In spite of the fact that we could have continued traveling south along 101, we decided to take the quickest route to the desert. From our overnight at Camp Roberts we turned east at Paso Robles toward the dreaded Interstate 5. For the first time, the central coast was thick with dirty air, something I had never seen in this area, and as we continued east toward the Great Valley, the pollution got worse.
Highway 46 was busy with traffic, and a surprising number of RV’s were headed west. The landscape was dramatic in it’s lack of drama. The annual grasses of the California grassland zone were shades of tan and gray, with nothing to punctuate the hills except a few cattle here and there. With the brown tinge to the air, it made the grasslands all the more drab.
Ugly is relative, however, and when we reached the Lost Hills area just west of the I-5 onramp, we saw landscapes that were impressive in their ugliness. The alkali flats west of Bakersfield would be bad enough without man’s intervention, but the forest of oil wells made it breathtakingly ugly. I felt a bit guilty complaining about the ugliness while I rolled through it in an RV sucking gasoline. How to reconcile that disconnect? I haven’t a clue. I hate what oil does to our country, the wars fought over it, the landscapes destroyed by it, but I love my RV and the freedom to travel. Hypocritical as heck, but I probably won’t stop traveling!
Once on the five, the pavement again deteriorated while the air pollution got worse as we approached the Grapevine. I reminisced with Mo about the days back in the 50’s when my family would leave Duarte at 2 am to drive the Grapevine when it was truly a grapevine of curves and steep hills, traveling north on Highway 99 for our annual camping trip to Yosemite. Good memories! I also remember driving the “new” Grapevine in my Volkswagen bus as a brand new driver scared to death and surrounded on all sides by semis. It was the same today, semis on all sides.
We took a quick exit off the highway for signs claiming “fresh sweet oranges” and the small family farm store and petting zoo. The Murray Farm had 20 varieties of citrus, all from their own groves, and the navels were just in. The owner said that they were six weeks late this year. There was a cooler with samples for all varieties including Meyer lemons and a very strange looking fruit called Buddha’s Hand, actually citron. I had no clue that the stuff in fruit cakes came from something that was this strange. I settled for a six buck bag of incredibly sweet navel oranges and we were again on our way.
As we climbed the grade, the smog began to thin a bit, and we were spared the worst of it by turning east on Highway 138, a direct road to the desert and the town of Lancaster. I lived in Lancaster in the 60’s, for just a few months, and for the life of me I couldn’t find a single thing that looked familiar. This sleepy town that once was barely 50,000 has now exploded to a strip mall metropolis of more than 150,000 people.
We thought about boondocking somewhere, but the landscape was broken up by private “ranchette’s”, and we didn’t have a BLM map with us. I pulled up the AllStays web site and began searching for campgrounds. There are surprisingly few places to camp in this area, but we found a state park due east about 17 miles from town and decided that 18 bucks for a dry campsite would be a close second to camping for free somewhere in the desert, and probably safer.
It was a great choice. Saddleback Butte State Park campground was completely empty except for a camp host. The park had shelters for the picnic tables, fire pits, water available, and even a dump station. We chose a spot near the northern part of the park, farthest from the camp host ( whom we never saw) and settled in.
An evening walk before sunset was perfectly quiet and we found beautiful Joshua Trees bigger than any we have seen. The park is a haven for desert wildlife, including the desert tortoise, various snakes and rodents, coyotes and even mountain lions. As night fell, the silence was perfect, the skies dark with a new moon, and the stars were brilliant. I brought some soup from home that made a perfectly simple supper and we settled into to complete darkness and silence for our first night in the desert.
For the rest of the photos, including several shots of the Saddleback Butte campground, click here.