almonds, walnuts, plums, peaches, wheat, olives, alfalfa, pears, sunflowers, grapes, kiwi, and hay. Around the exit to Chico, I saw a bright white mountain on the horizon. I speculated that I saw Mount Shasta on the horizon. Sure enough, as I got closer, I saw signs with the distance to Mt. Shasta City and Lake Shasta. I could not believe that the peaks of Mt. Shasta had snow on them at this time in August. The transition from the Sacramento Valley to the Shasta National Forest occurs around Redding. The anticipation of driving close to Mt. Shasta builds for miles as one may see the mountain for about three hours before reaching the base of the peak.
At about 5 PM, I passed through Redding. At around 7 PM, I found myself crossing Lake Shasta on the highway as I neared Mt. Shasta City. Beautiful forest surrounds the lake, and the lake seemed relatively secluded. Around Mt. Shasta City, I pulled off at a rest stop to take pictures. Big, shirtless men with sun-scorched skin walked around the rest stop with water jugs, which indicated to me that they had come from the forest area. I continued on the highway and passed areas where forest had burned in the Hirz Fire of 2018 until I reached the town of Weed, California. I stopped in Weed to get a picture of Shasta from the west. I had done some research on Mt. Shasta before arriving in the area. I had read where the famous conservationist, John Muir, climbed Shasta and got caught in a blizzard near the peak. He would have died in the blizzard had he not found a hot spring to bathe in through the night. Moreover, an Occultist group, the Rosicrucians, believed that a lost village exists on Mt. Shasta inhabited by the Lemurians, a lost civilization. This mountain remains an epicenter of New Age lore.
I started getting tired and realized that I needed to continue on the highway to arrive at my destination for the night for a good night’s sleep. I continued as I knew Medford, Oregon lied about an hour and a half up the road. When I passed through Yreka, California close to the border with Oregon, I noticed a sign on a building near the highway which read “State of Jefferson.” I did some research after the trip and discovered that the people of that region consider Yreka, California the capitol of their state. The people who consider themselves a part of the “State of Jefferson” wish to secede from the state of California. I had an eerie feeling while I drove that I was driving through a sort of ‘no man’s land’ with very little traffic around me on the highway. I finally went down a very long escarpment with about a 15% grade to the slope for about eight miles. When I got down this long slope, I found myself in the state of Oregon. About 30 miles up the road, I arrived in Medford, Oregon at my hotel where I got a much-needed rest and sleep.
I set out the next day through rugged terrain and dense forest in Oregon, traveling through Grant’s Pass where I stopped for coffee. Further through the forest and mountains, I arrived in Eugene, home of the University of Oregon and the famous runner, Steve Prefontaine. I pulled off into Eugene to get a glimpse of the community. I saw many runners jogging along trails in the southern part of the town. For the life of me, I could not find a decent gas station where I could fill up in Eugene. I continued up Interstate 5 to find a gas station; and shortly after passing Eugene, I left the forest and entered some sort of valley. I stopped for gas just south of Portland.
I drove through the city of Portland and downtown Portland, which I did not realize lies on a waterfront (I suppose I should have known with the word ‘port’ in the name of the city). The downtown area of Portland is larger than I had expected and has many large buildings. Overall, the downtown area looks quite nice. I passed over a draw bridge before I entered the state of Washington. If a light before the draw bridge turns red, one must stop or else he/she may get stuck on the bridge as it parts!
I then drove through densely forested Washington and arrived in Olympia at my sister’s new house. Olympia sits southwest of Seattle. For the next few days, I would explore Seattle, Olympia, and surrounding regions.
After helping my sister and her family with various chores associated with getting settled, the next day we traveled to Aberdeen, Washington and the western coast of Washington. We stopped in Aberdeen to look at the memorial park for Kurt Cobain under a bridge where he lived homeless. We travelled south from Aberdeen and stopped in a fishing community that had a nice fisherman’s wharf — Westport. At Westport, I ate fresh cod and clam strips. The food tasted amazing!
The next day, the family and I travelled to Seattle. We parked our cars near the Bremerton Pier and travelled via ferry from Bremerton to Seattle. I extensively enjoyed the ferry ride from the Bremerton area near Puget Sound Naval Yard to the Seattle downtown area. On the way into Seattle via ferry, one may view the stadium that the Seattle Seahawks football team plays to the left of the stadium where the Seattle Mariners baseball team plays. Upon arriving at Seattle downtown area, we walked to the Public Market Center, which had an interesting farmer’s market. My sister purchased a bouquet of flowers. Then, we walked to the original Starbucks location in downtown Seattle, not far from the Public Market Center. The family and I then ate hotdogs from a hotdog stand near the original Starbucks store. After spending the afternoon in the scenic downtown area, we parted on the ferry back to Bremerton. On the way to Bremerton on the ferry, I stepped out onto the rear end of the ferry and got some great pictures of the Seattle skyline. I took pictures of the ‘Space Needle,’ along with the rest of the city.
The day following my visitation to downtown Seattle, I flew from the Seattle-Tacoma Airport to Tucson International Airport. I did see Mt. St. Helen’s from the plane along with Mt. Shasta and the Sierra Nevada Mountains. When I got closer to Tucson by air, I noticed the Grand Canyon below the plane. What a wonderful site!
When I got to Tucson, my mother picked me up at the airport. Along the drive home, I noticed that Tucson traffic does not even compare to the heavy traffic of California and even the Seattle area. I had a great trip and feel glad that I had the opportunity to drive to the Seattle area from Tucson alone. I learned a lot on the trip and saw many sites that I had always wanted to see. I believe that the opportunity to make road trips like this do not present themselves often during one’s lifetime, so if you ever get the opportunity to take a trip like this, please do!