Better late than never... Webmaster, please post this and the 2005 diary on the Tour de California section of the Great Drives page.
Each summer since 1999, with the single exception of 2003, I take several days to drive my NSX over exciting back roads in California. With my tent and sleeping bag in tne trunk, I am able to start my days in some truly remote areas.
In 2003 I did not have the free time for a Tour de California because my family did not make their annual pilgrimage to the grandparents' house in southern France. (That's the only way I can manage two whole weekends off just for driving.)
Furthermore, my air conditioner was still inoperative last summer. In December 2003 I replaced the evaporator, a huge job requiring removal of virtually the entire interior of the car. I had an expert (Don Lam of hilltopautoservice.com) preventatively replace the timing belt, water pump, and water hoses. He also adjusted the valves. In the spring, I put new tires on the car (stock 15/16 inch Yokos), giving me plenty of fresh rubber to leave all over the road and eliminating the need to carry a replacement tire as I had in previous Tours. In summary, my car was as ready for action as it has ever been. Just like Lance Armstrong.
Tour de California 2004 began, as in 2002, on a Friday afternoon. Just Like that time, I packed everything in the morning then took a one-hour nap, awaking refreshed and ready to go. But this time I got caught in the weekend rush hour.
My inability to navigate the back roads of Pleasanton cost me half an hour getting to Mines Road. I really need to get a Pleasanton map and study it for future use.
Anyway, a full hour after my start I finally reached Mines Road and I was on my way. Or so I thought. A few miles later the first of close to 100 signs appeared warning of "Loose Gravel" on the road. Although only a few of the curves actually contained any gravel, it was impossible to see which ones they were. When I hit gravel, the car would slide sideways a inch or two before catching itself. (The NSX is designed so that your best response to a slide is normally to maintain the same steering angle and throttle until the rear tires bite, which they will sooner than you expect.)
So I was forced to travel 20 mph more slowly than usual on Mines Road, negating the fun quotient. Fortunately, Del Puerto Canyon Road was gravel-free, and as entertaining and challenging as ever.
At Patterson (which is gaining population at a prodigious rate), I turned south on I-5 for a not very relaxing 45 minutes. The traffic is just too much for 2 lanes per direction here. I was delighted to exit the freeway at Little Panoche Road (the exit is marked as Shields Ave.) and increase my speed on the empty but dusty 2-lane. The road soon parallels a short bluff on the left, where I saw 20 to 30 hawks soaring. They appeared to be just having fun and trying to impress each other with aerobatics, but I can only imagine what they are really thinking.
Animals have no words with which to form their thoughts, so humans will never be able to truly understand their thinking. Our best chance at such an understanding came with Helen Keller, who existed totally without words for much of her childhood. She was unable later to relate much of anything of that time, because without words one cannot form detailed histories in memory. Non-narrative memories can exist without words, however. Memory for smells (cf. Proust's "A la Recherche du Temps Perdu") is one. Another is memory for places, which we NSX drivers know as: "Even though I've only driven this road once before, I think I remember a killer decreasing radius curve just ahead." Animals rely on such memories to survive, and these memories use a more primitive, wordless part of the brain.
Little Panoche Road winds through scenic, but dry, low hills, then opens into a huge dry grass valley. A few isolated clumps of trees dot this valley, which is easy to identify from the air when flying from Los Angeles to the Bay Area.
Panoche Road runs along the center of the valley. I would normally turn right on Panoche Road, toward Highway 25. This year I decided it was finally time to turn left and explore the long dead-end road to New Idria.
The road to New Idria quickly changes to a single lane (the stripe disappears). A few miles later, it gets even narrower and more uneven: more like a driveway than a road. Despite the scenic arroyo setting, I decided that 18 more miles of driveway plus 18 miles back out, were about 35 miles too much for the NSX and me. So I made that rarest of decisions and left a road unexplored. I must be getting old or something...
Cruising back down this arid canyon, I was grateful to have the air conditioner working this year. My last Tour in 2002 with no A/C was brutally hot.
About 40 quail crossed the road. They are FAST when they finally decide to move, and I have never hit one. Too bad, because they are probably the most edible of potential road kill.
That whole detour took only 20 minutes, after which I continued west on Panoche Road. The road winds over some hills and into another valley. It's patriot country out here, with US flags on driveways and flying from pickup trucks.
Suddenly two good-sized birds flew in front of the car. One swerved upward, the other downward... smack onto the car's nose mask. He blew over the roof and drifted slowly to the pavement in my rear view mirror. The first road kill of the 2004 Tour.
Panoche Road is scenic, and most of it is well-paved, with a great descent through newly constructed sweeping curves. Near the western end is one long straightaway that's good for 120 mph or more very briefly, provided that no other cars are present.
By 7PM I was at Highway 25, turning south on this well-known slice of sports car heaven. The northern portion of Highway 25 has some long straights, one of which was totally empty and over a mile long. I decided to explore the upper limits of 4th gear, and did so without incident. But acceleration is agonizingly slow at high speed, and the road ahead disappears quickly... Several years ago, my car felt floaty above about 120 mph. I later learned that the right front lower A-arm had been bent in a previous encounter with a 4-inch rock. The tire and wheel were completely undamaged, but somehow the suspension bent slightly, making it impossible to align the camber on that side to spec. I replaced the bent A-arm in 2002 with a new part, redesigned for greater strength in the area that bent. Way to go, Honda.
This was my first real test of the replacement part, and the car passed with flying colors: red and black, as it were. The wheels were perfectly balanced and the handling was rock-solid. But I wondered whether the power output was up to spec. I'll have to check that on a dyno some day.
A few miles farther south are superb winding sections, in which you will be hard-pressed to reach the speed limit. The only counterpoint to all this fun is the non-negligible probability of encountering a patrol car. You need to slow for every car you see, which is what I do anyway for the entire Tour. Do that, and you can fully enjoy the incredible beauty of this valley, which lies just to the east of the San Andreas fault.
Some of the Silicon Valley millionaires have noticed this valley too. A few miles south of the San Benito Lateral you can look south and east and see a huge white house tucked into the hillside.
I began to see my car's shadow on the left as the sun, low in the west, found a path over the hills and through the trees.
Then, after 30 minutes that went by all too quickly, I had to turn right on Bitterwater Road toward King City. Bitterwater is not as scenic as 25, but it has one "oh my God" moment when you top the hills and see the entire Salinas Valley in front of you. The coastal range looms in the west on the other side of the flat, flat valley floor. Monterey and the setting sun complete the view to the right. A thin layer of ocean fog was creeping up the valley from the coast. If you look closely at the mountains, you can spot where the Carmel River Valley cuts between the first and second ridgelines.
A mere 10 minutes later I reached King City and refueled at my customary gas station on the edge of town. I put air in tires, which I should have checked much earlier. The fronts needed only 3 psi, but the rears needed 12 (bringing them up to 44 psi, since I allowed 3 psi for heat above the cold spec of 41).
I had my tent in the trunk, planning to camp near the Coast at the little-known Ponderosa campground in Los Padres National Forest. I had attempted to get a reservation at the Hacienda Guest Lodge (http://www.nsxprime.com/FAQ/ownershi...dc/TdC2003.htm), but all the rooms were booked months earlier for a wedding. I took a chance and phoned the Hacienda from the gas station. They had a room for me! Wow, a hot shower and a warm bed, all for $30. Historical beauty in magnificent isolation at sub-Motel 6 prices. This is California's best deal in lodging, bar none.
I hotfooted it down Jolon Road, pronounced "holon" unless you want to sound like a gringo. At the start of Jolon Road, I saw the sunset hitting the hills on the east side of the Salinas Valley. It turned these barren hills orange, making them almost pretty. Almost.
These days all drivers need to show ID, registration, and car insurance papers at the gate of Fort Hunter Liggett. Bring the papers, because they don't have any wat to look up this information online. They give you a paper pass to put on your dash.
I reached the Hacienda at 825 PM, just before the restaurant closed. I got a hot sandwich to take to my room, and I was a very happy non-camper. No need to set up the tent or pack it in the morning, and a much more comfortable place to sleep. Cable TV, too, but I went right to sleep. The "cowboy" rooms here have a shared bath, meaning that you need to be sure to prepare properly before bedtime and not drink too much water. Drinking water before sleeping was how the Indians used to wake themselves for pre-dawn battles. It works all too well.
Availability permitting, for $65 you can get a beautiful room here with its own bath and with carved wood panels that date back to the 1920s. There are only 4 of those (rooms A, B, C, and D) and they are always the first ones taken. Reserve one if you can, and you won't be disappointed.
Day One statistics:
290 miles in 5.5 hours
road kill: one large bird
Saturday morning I awoke at 615 AM, 5 minutes before the alarm would have sounded. Isn't it great when that happens?
After a quick hot shower (that sure beats camping!) I put everything back in the car and was on my way at 645 AM. About 20 quail were crossing the southbound roadway parallel to Mission Road. I decided to check out this road, using the sun as a directional reference. The road goes over a small hill, then turns to cross Mission. It becomes Naciemento Road westbound to the coast. So I was on my way to Highway 1 without even an extra turn!
Nacimiento Road gives you two options to crosses Nacimiento River. The second one is a narrow bridge. The first crossing is a cement slab intended for heavy vehicles, such as armored personnel carriers. Most times of the year, a few inches of water flows over the slab, as you can see in my avatar on NSX Prime. But this summer, the cement slab was high and dry, a good 2 feet above the barely wet stream bed. So I didn't get the free undercarriage wash I had expected.
About this time I realized that I had forgotton to phone my family from the Hacienda. I had intended to do this early in the morning because of the 9-hour time difference to France.
Nacimiento Road winds through yellow grass fields dotted with gigantic live oak trees, the oldest you will see anywhere. The trees have gnarled branches and look spooky even in full daylight. One tree right at the edge of the road is 45 feet high with a 6-foot think trunk. The land here is completely unfenced, with no livestock or other signs of human presence. Stony Valley burned a few years ago, but the vegetation is almost back to its pre-fire state. What a scenic place to practice battles! It's a huge open expanse, with rock outcroppings and an earthen mound concealing a bunker rather well.
With the sun behind me in the east, the countryside here was as pretty as I've ever seen it. If the government ever gets desperate enough to sell this land for homes, I'd like to be one of the buyers.
I was taking in the scenery at a leisurely pace, which worked out fortunately when I saw an oncoming enforcement SUV. They don't see many fast cars here, and I'm sure they ticket them whenever they can. But I've always been lucky.
Once you exit the Fort and enter Los Padres National Forest, you are reasonably safe from patrols. Of course, there is also the fact that it's impossible to drive 55 mph on this road as it winds over the coastal range. Near the top the rising sun cast a shadow of the car on the exposed rock on your left. If you get here less than an hour after dawn, the visual effect is best, but I was about an hour too late for a truly horizontal projection. Nevertheless, the NSX makes quite a nice shadow show.
As I drove up the mountain, I was mulling my route options for the day. I finally settled on Templeton to 229 to 58 to Cerro Noroeste to Lockwood Valley Road to 33 to Ojai. Yes, I really do have the locations of all these roads memorized.
The downhill (western) section of Nacimiento Road is trickier and slower than the uphill side. As any woman knows, gravity can be your enemy. When you are driving, it amplifies any mistakes rather than ameliorating them. Also, on this road the pickup truck drivers cut across the unpaved apexes, leaving dirt spread across many of the curves, making them potentially slippery.
Less than halfway down the hill I entered the cloud layer. This reminded me of driving in the Oakland Hills where I lived for many years. When you are near the top of the cloud layer, the sun is shining on you but your horizontal visibility is limited. After several minutes of descent I finally popped out of the bottom of the clouds and saw the ocean, still about 1000 feet below. The overcast reduced the contrast, making it easy to see many miles both north and south along the coast. It would have made great photos, but my wife had taken the camera with her to France. So you'll just have to use your imagination this year.
The penultimate section of the descent gives the impression that you are coming in for a landing on Highway 1. At one of the corners, I counted 9 quail. I suppose the hawks eat them, but the quail must be more agile than they appear or they would be extinct by now.
I reached Highway 1 at 745 AM. It was totally empty, as I had hoped. The scenery was awesome, the lighting ideal, and the road wide, smooth, and inviting. This is as close to a perfect driving experience as you can have. Sometimes I get up at 4 AM just to reach Carmel by 7 AM and have this road to myself. Staying at the Hacienda is soooo much better than that!
But go ahead and get up at 4 AM if that's your only option. It's worth it, and once you get past the first 5 minutes, you have it made. I get up at 4:45 AM every Monday for my commute by air to LA, so I know what I'm talking about here.
At Nacimiento Road, Highway 1 has a good third gear section, compatible with high rpm.
Right away, I flattened a rabbit, creating vulture food. I thought he would make it under the car successfully, but he must have popped his head up and hit one of my Dali rabbit deflectors.
I passed one of the state campgrounds, totally full as always in the summer. Those poor schmucks pay $15 for a tiny campsite crammed in with dozens of RVs, kids, and noise, noise, noise. They have no idea that 10 miles over the hill are two quiet creekside campgrounds, and that a little further you can pay $30 for a quiet room in the middle of a rural paradise with cable TV and a hot shower. Knowledge is power.
As the turns got tighter, I switched to second gear and left it there. After 23 minutes of intense concentration and fun, the road descends ands flattens out. Just before reaching the Hearst Castle there is a straight section which requires fourth gear. Since some parked cars were present I politely refrained from blowing by them at triple-digit speed.
This section is about 14 miles north of the town of San Simeon. In this case, "town" is a euphemism for a massive collection of motels. As lodging values, those places rank even below the coastal campgrounds. (We NSX owners know how to spot a great value.)
I toyed with the idea of turning around and running Highway 1 again, but decided against it. I had plently of miles ahead, including some great roads. A tough call, to be sure, but I'm getting better at these spur-of-the-moment decisions on the Tour. So onward it was, with no regrets.
South of Cambria, I turned inland on Old Creek Road, which was a delightful country drive until I got stuck behind a horse trailer. Oh well. As I turned inland on Highway 46, the cloud cover broke up. It's no coincidence that this area of the Central Coast is becoming a major wine-producing region.
Vineyard Road north is a favorite of mine, but local traffic will usually slow you down. This time I turned onto Willow Creek Road, which runs parallel to the east of Vineyard Road. It's not as pretty, but the driving is unobstructed.
As I turned left on the newly repaved Peachy Canyon Road, I was struck by just how much money is pouring into this corner of California. There are beautiful gigantic new houses everywhere, and brand-new vineyards all up and down the road. When I first visited this area in 1999, probably only 25% of the farms were growing grapes. Now it's: "Farms? What farms?" I wonder what kind of tax write-off you get for building a mansion within a vineyard. This would have been the place to sink a few extra million dollars in 1999, had I had that kind of money. Still, I wonder who the people are who are moving here. The public schools here can't be all that great, for one thing.
Having driven the excellent Chimney Rock Road last year, I decided to try the just-repaved Adelaida Road this time. (You can find all these roads on AAA's San Luis Obispo County map, which is essential for finding your way through the back roads from the coast to Highway 58.)
Every time I drive Adelaida Road, I find myself stopping at the same spot to take in a panoramic view of a valley in the foreground and the coastal peaks in the distance. A gated entrance leads down the slope to two houses, one of which has a riding corral. The only deficiency of Adelaida Road is that it ends just after this spectacular view, dumping you into Paso Robles.
I skirted the northeastern edge of Paso Robles, which is becoming suburban with some upscale housing. Accurate navigation here requires the Cities of San Luis Obispo County map. I made my way south around the eastern edge of town, joining Creston Road. Crossing 46, I picked up Highway 229.
I chose 229 over the also excellent La Panza Road because I recalled its abrupt rises and dips in close proximity to tight turns. For a passneger, this road would be very much like riding a roller coaster. Pack plastic bags accordingly.
229 was a total blast, even though it is single-lane most of the way. The pavement is perfect, and frequent skid marks bear witness to how this road is being used at night.
Highway 58 is a higher speed version of the same: wide and fast with curves at every turn, so to speak. Then, where 58 crosses a wide valley, the builders of the road didn't bother to smooth out the dips. Your passenger will be reaching for another plastic bag as you wonder whether or not the wheels left the ground at the top of the previous rise.
Traffic on Highway 58 is extremely light, perhaps one car every few minutes. The western section is bordered with trees, but the eastern part is near-desert, passing near a dry lake bed. Then it crosses a final set of barren hills, snaking down into the Central Valley through a spectacular series of high-speed switchbacks.
Highway 58 is the heart of the Tour, the central link in practically any scenic and sprited drive between the San Francisco Area and Los Angeles. This year's southbound route is clost to optimal for a 2-day rapid transit. Check it out on a map and try all or part of it yourself some day, whether this year or many years from now.
Readers may be wondering how I avoid getting traffic tickets on the Tour. The most important factor is selection of the road (empty) and the time (early morning, if the road is not otherwise empty). The second factor is an extension of the principles of road courtesy.
When the road is really, really empty (ideal is 5 minutes or more between encounters) you can afford to slow down to a socially acceptable speed EVERY time you see another vehicle approaching, even from half a mile away. In contrast, if you wait until you can identify the approaching vehicle as belonging to law enforcement, its driver has probably already noticed your speed by then.
The more traffic there is on the road, the slower you need to go. Then, instead of having to slow by 30 mph when you see another car, you might only have to slow by 10 mph.
This is why it's worth getting up early to have the road to yourself. Fortunately, Highway 58 and most of the inland Central Coast roads are quite empty all the time. Oops: except for that squirrel whose hesitation was just fatal. One bird, one rabbit, and one squirrel. The 2004 Tour de California has now set a new record for the number of different flavors of road kill.
As I descended the switchbacks, I realized that I had neglected to change the brake fluid last winter. The fluid had apparently absorbed a fair amount of water from the air (through the rubber hoses), because the brake pedal began to vibrate slightly on the third and fourth successive use of the brakes. You can prevent the problem by taking it easy on the brakes, and it disappears once you let them cool off.
Cruising into Taft about noon I noticed the hazy outline of the eastern Sierra Madre mountains in the distance ahead. That was my next challenge.
But first, I needed to get gas. I stopped at my usual place: the station/convenience store one block off 33 toward the business district. I always seem to meet car enthusiasts there. This time an attractive and well-endowed lady in a pickup asked me why it is that these short cars always seem to have tall owners. I should have told her that I know an owner who is 6' 6"! She said she used to own a lowered Honda, so she probably knew what an NSX was. She took off and a 10-year-old boy came by and ogled the car. Michael Jackson should own an NSX...
Highway 33 is wide and flat, but you need to watch your speed. There is plenty of traffic and the Chippies make frequent appearances. South of Maricopa, 33 climbs a hill and provides a long passing lane, but it's a placebo. There is enough traffic that passing is pointless, especially if you are going to turn at the top of the hill. Spotting the small green sign that marks this turn, I peeled off the back of a line of cars, barely slowing for the 90-degree left onto the empty Cerro Noroeste Road.
The western half of Cerro Noroeste Road winds along the northermost ridge line of the mountains, allowing you to see great distances in both directions. Part of the fun of Cerro Noroeste is that you can also often see several turns ahead. If you run the road at night, you would miss this visual aspect. Besides, you don't want to risk getting a deer in your lap. I already saw one on H58 earlier in the day, in two pieces no less.
The pavement on Cerro Noroeste is a teeny bit bumpy, but I wouldn't have noticed if I hadn't been spoiled by all the glass-smooth pavement since I left Paso Robles.
About 10 miles from Highway 33, large rock formations appear on the north side of the road. Not to get too scatological, they look like lumps of dung piled into towers stacked against the side of the hills. You can't see this very well unless you stop and get out of the car. Erosion has apparently left the harder rock exposed, showing horizontal layering. Except for the color, the rock shapes reminded you a bit of the rock man from the movie "Never Ending Story", which incidentally is fairly sophisticated and very adult-friendly for a kids' movie. I highly recommend it.
Driving along the ridge line, I decided to try to try my luck with radio reception in this remote area. The NSX's radio has a helpful feature for this situation. Press the Auto Select button above the tuning knob, and the radio scans both AM and FM bands. It assigns the 8 strongest stations on each band to the buttons. (Your regular pre-sets can be recovered at any time simply by pressing Auto Select again.) In this case, the radio found only two AM stations of sufficient strength; the other buttons displayed 0 (zero) when I pressed them.
Once you pass the turnoff for Mt. Pinos (that's peen-yose, gringo), local traffic appears and you just have to be patient. Passing through the village of Cuddy Valley, I turned back west on Lockwood Valley Road. This valley road has many straight sections with some curvy parts going over small hills. There are several paved crossings of the dry river bed, so don't try driving here in winter or if it has rained recently. Especially in a car with as little ground clearance as the NSX.
By 130 PM I was back on Highway 33, southbound and ahead of schedule, conserving my energy for Sunday's desert drive. The road passes through a canyon with layered rock outcroppings. The layers are horizontal here, tilted 45 degrees there (perhaps a side view of the same layers?). I've been noticing these formations more since the recent Mars Rover missions.
Highway 33 climbs over another range of mountains. I love driving these roads uphill: it's fast and safe, with excellent visibility. Near the top I encountered an oncoming park patrol truck. Since my speed was less than 55 (limited by physics), I didn't have a thing to worry about.
On the way down, you had better not exceed 55 either. Those laws of physics are self-enforcing.
I didn't stop in Ojai except at every single traffic light in that congested imitation of Berkeley. Farther south at Santa Paula I searched for South Mountain Drive, finally finding it at 12th St, which counterintuitively is accessible from the north side frontage road only. South Mountain Drive is a fine bypass, with no traffic, fun turns, and a great view north across the valley. It's probably even faster than Highway 126, but watch out for that nasty 4-foot-deep ditch on the right.
Although Highway 23 probably would have been better, I tried Balcom Canyon Road south over the 500-foot hills. Pay attention to the well-marked hairpin turns, which are unexpectedly sharp, considering how wide open the rest of the road is.
I turned west on Bradley, which is wide and scenic, lined with citrus orchards. Then, just after 3 PM, it was the end of the fun for the day and the start of urban traffic. I reached Redondo Beach at 5 PM.
Day Two Stats:
470 miles in 10 hours
road kill: one rabbit, one squirrel
On Sunday I woke up early without the alarm (again!) at 645 AM. I spent 20 minutes on the Internet web researching roads and digging through stack of maps to pick my route for the day. I know, I should have done this the evening before...
On the Riverside county map, I found a back road to the village of Sage. So I added that to the end of a planned tour of superb desert roads I've driven before. I knew that the key was to arrive at Mt. Palomar before 10 AM to beat the tourist traffic. All the other roads would be empty regardless of when I showed up.
Leaving Redondo at 645 AM, I reached the Palomar area at 825 AM. At the gas station several sport bikers were preparing for their own Palomar runs. Some of them were equipped with hands-free 2-way radios, presumably for club rides.
I reached the foot of Palomar at 845 AM, all by myself. Yippee! Palomar is a seemingly endless (but actually 7 miles long) series of switchbacks, all of which are challenging and two of which have decreasing radius, making them especially tricky. In the uphill direction, gravity acts as an extra brake for safety, and the drop-off is generally on the other side of the road. So you can really let it rip on the way up.
Incidentally, a hybrid gas/electric NSX successor would not beat a standard NSX up Palomar. Halfway up, the batteries would be dead.
Near the top, I encountered the first civilian vehicle blocking further progress. Since there are no passing zones, I decided to pull a U and go back down for a second run. As I turned around again at the bottom, a dozen or more sport bikers zoomed by on the way up. No way was I going to catch them, even with the air conditioner temporarily turned off...
To have a great run, you should park at the passing zone at the bottom (mile 41 to 41.5). Wait until 5 minutes or more have elapsed since the last car passed you. Sport bikes don't count (you can't catch them) but Harleys do. You can't let a Harley rider pass you because he will HOG the road.
This mountain is crawling with sport bikes. Actually "buzzing" would be more appropriate. Arnold (the Governator) should close these roads and charge $20 admission. That would get rid of the tourists and leave just the bikers and sports car drivers. Make a lot of money.
My second run was an unobstructed blast! After two trips up the hill, I was stirred but not shaken.
As expected, there was no sign of the sport bikers. The NSX is no match for a sport bike on a hill climb or any other test of acceleration. Maybe not even on the descent, since these guys are so damned fast.
At the top, I turned right on East Grade Road. The view from up there is normally outstanding, but this day a heavy haze obscured almost everything to the west. Farther down the road, past a large meadow, a sweeping right turn suddenly leaves you exposed on the edge of the mountain with an acrophobia-inducing view over Lake Hanshaw at least 1500 feet down. There is no haze here. In fact, you can see another mountain reflected in the lake.
At the bottom of the mountain I quickly found Mesa Grade Road. It's concealed at the back of the short Middle Loop Road off Highway 76. Mese Grande is a fine country road, empty and scenic. The first part is tree-lined and shady, then it opens into ranch land. A final steep section descends a hillside to Highway 79. That's where I realized that I probably should have driven Mesa Grande Road in the other direction, so as to best enjoy that steep part. Next time.
I turned north on Highway 79. As you pass Highway 76 you see what looks like water shimmering across the flat desert. It's a classic desert mirage, except that this really is water: Lake Hanshaw, to be precise.
A few miles farther on Highway 79 are some giant rock outcroppings where I took a photo on my first Tour in 1999.
Next on the menu was Highway S2 south. I noticed a lone puffy white cloud in the distance. Could this be from a forestfire? It seemed to be located in the mountains near Julian, where there was a major fire last year.
Several miles further south, from a different angle, the cloud looked much more normal, so I stopped worrying. I suppose I am hyper-sensitive to wildfires since my close encounter with the Oakland hills fire in 1991.
That day I was giving a tour of the hills to a job applicant and his family (wife and 2 small children). We had just finished touring the Berkeley hills and were continuing south when a policewoman at the intersection of Grizzly Peak Blvd and Fish Ranch Road told us we had to detour. There was a small plume of black smoke, and she said they had a brush fire. So we toured the neighborhood behind the Claremont Hotel instead.
The sky got covered more and more with dark smoke, so we decided to leave. So did the entire neighborhood, it seemed, and all at the same time. We tried to go south on Tunnel Road, but it was at a standstill. So we gave up and made a U-turn, and THAT direction was practically stopped as well.
About this time we saw flames behind us, 200 yards or so away. They appeared to be crossing the road, 100 or more feet high. We could have gotten out and walked (or run), but then our car would have blocked everyone. So we hung in there and drove out.
I called home and suggested that a peek outside was in order. I ended the hills tour and headed out to meet my family. Later in the day as I was packing photos and such, I invited a passing TV crew to film from my roof. They got excellent footage of the flames shooting up from behind the ridge, and the chemical bombers diving into the smoke and dropping red fire retardant. Had the strong wind not stopped the fire at that ridgeline, the next valley contained another 1000 houses or so, and mine would have been one of them, just short of the next ridge.
Virtually all the houses we had looked at behind the Claremont Hotel burned to the ground. Oh, and the interviewee accepted the job...
Highway S2 is empty with a capital E. Just make sure your fuel tank isn't, because you do not want to be stranded in the desert in 100-degree heat. Out here, you can wait 15 minutes for ANY car to pass, let alone one that can help you. The northern portion of S2 is wide, smooth, and very, very fast. I was taking it easy, but otherwise triple-digit speeds would be little problem between the bends.
South of Scissors Crossing (Highway 78), S2 gets narrower and less smooth. The miles go by quickly with no scenery to distract from the driving task at hand. I drove almost all the way to Ocotillo, putting me less than 10 miles from the Mexican border. A quick U-turn and I was headed back. The INS had set up a northbound checkpoint which had not been there 2 years ago. I rolled down my window and asked the guy if he wanted to see an ID. He said "Please state your citizenship." It took me two tries to figure out exactly what he was saying, since he spit out this unusual combination of words so quickly. But he didn't really expect a tall, blond NSX driver to be an illegal immigrant, and there was certainly no way to hide anybody else in this car.
I said "American", smiled and was on my way. I kept it under 80 mph until I had gotten a respectable distance away. Since he didn't want to see my ID, I wonder what he does if a carload of Mexicans shows up and they all claim to be American? I suppose that eventually the civil rights lawyers will make it illegal for the government to ask you for an ID for anything that doesn't involve collecting tax money. Oh well, there always has been plenty of nonsense in the world.
Back at Scissors Crossing, I headed east on Highway 78 (never empty), then over the hill on S3 (empty and fun) to Borrego Springs. I bought two pears at the grocery store and attempted to get gas. The machine at the pump wouldn't process my credit card or accept an alternate card, so I just left.
There is really only one reason to visit Borrego Springs: the climb back out on Highway S22. This is the widest, fastest hill climb I know, complete with uphill passing lanes in the unlikely event that you need them. The last time I drove this road in 2002, I encountered a group of sporty cars that I could not identify, except for one Honda S2000. I learned later that they were BMW Z4s and the new sedans, all pre-release. Perhaps it was a magazine test of some sort. I didn't figure that out until their photographer's rangefinders set off my laser detector as my NSX with 1000 miles of dirt on it messed up their group arrival photos.
Shortly after turning back north on S2, I could see two white domes on top of Mt. Palomar. By 1215 PM I was back on Highway 79 north and in traffic. At Sunshine Summit (a few miles before Oak Grove), I spotted a much-needed gas station. Its prices were out of a time warp: $2.099 for premium and sub-$2 for regular. Must be on an Indian reservation and exempt from taxes. Since the Indians don't have their own refineries, I gassed up there.
I turned north on what the map calls County Road R3 toward Sage. It's brand new pavement with plenty of skid marks. The graduated berms on the apexes are coated with rubber, just like the turns at a racetack. I guess that's what this road becomes at night. There is one very dangerous right turn near the top of a hill if you are not driving conservatively (I was). I can understand the rubber on this road: it's a superb second and third gear drive. New construction is underway everywhere, so this road will be full of traffic before too long. Get out there now if you want to try it.
At Sage, I turned left on East Benton to start back to civilization. Real estate signs are EVERYWHERE out here. East Benton becomes De Portola Road, then Mesa Road. Where is the money coming from to build all these giant new houses?
I turned right on Glen Oaks, then left on Rancho California Road, reaching Interstate 15 at only 130 PM. I beat the Sunday return traffic! It only took me 80 minutes more to get back to Redondo.
While I was on my way to Palomar that morning, Lance Armstrong won his 6th Tour de France. He agreed with a French reporter's question "Does this mean you are no longer a slave to the Tour de France?" Meaning that he could be free to decide to race or not without having to prove anything further.
I feel similarly about the Tour de California, having explored the most worthwhile roads in the state that fit within the context of a Tour. Now I can just choose them (even at the last minute) and drive them. Like Lance, I can choose to explore or not, with no regrets.
Day Three stats:
482 miles in 8 hours
road kill: none
During the week, I was able to show the car to several colleagues at work. (Even adults like show and tell.) But early Friday afternoon after an important meeting, it was time to leave. The car was packed and ready. I tossed my shoulder bag in the trunk, changed my shoes and I was off. Straight into a traffic jam on 405 north. With the 405, this is no surprise. In fact, NOT having a traffic jam there is a surprise, even at odd hours. That degree of crowding is a major part of why I don't live in southern California.
I took the La Cienega "freeway" and I-10 west to get around the jam, and I succeeded more or less. But then there was another jam north of the Simi Valley Freeway. I stopped for gas north of Lancaster. A few miles later and about 2 hours after my departure, I finally left the freeway behind at Backus Road south of Mojave. Housing out here looks about as cheap as it could be anywhere, but oh, those electricity bills for air conditioning!
On Backus Road I used a trick from an old car magazine article: If you look at the telephone wires you can usually tell which way the road will turn ahead.
I quickly reached Tehachapi Springs Road and turned north toward the massive windmill farm. Almost immediately, my radar detector alerted me. No 120 mph passing on the three-mile straightaway this time...
About a minute later, an oncoming Chippie lit up the car he was following. So I had had about 1.5 miles range on the warning.
The 2-lane road winds up the hill. Rounding the last curve before the top, you suddenly see the windmills up close. It looks like you are about to slalom underneath them, as in fact you are. The large ones with the 50-foot diameter blades are especially impressive. One of them was hidden by the hill, so that I could only see its blades arcing over a tree. Another pair happened to be synchronized, with one almost directly behind the other from my viewpoint so that they appeared to be a double-bladed unit. All this is far more striking than the windmill farms in the Altamont Pass in northern California.
The wind farm area is fairly small, then the road descends toward Tehachapi and reaches a T. I took a left to parallell Highway 58, with the on-ramp one mile ahead. An oncoming car was approaching as I neared the on-ramp, so I rushed the turn.
The car made the 90-degree left turn normally, but then the back end kept turning another 90 degrees, leaving the car sliding sideways down the road for 2 or 3 seconds. That's what you call oversteer! Mighty embarrassing, I must say.
I must have pushed the clutch pedal, because the engine did not stall. You are also supposed to brake in a slide, but it hardly matters when you're going sideways.
I backed up a few feet so that I could pull forward onto the left shoulder promptly, in deference to the trucker who had just turned onto the road 300 yards away just as I came to a stop.
After checking the car, including tire pressures, I concluded that the incident was purely my fault. The only required adjustment was to the nut behind the wheel.
This was the first and only time that I have spun the NSX in 50,000 miles and 8 years of ownership. Not coincidentally, it happened on a level road on flat terrain with no obstructions or traffic. These were perfect conditions to safely push the car to the limit. I keep a lot more in reserve driving in canyons with 200-foot dropoffs.
It is possible that there was some debris or oil on the road: Tehachapi is a very windy area, and the road was bordered by dirt (desert) on both sides. I knew I was close to the cornering limit, but I was actually 1 or 2 mph over. A humbling experience. The NSX may be God's car, but it does not make you God.
My earlier advice for handling a slide was to maintain the same steering and throttle/brake inputs. That works for a minor slide, but this spin was not avoidable that way or probably any other way once it began.
I got onto Highway 58 west and cruised about 18 miles to the Caliente turnoff. On the way I passed the best-laid speed trap I have ever seen. A CHP car was parked far over to the right on a wide shoulder just over a hilltop, hidden from immediate view. He was using a low-power intermittent radar. Since my speed was just barely above the limit, I didn't have to worry. But I'm sure this guy managed to catch everyone who was 20+ mph over the limit, radar detector or not.
A large sign at the start of Caliente Creek Road warns you that cattle may be on the roadway. This is not an exaggeration, but getting a warning like this is more unusual than seeing cows on the road in remote ranch country.
The terrain here in the lowest foothills of the southern Sierra is mostly dry grass. Caliente Creek road winds down a short hill into town, with more bends than are really needed. It's almost as if the builders of the road gratuitously added switchbacks so that drivers would be sure not to miss the scenery.
After the town of Caliente there is a passing zone, which I used as intended. I turned right to stay on Caliente Creek Road, and the 4x4 driver ahead pulled over to let me pass. How nice.
I do not recall ever driving this road uphill, although I may have done so once in the past 10 years. I vaguely recall thinking last time that it would be safer to drive it uphill.
There are frequent cattle guards here. When crossing them, you want to be steering straight ahead to avoid the lateral slip and sudden grab on the other side. If the cattle guard is on a turn, you should momentarily straighten the wheel just before contact with the cattle guard, then resume the turn on the other side.
On a tightly winding road like this, taller drivers can use a rear view mirror trick that I learned from fellow autocrossers many years ago. Just rotate the inside mirror all the way to the right. This puts it almost edge-on to the driver, improving your vision. Forward vision, of that is. If you use this trick, you are probably going fast enough that there's no need to look back.
As its name implies, Caliente Creek Road follows a small canyon containing Caliente Creek. The water feeds many trees, including some with beautiful quaking aspens with bright white bark.
As the road ascends, the canyon gets narrower and prettier. I recalled one or two nasty decreasing radius turns in the downhill direction, but the uphill drive had no such surprises.
As the canyon changes to meadows, there is a timeless western look to the area. I spotted a rabbit next to the road. This one got a good look at me, and he survived the encounter easily. Clearly, Darwinism favors rabbits who are smart enough to admire NSXs.
The road is much longer than you expect it to be from looking at the map, and every bit of it is fine driving.
About 20 miles into this 29-mile section, I passed the location of a memorable incident that I had with my 1987 MR2. In 1994, on a 2-day summer weekend drive that was a precursor of the Tour de California, I drove my MR2 nearly 1000 miles, camping in the southern Sierras and hiking 6 miles at Pinnacles National Monument. I was driving southeast (the opposite direction from this year's drive) on a long straight section of Caliente Creek Road.
Coming on a blind rise, I expected more of the same beyond. So I topped the rise at about 50 mph. Big mistake. I had been looking left at the only moment when I could have seen, between bushes on the right, a sign warning of a 20 mph left turn.
When I topped the rise, I was staring disaster and several cows in the face. The road descended sharply to an off-camber left turn just 60 feet ahead. Next to the dirt shoulder was a small dip, a wood rail fence, and a grassy pasture. There was absolutely no way the car could make this turn.
I applied the brakes at close to the threshold of lockup (early MR2s do not have ABS) to reduce my speed as much as possible before leaving the road. Then, releasing the brakes, I started the turn, attempting to stay on the pavement. The result, as I expected, was that the back end swung out about 45 degrees, putting both rear wheels onto the dirt shoulder with the fronts still on the pavement. From autocrossing experience, I knew that the car would spin unless I immediately applied full throttle. So that's what I did. (If you have not practiced this extensively, you will not be able to force your right foot to do it in time.)
The MR2 continued around the curve with the back end hanging out in the dirt. Just as the curve ended, the front wheels bit hard and the car started to straighten itself. I failed to anticipate the snap-back, and the car almost spun out the other way. As the tail swung out to the left and I struggled to catch up with the steering, I spotted a cattle guard 200 feet up the road. It had metal posts on either side which framed a relatively narrow passageway. I briefly wondered whether I would be going through there backwards or forwards. Later I realized that the greatest danger would have been hitting the cattle guard sideways and flipping the car.
I sawed at the steering wheel as the tail swung left, then right. The car straightened out just in time to cross the cattle guard. No damage except to my ego, and I took some solace in the fact that NOBODY SAW ANYTHING. Only the skid marks on the road bore evidence that anything at all had happened.
In the subsequent years, each time I go by this spot I cannot believe that I negotiated that turn coming over the rise at 50 mph. It was and remains an impossible curve to take at that speed.
At Caliente-Bodfish Road, I briefly considered turning left and backtracking over the hill, a short but intense winding drive. Because because Caliente Creek Road is quite a workout itself, and because I still had plenty of fine roads ahead this day, I turned right and kept going.
For Sale signs abound here. Maybe some people just can't take the country living. It is very isolated, and if you don't like your neighbors I suppose life here can be quite unpleasant. You end up living some novel written in the 1800s.
Suddenly I found myself stuck behind a UPS truck, undoubtedly the same one whose driver I had neglected to wave to earlier on Caliente Creek Road. I'm sure that would have made the difference in getting past him promptly.
Regardless, I can never fault someone who drives for a living for not pulling over to let me by, but it's still frustrating. The trick is not to let the frustration influence you to pass unsafely. I'm getting a lot better at that these days, and the Tour itself helps because you often need some time to slow down and gather your energy. In this case, I didn't have to wait too long for a safe passing opportunity, and I was gone.
Caliente-Bodfish Road becomes one lane winding up the hill. This is fun but slightly hazardous if anyone is coming the other way. And of course it you are stuck behind a truck at this point, your best option is just to park for 5 minutes then resume driving.
Soon after the Trading Post on the left, you top the hill and the Sierra mountains appear on the horizon at least 20 miles aheard, probably on the far side of Lake Isabella. There are some large and jagged peaks.
If you are looking at a map, you may be wondering about Breckenridge Road, which joins Caliente-Bodfish here. Don't try it; it's a 30-mile driveway (narrow, hair-raising single lane).
North of the hamlet of Havilah is brand new pavement. Not that there is anything wrong with the other pavement. People in these rural counties really get their tax money's worth on roads. In urban areas, we get undersized and poorly maintained roads even though we pay most of the gas taxes. Oh well, who ever said it would be fair?
At the next hilltop, the road parallels the hillside as it descends, giving you a panoramic view of Lake Isabella and the mountains behind. Both are straight ahead, and the town of Bodfish is down and to the right. With brand new pavement, it's like you are piloting an aircraft on final approach.
Caliente-Bodfish Road becomes Lake Isabella Blvd when you enter town at the bottom of the hill. Navigating through town is easy, with the major intersections well-marked. I passed through without stopping and continued north on Highway 155, together with plenty of other cars.
The scenery here is striking, with 70% of the ground covered with grass and the remainder consisting of exposed granite. Once I turned west on 155, I was again alone on the road. At about 530 PM, the contrast between shadows and sunlight was extreme. It's difficult to see ahead either with or without sunglasses.
As the road winds down and down and down, there is a large canyon on the left. Amusingly, the map indicates that the waterway in this canyon is Cedar Creek. Must be one helluva creek.
Still cameraless, I missed another great photo opportunity when I saw two 2 cows next to the road (no fence in sight) eating grass. Directly behind them was a sign reading "Keep Sierra National Forest clean."
I recall writing in 2002 that Highway 155 is almost TOO twisty: it wears you out. I can now confirm that observation. Also, there are a couple of decreasing radius turns, which were not a problem for me because I was not going too fast. They would have been challenging at higher speed.
You need to clear your ears several times on the way down from the 6100-foot Greenhorn Summit. Since I fly twice a week, I never have ear trouble.
At Glenville, I took the White River Road turnoff which quickly leads to Jack Ranch Road. Jack Ranch Road is indeed lined by ranches on both sides, with plenty of dry grass and live oak trees. The yellow color of the grass all through the Sierra foothills must be part of the reason California's motto is The Golden State.
Five miles later I reached Old Stage Road and headed east, toward Posey and Poso Park. One house on this road has a mailbox mounted in the normal orientation pointing toward the road mounted on an L-shaped steel pipe. Except this mailbox is 12 feet above the road. Painted on the box in white letters are the words AIR MAIL.
My intended route this day was one that I had been unable to take in 2002. That year the huge McNally fire caused road closures all over this area. According to AAA's Tulare County map, 2.2 miles of my chosen road are gravel. But my much larger Sierra National Forest map (from the US Forest Service) says it's 100% paved. Hmmm. I've driven through a little gravel before, so what's a mere 2 miles of it?
The road got narrower. And narrower. And bumpier. Well, I thought, at least I won't have to backtrack like I did on the road to New Idria.
On one hairpin turn, a squirrel popped his head up and popped back into his hole. This was remarkable only because the hole appeared to be in the asphalt. Weird, that one.
This is a forest road (what was my first clue? Oh yeah, Sierra National FOREST!), mostly without views. Just big trees and this winding road. This is a rarity on the Tour de California: a true first-gear road.
Near one hilltop, I stopped to gaze at a panoramic view toward the central valley. Unfortunately, the haze obscured what would otherwise probably be 150-mile visibility.
The road continued upward, reaching a shallow saddle at Greenhorn summit. The Panorama campground is here. You should have seen the stunned looks I got from the RV owners and other campers. I could imagine them saying "What kind of nut brings a car like that all the way up here?" The nut behind the wheel, of course.
At the next hilltop I entered the 2002 burn area. Every tree here is dead, and only grass and shrubs have returned so far.
A little bit further, there are a few live trees interspersed among the dead ones, as if the fire somehow skipped a few small spots. That must have been quite a sight, with some trees exploding into flames and others not.
In the burn area you can see the topography clearly, including the path of the road ahead. I managed to reach almost 60 mph a few times in Portugese Meadow. Then the live forest closed back in, which was much prettier if slower. As the road paralleled Tobias Creek on the left, a narrow meadow was screened by a line of trees one or two rows deep. By turning my head while in motion, I could get a good view of the meadow while driving straight off the road. Just kidding about that last part.
After crossing the creek, I encountered an awesome view of the back of Sierra peaks, one of which is Mt. Whitney, the highest point in the lower 48. The setting sun cast long shadows, highlighting the relief on the corrugated faces of these mountains. The air was relatively clear, not thick with fire smoke as it had been in 2002. The road here traverses the fire zone, overlooking the Kern River valley at least 1000 feet below.
At one curve, the road turned completely to dirt. Fortunately, that proved to be nothing but a covering of runoff from the bare hillside above. This was followed by a line of dirt down the center of the road for some miles. You know, the dirt that gets kicked up and leaves an impenetrable cloud behind you.
At one dirt-covered turn I slowed and used the entire width of the road to minimize the required cornering force, reducing the probability of sliding. Mid-turn, I noticed that the edge dropped off 10 feet into a creek bed, with no guard rail or warning. That dirt is slippery, and this road is NOT RECOMMENDED. If you put your car in the creek, you might stay there for half a day or more before anyone finds you. It pays to be sharp.
Finally, after 30 miles on this tiny road, I emerged onto a road worthy of the name. I have to admit: that whole back country exercise was rather ridiculous. Oh well, that's me.
I turned west on M50 for 3 miles, then north on Highway 190 (Western Divide Highway) toward Porterville. I have to drive THIS road more often. It was completely empty in the late evening.
A very quick and oh-so-smooth 14 miles brought me to the General Store and restaurant at Ponderosa. How considerate of the powers that be to put an eating establishment right where I needed it.
I put in a special order for a burger with grilled onions and cheese. They threw in the salad bar. It was a really excellent meal to cap the day. The guy at the next table was looking at the car and asked me what kind it was. I told him, and then I said I had just come through Portugese Pass and I still couldn't believe I did it. He asked why. I said "just to see what was there".
Quaking Aspen campground was only 3 miles farther up the road. Within 20 minutes I had paid for the site, set up my tent, and put everything I needed inside. The car was parked out of range of dripping tree sap (a common hazard here), and there were no bugs anywhere. Perfect!
I had selected Quaking Aspen after staying at Redwood campground in 2002. Being awakened by a bear tossing garbage cans 50 feet away from my tent was disconcerting. The following morning, I drove through Quaking Aspen, finding the garbage cans unmolested. This indicated a bear-free zone, a fact which I mentally filed away for a later year which had now come.
This year, after I was all set up at Quaking Aspen, a fellow camper walked by and told me "Oh, by the way, we have 3 bears here, so don't leave any food out." THREE bears? What are they: a mama bear, a papa bear, and a baby bear? Looks like I'm in for another noisy night. Those bears had better keep off my uncovered car if they know what's good for them!!
After a brief chat with the campground manager ("What kind of car is that?" and such) I retired for the evening just before 9 PM.
Day Four stats:
285 miles in 7 hours
road kill: none
spin outs: one
I awoke at 615 AM Saturday. That is, if you don't count being awakened at 315 AM by the bear, who was banging on a can some distance away. Later, it raided my next-door neighbors. Their dog barked and woke everybody up. The guy came out and yelled at the bear, persuading it to leave.
The temperature kept decreasing all night; I eventually had to zip my bag all the way up. Well, I didn't wander outside to get a look at the bear anyway.
When I stepped outside, a squirrel came by to visit. He chattered away from up in his tree, begging for food, but I didn't have anything for him. I rolled up the sleeping bag, took down the tent, and put everything in the car. Then I washed the car, because we all know that a clean car is much slipperier and faster than a dirty car.
I also loaded a new CD magazine in the changer, one of 8 I had prepared before starting this year's Tour. I confirmed that the tires had enough tread left to take the long way around this day. So that's what I decided to do.
I was on my way at 705 AM, continuing north on Highway 190 down the mountain. This section of 190 looks like it would be great fun on the ascent. There was not much traffic for a Saturday morning. Maybe one year I will drive this route southbound.
Still at high elevation I saw my first deer of the tour, if you don't count the dead one in two pieces on Highway 58. After about a half-hour of driving, I reached the elevation where the forest stops. The road here suddenly gives you a panoramic view of the Tule River canyon. It's like traveling from northern to southern California in a few minutes.
Highway 190 has no speed limit signs. This is understandable, since you can't really exceed the limit (55) unless you go nuts. This is what I mean when I say I like to drive roads where the limits are set by the laws of physics rather than the laws of man.
Passing through Springville, I saw at least 6 busloads of firefighters going up the hill. There was no fire in the area that I knew of, so perhaps they were just changing shifts.
After consulting my Tulare County map, I explored Success Valley Road. It was lined with orange groves and some ranches with horses and cows. I turned west onto Reservation Road, which feeds into the Tule River Indian Reservation to the east. This is a wide and smooth road, with a fine winding section leading over the hill to Porterville. Passing zones help with the traffic, which was moderate even at 8 AM.
Still avoiding the main roads and using my local maps, I chose Avenue 136 west. The pavement was not as good, but it was empty. The road passes in front of the Porterville Development Center, which I found out later is essentially a nursing home for adults who are severely mentally disabled. From the outside, the place looks a lot like a prison. I hope I never see the inside.
At this point, the pavement turns wonderful for the last mile before Plano Street. There I turned south, past East Teapot Dome Road (now there is a name from history) on wide, perfect pavement. The road was empty, mostly straight, and lined with orange groves. Plano Road becomes Old Stage Road, and the orange groves gave way to empty dry grassland as the road started to curve and climb into the short, rolling hills. This is a superb driving road for safe and enthusiastic driving, with great visibility ahead.
I crossed Hot Springs Road at Fountain Springs, staying on Old Stage Road. The roads through this area of the state (southern Tulare County and northern Kern County foothills) are awesome. Dry grass, exposed rock, and live oak trees combine for superb scenery, and the roads are empty, with great pavement.
The Sierra foothills extend north well past Sacramento, but the difference here is that the roads are empty. You know: "I chose the road less traveled, and that has made all the difference." Having the road to yourself really does make the difference. It's driving heaven: wide open scenery without a lot of human presence.
At higher altitude, the dotting of live oaks gets denser, other types of trees start to appear, and the grass covering decreases. You can see this change in vegetation on the hillsides that extend 500 feet up on both sides of the road.
Suddenly I saw a coyote next to the road! That's the first coyote I have seen on a Tour de California.
Just before 9 AM, I turned south on Jack Ranch Road. Wow, each road here seems prettier than the last. You really owe it to yourself to drive through this area some day.
At Highway 155, with 273.5 miles showing on the trip odometer (since the last fill-up south of Tehachapi) I was getting low on fuel. So I detoured east a mile or so to Glenville. Nope, no gas there. I decided to drive a loop on Granite Road, which I recalled fondly from 2002 as a great source of pleasure and puns.
Granite Road proved to be a great downhill run. With its mild curves, you can smoothly guide the car, just caressing the accelerator and brakes when engine braking is not providing the exact speed you need. Five miles into this run, at 290 miles on the trip odo, my low fuel warning light turned on. Hmmm. That means up to 50 miles left (2.7 gallons), according to measurements made by an engineer at American Honda. So my magic number on the trip odo was 340.
I turned north on Woody Granite Road, which leads to what the map shows as the town of Woody. Actually it's one (wood) building. No gas station. With 304 miles on the trip odo, I started west, down the hill, on Highway 155. I briefly considered heading 30 miles south to Oildale, but that would be pushing my luck a bit too far. I was confident that I would find a gas station at the intersection of Highways 65 and 155, the two main highways in the area.
With 320 miles on the trip odo, I reached Highway 65. No gas!!! Now there was nothing to do but continue east to Delano or as close as I could get to it. Maybe I should have gone to Oildale after all...
Highway 155 west of 65 is so flat and straight that it looks perfect for an early morning high-speed run. Another useful fact to file away.
Success! At 330.8 miles on the trip odometer, I reached a gas station with the engine still running. The fill-up took 18.05 gallons, over a gallon more than I had ever put in the car before. Although the owner's manual quotes 18.5 gallons, American Honda's test showed that the car takes 18.6 gallons to fill after you run it out of gas. At 20 mpg, I was 11 miles from a totally dry tank. That was really close. But hey, what's a Tour without a little adventure?
After refueling myself and the car, I headed back east on 155. About 3 miles out of Delano I took that last idea out of storage and decided to do a little high-speed run. I waited until the car in front of me was a blob shimmering in the distance over 2 miles ahead. The fact that I could see him, and only him, meant that the road was clear.
I didn't actually reach 155, despite the fact that I was on it, if you catch my meaning. Despite the huge gap to the car ahead I ran out of room, not to mention testicular fortitude, as he slowed for turn. Besides, it's antisocial to get close to other cars at speeds high enough to frighten their drivers.
I concluded that it must require a truly huge stretch of road to approach top speed in this car. It's pretty nerve-wracking too. Driving is much more fun below two miles per minute. Nevertheless, I was pleased that the car's handling was perfectly stable all the way up to...
...you really didn't think I was going to tell, did you?
I took the traffic-laden Highway 65 south to Oildale. The area is aptly named. Turning left onto James Road, cricket pumps were everywhere. Next, China Grade Road took me upstream next to the Kern River.
I saw people wading and riding inner tubes down the river, and I recalled tubing here myself some 25 years ago. That day, I tried to float over a submerged tree fork, and fell out while the tube stuck to the tree. Then I very stupidly went back to try to get the tube off the tree. I almost stuck myself to the tree too! Unless you have experienced it, you wouldn't believe how powerful water is when it's flowing around an object.
China Grade Road becomes Round Mountain Road if you continue straight, still following the Kern River valley. Round Mountain Road starts out fine, but quickly turns absolutely terrible. At least the scenery is great. That is, if you are a petroleum engineer. Otherwise touring a slum would be more scenic. The map says this road is paved. That was certainly true some decades ago...
The pavement reappeared just past the peak of Round Mountain, but then it turned to fresh tar and gravel!!! This stuff gets tossed into the suspension and inside the rims, even if you drive very slowly. What a mess.
After about half an hour of this slow torture, I finally reached Granite Road. It's not very scenic on this southern section, but at least the road is properly paved.
I took a look at Woody Road (pavement not too smooth) and decided to stay on Granite all the way to the top.
Granite has got to be one of the prettiest roads in the state.
I saw one hardy bicyclist heading up, and a bit later one heading down. I waved to each, and they waved back. It's hard to imagine what the Tour de France riders do: climbing the steepest hills at speeds that mortals could not match on flat ground, and repeating it day after day. It's like running a marathon or two every day for 3 weeks. Totally crazy.
An unobstructed run up Granite Road has to be one of the better driving experiences you can have. Luck was with me, because that's what I had. I caught up to a horse trailer just 50 feet before the stop sign at the end of the road.
I retraced my path north on Jack Ranch and Old Stage Road, rather than take an extra hour and a half to loop back over the mountains on Highway 190. It was already noon and I had "miles to go before I sleep". Sorry, I just have Frost on the brain...
Based on this year's Tour and the one in 2002, I can now recommend a great foothill tour without a huge detour: Granite Road to Jack Ranch Road to Old Stage Road to Porterville.
Back on Old Stage Road I noticed large lumps in the pavement in 2 or 3 places. These should not scrape your car unless you have lowered it.
When you see the Road Narrows sign on the descent, pay attention! I could have benefitted from another 5 mph of braking. The road suddenly changes from a mild cruise over fields to a twisty canyon descent with a 200-foot dropoff on the left. Naturally, there is no guardrail. That would be for wimps.
Much farther down, past Fountain Springs where the orchards start to appear, you can see far across the central valley from your vantage point perhaps 50 feet above in the last of the foothills.
Highway 190 took me over to the freeway (Highway 99), where I finally had to slow down. Freeways are actively patrolled, unlike most of the other roads I'd been traveling. This allowed me to rest and save some concentration for the next challenge: Minarets Road.
At Fresno (gotta love their airport code: FAT), I turned north on 41, which is also a freeway for long enough to get you out of town. I checked the tires here to make sure that enough tread remained to make the drive to Minarets Road worthwhile. OK so far.
I decided to explore a new side road on the way, and turned right on County Road 208 (Belleview Road) two miles north of Highway 145. It was totally empty, which was a welcome change from the crowded Highway 41, and the pavement was decent too. As you top the first hill, you can see the Sierra mountains in the distance, with live oak trees in the foreground.
It's great when you can find empty scenic roads in such close proximity with crowded highways. This combination allows you to enjoy your drive without losing much time to the crowd in the race to your destination. Road 208 terminates at Road 211, where I turned left (north). Road 211 is an excellent 2-laner for spirited driving: traffic is very light.
I was looking to take Road 200 toward North Fork, but when I saw a sign for the well-paved Road 210, I figured that this was it. Probably the map had a misprint.
The scenery started out great, but the pavement got worse and worse in stages, until after 5 miles, it turned abruptly to dirt! Obviously I had taken the wrong road. Nothing ventured, nothing gained, I suppose.
Within a mile after rejoining Road 211 I found Road 200, which carries a moderate amount of traffic. I should have realized that the last road was wrong when I had it all to myself.
I stopped in North Fork for gas, as I always do when visiting these parts. Minarets Road is a 100-mile round trip from here, and there's no sense having to worry about fuel. I checked the tires again and found the rears to still have rubber everywhere (no cords yet), even though the wear indicators were showing. In this condition a tire actually has close to its maximum possible dry traction.
Minarets Road, also known as Sierra National Forest Road 81, begins about 4.5 miles beyond North Fork. This is a dead-end road for which the non-enthusiast will have little use, meaning that almost nobody uses it. In the more forgiving uphill direction, it's almost like having your own private racetrack. Just keep to your side of the centerline, please.
If you encounter a vehicle towing a boat up to the reservoir (Mammoth Pool), be patient. The drivers are all great about letting you by, and safe passing zones abound. Wave politely as you pass to show that you appreciate their courtesy.
You do need to be alert on this road: I almost had the left front of the car crushed by a bus-sized RV cutting across my lane on one of the tighter curves. My reaction time on the brakes saved the day.
Minarets Road is 48 miles of uninterrupted driving bliss, provided that you have enough mental energy to drive it nonstop. But I'm sure you won't do that; you won't be able to resist stopping for the views. In particular, the panoramic view from Mile High Curve is quite impressive. This day a few clouds hovered over the tops of the Minarets and other mountains in the Mammoth area.
Some year I might drive the Tour clockwise, camping here the first night. That's another idea to file away for future use. 35 miles from the start of Minarets Road I passed the Beasore Meadow turnoff. This is the tiny road crossing over from 81 to 7 on the map.
Just before the end of the road there is a great view of back of the Mammoth mountains. A mountain-shaped cloud rested just on the top of a mountain-shaped mountain. Tiny glaciers were visible near the mountain peaks. If you come here in May, the mountains are completely snow-capped. Any earlier in the spring, and the road is snow-capped, too.
Minarets Road is essentially a 48-mile dead end. At the end of the road you have the option either to turn around or to proceed down Forest Road 7 instead. Don't be tempted: it's rough and narrow and you have one of the state's finest roads right behind you.
I took advantage of having the road to myself here to take a much-needed bio break and change into shorts, as I should have done in the morning. As I was folding my long pants, the family in a pickup truck I had passed earlier caught up. We waved at each other, as we had done the first time. They must own a remote ranch up here. Half a minute earlier and they would have caught me in my underwear!
Before starting back down, I checked the rear tires again and confirmed that I could safely drive normally (normally for me, that is) on the descent. Fifty miles of Minarets Road equate to many more on the straight and level.
I took it a bit easier on the descent, as I typically do. At one point I had to chase a cow down the road. At the Beashore Meadows turnoff I had the option to cross over to Forest Road 7 and 10 for the descent, but I decided not to. I have driven the connecting road twice before, and although its smooth roller-coaster pavement is great fun, it's just too narrow. Drivers towing trailers barrel through there like they own the place. Last time, one almost forced me off the road.
The time before, I nearly stranded myself on that road when I proceeded through 4-inch deep patches of snow and ice on nearly bare summer tires. When I belatedly realized the near-impossibility of climbing any icy hills, I turned around and barely succeeded in plowing back uphill to Minarets Road. That was a panic-inducing close call, because NOBODY was on that tiny road that early in the season.
Getting back to 2004, a hesitant squirrel somehow avoided becoming two-dimensional. Perhaps thousands of years from now squirrels will have evolved to be much more successful at avoiding vehicles.
A few of the curves on Minarets Road just below the 6000-foot level have sand washed down on them from the slope above, so don't zip through there. It looks exactly like beach sand. I'm no geologist, but it's possible that this was ocean beach hundreds of millions of years ago.
I took a 20 mph look at Soda Springs campground. It appears quite pleasant, and the public agrees: there were 4 or 5 groups present, with several more spaces still available late on this Saturday afternoon.
I stopped again for a last look at the mountains from Mile High Vista Point, just above Mile High Curve. At the Vista Point, placards help you identify the various peaks. The low sun behind me enhanced the contrast, and Foerster peak looked like a shark tooth amid the other bare granite peaks.
When I saw the sign for the Jesse Ross cabin, I couldn't resist one last stop. It's a 1860s log cabin which has been slightly repaired. The construction is excellent, and it's surprisingly roomy good size; perhaps 600 square feet, plus a second floor. You can go inside and walk around, just like you owned it. Which, in a way, we all do, since this is public land.
Back down on the level at 6 PM, I was relaxing on the way back to North Fork when two guys in white subcompact behind me decided to try to keep up. (My relaxed cornering speed in the NSX is anything but that in a regular car.) I dutifully cranked it up a notch, and these guys amazingly hung with me, at least until I took a long sweeper at 65 mph near my limit. Probably their tires couldn't take the abuse and they backed off.
My tires are about the closest thing to racing tires that a car manufacturer has ever sold as original equipment: Yokohama A022's, designed specifically for the NSX. Considering the tires alone, those two guys were grossly outmatched. With the performance he showed, I wondered if the driver was an experienced racer.
At the grocery store in North Fork I stopped and bought a soda to keep myself awake. I took another look at the rear tires, seeing cord in one spot on the right tire this time. That had to be the spot that took the brunt of the previous day's spin. Well, a little cord hasn't ever been a problem for me. I have driven home successfully on previous Tours with quite a lot of cord showing.
So I got out the map and decided on a route home that had a few twisties followed by mostly straight and flat roads. If the tire were to blow out, the car should be easy to control if it's already going straight. The one time I had a rear tire go flat on the freeway, I didn't even know it until I saw the cloud of tire smoke in the mirror.
I estimate that a Tour uses about 60% of a set of tires that I buy second-hand (but unused) for $500. Gas is about 120 gallons, which at today's prices means that fuel for this car is starting to cost almost as much as tires. What _is_ this world coming to?
A couple of miles after re-starting, I got confused about the route. Then a CHP car decided to tailgate me. So I just pulled over to look at the map and figure out where I was. The CHP guy kept going, and I quickly figured out my probable location. One U-turn and both my problems were solved.
The map shows Road 426 intersecting 200, but in reality it's Road 221 at the intersection. Road 223 branches off a mile or so north, then it becomes Road 426. So this time my guess was correct and the map was wrong. I felt redeemed from mid-afternoon's Road 210 goof.
After another patrol vehicle passed by, I figured I had seen all the patrol cars in the area. So I put some zip in it. Road 223 is superb, even better (and much emptier) than Road 200. It's lined with pine trees until you approach the town of Oakhurst. Drivers are very cooperative about letting you by here. They know that you are itching to go faster with a car this low, this wide, and this red.
When Road 223 becomes Road 426, just follow the Oakhurst signs. I stopped before entering town to wash the windshield. I would soon be driving directly into the sun, and a clear windshield would be essential. NSX club member Gary Berger once showed me how to keep window cleaner in a spray bottle in a ziplock bag in the trunk, so I am able to clean the windshield whenever and wherever I need to.
After one wrong turn in Oakhurst, I located Highway 49 north and then stopped to fill the gas tank for the last time of the day. On the Tour, the price of gas is irrelevant. I'll pay whatever they want for the gas. The precious commodities I have to manage are time and tires, not money.
Five miles north of Oakhurst, I turned left on Road 600, which is well marked by a green sign on the right. I've driven Road 600 before; it's one of the few sufficiently empty roads in this scenic section of the Sierra foothills. Heading southwest, with the sun nearly ready to set on my right, I had a good shadow effect on my left. It's like starring in your own movie.
Well, what do you know... I saw another coyote! The only two I've ever seen on any Tour, and both were on the same day, 100 miles apart.
On the lower section of Road 600 you can look out over the Central Valley. Together with the live oaks on the rolling hills of dry grass, it's an impressive view.
Road 415 joins Road 600 from the west, and it looks superb. I made another mental note to drive it some day.
Non NSXers may wonder why my rear tires are wearing out but not the fronts. The designers of this car specified a softer rubber for the rear tires to reduce the tendency to, uh... spin out. That's why my garage inventory includes 9 rears but only 5 fronts.
At North Fork, I had selected Road 603 as the last empty road for this Tour. Its pavement was not as great as that of Road 600, and it pointed straight into the sun. But it turned out to have one redeeming feature: many abrupt dips and rises. If you don't like roller coasters, skip this road. If you like this sort of thing, it's the greatest fun this side of Highway 58.
Except for the blind rises, visibility is great. In most places you can see three rises ahead.
Road 29 north to Eastman Lake looks tiny on the map, but it's actually a great-looking road when you get there. I'll have to try it some time. File another one.
Once Road 603 reaches the flatland, its pavement turns decidedly inferior. I suppose that if the road were paved well, people would use this section as a drag strip for high-speed runs. People not driving on corded tires, that is.
A small bird made a wrong turn, flying down rather than up, possibly into the grill or under the car. I didn't see it re-appear behind the car.
Road 603 leads through Chowchilla, a small town made infamous in 1976 when a kidnapper buried an entire school bus with the children and driver inside. They escaped, apparently led by some of the children, not the driver as initially reported. The school bus can be seen in a free private museum in Le Grand, just north of here.
Past Chowchilla, I entered the 152 freeway westbound toward Los Banos. That Ban-yose for you gringos.
This was my first time on the section of 152 east of I-5. I normally drive secondary 2-lane roads across the Central Valley because they are emptier and I can go faster. Driving straight into sun, the freeway is safer.
As it nears the horizon, the sun appears larger, just as the moon does. This is an optical illusion. The horizon is subjectively farther away than the zenith, and objects with the same angular size seem larger when they are at a greater subjective distance.
As the sun began to disappear behind the coastal hills, I was hoping to see the green flash. I saw the green flash this spring in Hawaii, so I know what to expect: about half a second of dim green just before the light disappears. You have a chance to see it if the sun remains round, rather than flattening out, as it touches the horizon.
As the sun set, the corn rose. That is to say, high corn plants in the field next to the road just barely blocked my view. Not having a Targa (open top), I couldn't stand up to get a better view. Oh, well.
In Los Banos, I stopped at the Panda Express for some veggie-laden food to go with the cantelope cubes I still had in a Tupperware container. The gal behind the counter had seen me drive up and asked what kind of car it was. She pointed to her 300ZX, a nice car itself. I was surprised she didn't recognize an NSX. What are they teaching kids in school, anyway?
At 830 PM, I was back on road with my HID lights showing the way. As I turned onto I-5 north, I was starting to get a little tired. Near the 580 split from I-5, the car felt a bit unstable. I soon realized that the wind was blowing all the cars and trucks sideways. Yes, that's why they put all those windmills in the Altamont Pass.
Just after 10 PM, I finally pulled into my garage. That was a 15-hour day, the longest ever for me in the NSX. Before parking the car, I checked the front grill and removed one small bird that had made a wrong turn somewhere near Chowchilla. The last time I accidentally left a dead bird in the grill, thousands of tiny ants taught me never to do so again, even overnight.
Lance Armstrong won his 6th consecutive Tour de France this year, and I am almost keeping up with him. Although I skipped 2003, this is my 5th consecutive successful Tour de California. No tickets, no accidents, just a whole lot of fun.
According to my insurance policy, I drive the NSX for "pleasure only". If they only knew just how right they are...
Day Five stats:
723 miles in 15 hours
road kill: one small bird
sightings: 2 coyotes
2250 miles in 45.5 hours
mpg: who cares?
road kill: one large bird, one small bird, one rabbit, one squirrel
live wildlife sightings: one deer, two coyotes, two rabbits (killed one), and numerous squirrels
top speed reached: that's classified, son...