“Afoot and lighthearted, I take to the open road.
Healthy, free, the world before me,
The long brown path before me leading wherever I choose.”
~Walt Whitman, Song of the Open Road
The original plan was to fly.
In the perfect world scenario that had played in my mind, our bags would be packed, and Herb and I would head to the airport as soon as we heard that our daughter was on her way to the hospital. We would catch one of the numerous one-hour flights to San Francisco, pick up a rental car and arrive just in time for the birth of our first grandchild. It was a glorious ideal that my imagination had concocted – easy, effortless and incredibly exciting.
But then along came Covid-19, and the world seemed to change in an instant. Emily’s hospital had sprung into action, creating new rules that would keep patients as safe as possible. Visitors would not be allowed – not even grandparents. Her husband could be with her, but he had to remain in the hospital until she was discharged. Suddenly it seemed safer for us to drive rather than fly, especially since we now wouldn’t be trying to beat an unpredictable delivery clock.
This was not going to be a road trip in the quintessential sense of the word. We weren’t seeking out the world’s largest ball of string or heading down Route 66 on a carefree summer day. Instead, we were attempting to make the eight-hour drive from San Diego to San Francisco as quickly and smoothly as possible. It felt as if we were twirling the spinner on The Game of Life board, crossing our fingers that we wouldn’t lose a turn or be sent back a couple of spaces.
Getting Ready for the Road
It had been more than twenty years since we’d traveled the roadways between Northern and Southern California. We lived in the Bay Area when our kids were growing up and made annual treks to Disneyland as well as other family-friendly destinations. At that time, I was more focused on plotting a strategy for maneuvering the park’s ride lines rather than figuring out driving routes and traffic patterns. And the excited back seat chatter about where we were headed was far more interesting to me than what was passing by my window!
This journey would be a time-travel in reverse, taking us north along Interstate Highway 5 through Los Angeles and into Central California’s San Joaquin Valley. The I-5 is clearly not the scenic route between Southern and Northern California. That would be US-101 and California Highway 1, roadways that weave in and out along the coast, brimming with wonderful stops from Santa Barbara to Hearst Castle to Monterey. It’s a perfect road trip if you have several days. And if said wonderful stops were open for business as usual.
If this were another time, we wouldn’t have given much thought about where to stop along the way. But this is the time of Covid-19, when planning and preparation take on new meaning for even the briefest of trips. We armed ourselves with a bag of extra face masks, disposable gloves, antiseptic wipes and even a roll of toilet paper, just in case a rest stop wasn’t well stocked. I baked banana bread – a weekly ritual since the quarantine began – and packed a cooler with sandwiches for lunch on the road. And we checked out available rest areas on California’s helpful state website.
The trickiest part of a road trip in Southern California is getting through LA’s never-ending traffic maze. Herb laughingly refers to timing our drives as “playing the LA traffic lottery.” But one of the signs of these pandemic times is an ease in getting around. We were surprised by the uneventfulness of our drive, especially on a Monday morning.
As we headed along 1-5 just north of LA, the colorful steel loops and serpentine tracks of Six Flags Magic Mountain roller coasters appeared on our left, an empty, silent silhouette against the bright summer sky. Rolling golden hills dotted with specks of green lined both sides of the road as our car gradually climbed upward through the mountain pass. We shared the road with semi-trucks, a handful of RVs and cars pulling camper trailers. Travelers like us, it seemed, were few and far between.
Although officially known as Tejon Pass, this 40-mile stretch of road between the southwestern end of the Tehachapi Mountains and northeastern San Emigdio Mountains is referred to as “The Grapevine.” In actuality, Grapevine is an unincorporated community at the southern end of the San Joaquin Valley. The Los Angeles Times describes the road as “the heart of California’s freeway system” and explains its etymology:
“Given the curvy nature of the Ridge Route, it’s not surprising that many think that the curlicues — like the tendrils of a grape plant — inspired the Grapevine name. But it actually arises from the fact that in 1772, the Spanish soldier and explorer Don Pedro Fages found thickets of wild grapevines in a canyon there and named it Cañada de las Uvas, or Grapevine Canyon.”
~Los Angeles Times, December 28, 2019
San Joaquin Valley
After reaching the highest point of Tejon Pass at 4144 feet, the road gradually descends into the San Joaquin Valley, a rich agricultural landscape of orchards and farmlands. From walnuts and almonds to oranges and tangerines, the Valley is responsible for more than 12 percent of the United States’ agricultural production. We passed lovely vineyards, bountiful groves lined with perfectly symmetrical trees and produce trucks piled high with garlic bulbs and bright red tomatoes.
We stopped for gas and a break at the clean and uncrowded Buttonwillow Rest Stop and opened our cooler to enjoy lunch as we drove. Before leaving the Valley, we made a final stop at a McDonald’s – also clean and uncrowded – just off the Interstate and bought ice cream cones at the drive-through.
No “Little Cable Cars That Climb Halfway to the Stars”
After seven-and-a-half hours on the road, we arrived at the Parker Guest House, our San Francisco lodging for the week. The Parker’s General Manager Michelle greeted us at the outside gate and explained the new protocol before we checked in. The charming bed and breakfast has been our go-to place to stay near our daughter, and from what we could tell from a phone call with Michelle, it seemed that a solid Covid-19 prevention plan was in place. What we didn’t realized was just how solid the plan was.
It turned out that we were the only guests in the main house. Several people were staying in the house next door, and guests were required to use the kitchen and living areas in their assigned building. Michelle told us that she was actually discouraging tourists from booking rooms right now.
“Most of our guests are here for personal reasons such as family or medical. For tourists, there isn’t much to see or do. When one visitor asked me for brochures and sightseeing recommendations, I had to explain that everything is closed – even the cable cars.”
Making the Best of the “New Normal”
Despite the restrictions, Michelle and her husband went out of their way to make our stay wonderfully comfortable. They gave us access to the Parker’s garage and opened a small guest room down the hall where Herb could work if he needed to make calls or wanted a quiet spot to write. On the first night, Michelle texted that the fireplace was on and that we would be the only ones in the living room if we wanted a change of scenery.
The Parker’s late afternoon wine and snack service was still offered. But instead of serving ourselves in the living room, Michelle brought a us a tray with pre-poured glasses and cheese and crackers secured with plastic wrap. The typical “help yourself to breakfast” in the kitchen was also modified, with everything individually wrapped – from fruit in mason jars to muffins and breads. We wore our masks in the public spaces but were able to enjoy a mask-free breakfast by ourselves in the sunroom overlooking the garden. In a way, it felt as if we were staying in a private home.
The Main Event
The week with our new grandson was sheer deliciousness. A familiar feeling swept over me the first time I held him, an instantaneous memory of having a baby in my arms. Time seemed to melt away as the days revolved around his newborn schedule. Herb and I cooked and tidied up and helped with whatever the new parents needed. It was a precious, fleeting time we wouldn’t have missed, no matter how many pandemic precautionary roadblocks we had to navigate.
And as with all joy-filled travel, the hardest part was saying goodbye.