The Fantastic, Fatalistic Uncertainty of a Road Trip
Route 14 near Red Rock Canyon State Park, CA - Photo Credit: Scott Carnahan
The furious wind whips the car across the lane dividers. Back and forth, buffeting it around the road like a cat with a mouse. The treacherous conditions were made all the worse by flurries in the night sky, bringing with it darkness barely pierced by weather-worn headlights… as well as an onslaught of 18-wheelers, all desperate to drive through the night from Las Vegas to San Francisco and points beyond before the snow shut down the mountain passes through the Sierras.
Too late. The storm had come to Tehachapi, and with it a blanket of icy obstruction laid across the lone mountain pass connecting Barstow to Bakersfield. A long line of brake lights stretch for miles up Route 58 as emergency vehicles deliver the bad news, grinding traffic to a halt as committed commuters have no choice but to wait and see if the pass will re-open. Circling around to the South is no longer an option either - the same storm just hit the Grapevine hard enough to shut down Route 5 as well.
Running out of options. Las Vegas, too far in the rearview mirror past snow-covered Joshua Trees to turn around and head back. Los Angeles was only 2 hours away, but who to reach out to late on a Monday evening, in the middle of one of the pandemic’s worst hotspots who could (or would) put up 3 for the night? Roadside motels in the area were jacking up their rates, and still filling their rooms regardless as motorists came to similar conclusions regarding their available choices for the evening. There was a real sense of urgency in the air, as this storm was only a precursor to an even worse one set to hit the area early the following morning. He who hesitates is lost.
Red Rock Canyon State Park, CA - Photo Credit: Scott Carnahan
Pulled over onto a narrow shoulder, 80mph gusts of wind threatening to blow the tiny sedan clear off the road, six eyes on the map desperately scanning for an alternate route - one path loomed as the only viable choice. If we wanted to make it to San Francisco, we’d have to detour north on 14 through Red Rock, over to 178 to cross the Sierras through the southern portion of Sequoia National Forest before eventually linking up with route 5 in Bakersfield. This route through Walker Pass would tack on nearly 3 hours to the trip, but it appeared to be the only way to cross these mountains through the wrath of winter.
But how does one know how the road conditions in this pass will be? Will we need snow chains - and if so, where can we get them at this hour? Will there be even more black ice, a dangerous phenomenon made all the more terrifying when factoring in these extreme wind gusts? Is the road even open at all with this storm front blowing through? What about rockslides and mudslides? So many variables to consider, but so few viable options to weigh this decision against - and precious little information available from CalTrans or anywhere else online. With much trepidation, the dice were rolled and the decision was made - Walker Pass, here we come.
Red Rock Canyon State Park, CA - Photo Credit: Scott Carnahan
…And it was amazing! It was the perfect solution - the mountains blocked much of the severe winds, the snow was light and non-threatening, black ice was relatively non-existent, and traffic was much less of a factor than anticipated on such small two-lane roads. Route 14 took us directly through Red Rock Canyon State Park - not even the night sky could obscure the otherworldliness of this craggy barren hillscape. The turnoff onto Route 178 led us through a wide canyon buttressed by majestic Sequoias and towering cliffs on either side. Lake Isabella glittered in the near-full moonlight. The road then hugged one side of Kern River Canyon, thousands of feet above sea level with a birds-eye view into the depths below. The descent down from the mountains, the home stretch, all gentle switchback curves carrying us back to (relative) civilization.
It was safe, it was faster than anticipated, and it got us where we needed to go - all while making itself evident as one of the most beautiful routes in the state. Rather than lament the extra time it took us on our journey home, we instead were excited to travel this route for the first time, and immediately began planning a return trip in the daylight so we could see all of these incredible vistas unobscured by monochrome darkness. With so much incredible wilderness across the country to explore, sometimes it takes a happy accident such as this to determine how to prioritize your outdoor trips for the future.
Sequoia National Forest: Kern County, CA - Photo Credit: Scott Carnahan
And this, in essence, is what a road trip is all about. Too often we get wrapped up in where we’ll end up and what we’ll be doing when we arrive. But half the enjoyment to be found in outdoor adventure is the journey to get there. All the planning in the world won’t save you from the occasional surprise turn of events, and one of the true meanings of life can be found in how you react to these eventualities. This sentiment is distilled down to its purest essence with outdoor adventure as a whole - trials and tribulations not just at your destination, but on the path to get there as well. Next time you’re planning a trip to go camping, hiking, or anything else outdoors - take the scenic route.
If you’re all about the destination, then take a fucking flight. We’re going nowhere slowly but we’re seeing all the sights.
And we’re definitely going to hell, but we’ll have all the best stories to tell.
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