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Tour de California 2006 (long)

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East Bay, CA, USA
It's noon on Friday, July 7, 2006. I open the garage, step into my car, turn the key, and insert a pre-recorded audio cassette:

"Good morning, Mr. Phelps. The car you are sitting in is a 1991 red Acura NSX sport coupe, featuring 270 horsepower, outstanding handling, and looks to match. It is in perfect running condition, with a new set of rear tires and an almost new set of front tires. The trunk contains a North Face VE24 tent, summer sleeping bag, and 10 magazines each holding 6 audio compact discs. Your mission, should you decide to accept it, is to drive the back roads of California enthusiastically for two weekends, briskly covering a minimum of 2000 miles, taking at least 100 photographs along the way. As always, should you or your car be stopped by the authorities, the Secretary of the NSXCA will disavow any knowledge of your actions. This tape will self-destruct in five seconds..."


It didn't happen _exactly_ like that, especially the self-destruct part, but that's the feeling I get each year when I start the Tour de California.

Besides carefully packing the car, the only early preparation I did for this year's Tour de California was to have four tires mounted and balanced on my extra wheels in June and then stack them in my garage. On Monday, July 3 I began swapping out the tires. When I removed the right front wheel, I was shocked to see that the outer brake pad was down to about 1 mm, probably within 1000 miles crunching metal on metal. This was not a Good Thing.

What _was_ good is that I found the problem before damage occurred. Even better, I found it a full hour before the dealer's parts department closed. I was happy to fork over 225 smackers for a new set of factory front pads, because money is essentially immaterial when it comes to the Tour.

I installed the new pads right away, but I was tired enough to accidentally loosen the brake hose union rather than the lower caliper mounting bolt. That put brake fluid on the floor (expensive RBF600 at that) and air in the lines. Drat! I had to bleed that side.

It's hard to believe, but I then made exactly the same mistake on the other side! How embarrassing. Oh well: No harm, no foul.

The next morning I went to the garage to verify that the car was ready to go, and wouldn't you know it: the battery was dead, even though I had just charged it the day before. I concluded that I didn't want to rely on this battery for the trip. Sam's Club was open on July 4, so I bought their very last Optima-style battery, which was quite a deal at $94 plus tax and a $7 core deposit. I was grateful that I didn't have to swap batteries with one of the other cars.

For the first time in several years, I decided not to carry some sort of extra tire with me in the trunk. I had intended to take my inflated mini-spare from last year, but it has a serious bottle cut. If I were only going to use the spare for a short distance, I might as well just get towed up to 100 miles by AAA. In a real pinch, I have an uninflated mini-spare up front. I also have a spare set of tires in southern California in case of premature eradication (of tire tread).

As to changing the oil, I can't decide whether it's better to do so before or after my summer drive, which is 80% of the use the car gets during the year. Lately I've been changing the oil after the trip, so the car has clean oil sitting in the garage for 11 months. It's Mobil 1, so I doubt the decision matters very much either way.

For this trip I finally got out my new car cover, retiring the old torn one. Maybe I'll give that one to the cat, who really enjoyed sleeping on it on the front hood. The new cover included the NSX storage bag, so I can keep the car cover up front on the passenger seat and save the trunk for heavier items that I wouldn't want flying around in case of an accident.

On the Big Day, I spent a few morning hours gathering everything and packing it in the car. Accepting my mission, I got on the road about 12:30 PM, later than I had planned but earlier than last year.

I missed all of rush hour, and I even had time to stop at the Acura dealer in Pleasanton to order some stray trim parts: a rubber bumper for the mini-spare and a color-coded plastic cap for the underside of the rear wing.

Navigating from memory, I began the fun on Mines Road south of Livermore. This year the driving conditions were perfect, with no debris on the road. The turns are tight enough to virtually require you to rotate the rear view mirror all the way to the right, so that it does not obstruct your view on sharp right-handers.

Mines Road is too tight for a good photo: You can usually only see 1 or 2 turns ahead. I've driven it many times, finding that the drive is more fun if you aren't pushing yourself too hard. Then you don't have to worry about overcooking the turns and you can just enjoy the road and scenery. Push hard and you'll wear yourself out or even make a mistake. With the stock 5-speed gearbox you can put it in 2nd gear and leave it there.

Much to my delight, my new brakes worked perfectly, slowing the car smoothly with no shudder.

About 20 miles down Mines, I saw a snake moving across the road. It was moving quite quickly, but not nearly as quickly as my NSX. I _might_ have missed him under the center of the car, but given that he was about 2 feet long there's a good chance that one end or the other got squashed. Put him down as probable road kill, first of this Tour and the first snake on any Tour.

You'd think that a snake of all creatures would be difficult to catch on the road by surprise. They are on the ground and they can feel the vibrations from the approaching car at some distance. So why would he try to cross the road in those circumstances instead of just getting off it? He was moving as fast as he could, so perhaps it he was just playing chicken. But he probably just wanted to get to the other side.

At the junction with Del Puerto Canyon Road, I continued south, as I usually do when visiting this area. Mines Road becomes San Antonio Valley Road, and the tight turns change to long straightaways through beautiful grassland. Here I saw the first deer of the Tour. As usual, I turned back north when the road began to climb Mt. Hamilton.

Turning east onto Del Puerto Canyon Road, I saw a couple of quail. The upper section of Del Puerto Canyon Road is in poor shape, in part due to severe rains last winter. All the debris has been cleared off the road, but there must have been a lot to get rid of: You can see piles of debris on the downhill side of the road.

The pavement on the lower section of Del Puerto Canyon Road is in much better shape. You just have to watch for a couple of decreasing radius turns. A guy I was following for a mile or two let me past right before one of those turns, perhaps to see whether I would get myself in trouble and give him a laugh. Instead, I used my knowledge of this road to take the turn at a brisk but safe speed.

The Del Puerto Canyon Road descent provided a good test of the new brakes. I couldn't get over how silky smooth they were compared to last year. Those were the original front pads and they lasted over 75000 miles. I guess I should have changed them sooner.

At the bottom of Del Puerto Canyon Road, I couldn't resist a detour on Diablo Grande Road, which is less than 2 years old and still in perfect condition. The Diablo Grande development now has hundreds of homes, placed depressingly close to each other given that the whole area is 10 miles away from anything.

On the way back out of Diablo Grande, I completely flattened a squirrel near the never-manned gatehouse. More vulture food.

About 50 miles south on I-5, a golden range of hills appeared on the right. That's my cue that the fun is about to resume at the Shields Road exit onto Little Panoche Road.

It's remarkable that you can leave this car in the garage for 10 months, driving it only a few times for local trips, and then (after you check your brake pads!) you can just hop in and take off for a 2000-mile trip. Nothing will break. If you were to try this with a boat, your vacation would be over by the time the boat was ready launch.

A few miles east of Pacines there is a long straight section of Panoche Road suitable for 4th gear: empty, with great visibility. I indulged myself briefly.

I took a detour 4 miles north to Tres Pinos to check out the annual Bluegrass festival. I didn't find it, and I later deduced that it had moved just a tad north of the park where it had been held a few years earlier, into the fairgrounds on the west side of Highway 25. If you're interested, look for the Good Old Fashioned Bluegrass Festival at scbs.org (Santa Clara Bluegrass Society). It should be on the calendar for July.

Highway 25 south was its usual great ride, with not a patrol car anywhere. Bitterwater Road was in good shape and suitable for cruising at 100 or so. It's Wide with very, very good visibility.

On the east side of King City I made the first of many $50+ fuel stops. This year gasoline will cost significantly more than tires, which hasn't always been the case at the rate I use tires.

A quick jog north on 101 brought me to Jolon Road, which leads south through more pretty countryside to Fort Hunter Liggett. There you need to show registration, ID, and proof of insurance to get in. Inside the grounds, I encountered an automated speed display device that produced _no alert whatsoever_ from my vintage Valentine 1 radar detector. Hmmmm. Maybe they are using some special military frequency? "Kenneth, what's the frequency?"

I reached Mission San Antonio at 6:45 PM, in plenty of time for some photos. A Mission within my mission.

The Mission's museum closes at 5PM on weekdays, 6PM on weekends, so I had to content myself with exterior photos of the Mission, grounds, and animals. The area is infested with rabbits and quail. They're clearly more accustomed to handouts than hunters.

I used the remaining hour or so of daylight to drive and photograph Del Venturi Road. This requires a riverbed crossing unless you know the long way around, using the bridge on Nacimiento Road and the diagonal cutoff road that's not on any map I have of the area. With only 2 inches of water present, it was easy to cross gently and slowly. If you're feeling playful, you can go faster and make quite a splash.

For the first time, I read the back of my parking pass from the guard. It says you're not allowed to take photos in the Fort without permission. Oops. I've already photographed the Hacienda Guest Lodge and the Mission. I guess being out on the road and photographing scenery should be OK as long as there aren't any military people or equipment in the photographs. You can see a photo of the Hacienda from above at http://maps.google.com/maps?f=l&hl=...93,-121.242794&spn=0.001406,0.003916&t=h&om=1 and a photo of the Mission from above at http://maps.google.com/maps?f=l&hl=...ll=36.015505,-121.24958&spn=0.002091,0.004967

Del Venturi is a beautiful road with a 45 mph limit. It's much prettier with sunlight than in the near-darkness of my previous excursions here. I drove about 15 miles up the road, past the second riverbed crossing and past the rock formation called The Indians. Then I made a U-turn, since I knew the pavement would end soon anyway.

Back near the Hacienda, I saw 6 or 7 deer hiding in tall grass on the north side of Del Venturi Road between the river crossing and the Hacienda. I doubt any predators could find them in there.

I reached the Hacienda close to 8 PM and washed the car in near darkness, watching the bats begin their night patrol. I checked in to Tower Room C and unloaded the car. If I'm not mistaken, the Cowboy rooms at the Hacienda have air conditioning and the Tower rooms have only a fan. The fan is adequate for all but the hottest days, though.

I had a quick meal at the restaurant (reminder to self: stick with the New York Steak and skip the more elaborate dishes), then returned to the room to check my email using the cable modem there. I set my alarm for 5:20 AM for a 6:00 AM departure.

Day One stats:
7.5 hours, 346.2 miles
Road kill: one snake (probable), one squirrel (definitely two-dimensional)


Day Two

I was on the road by my 6:00 AM departure target, but it wasn't early enough to beat the sunrise to the top of the coastal range. The orange glow of the mountains to the west showed me that sunrise was already happening there. I would probably have had to get started about 5:20AM to catch the sunrise up there. My consolation prize was getting to see the scenery in the valley.

I stopped first at the gas station near the Hacienda to top off the tank. This station takes regular credit cards and offers the same price as the station on Bitterwater Road at the edge of King City despite the presumable lack of state taxes on federal property. As I pumped gas, a bugle sounded reveille at 6:00 AM sharp. I could have sworn it was a live performance, but the technique was so perfect that it was probably a recording.

With a clean car, I took the bridge rather than the streambed road across the Nacimiento River. I'd gotten the urge to splash out of my system the day before.

The scenery was beautiful, as always, as I sedately cruised this 35 mph zone at... oops! 60 mph. This car is so smooth and its motion so undramatic that you can't tell how fast you're going without looking at the speedometer. Then you can get quite a surprise.

Stone Valley has fully recovered from a fire two years ago, with healthy-looking grass. It remains the most scenic valley in the state, in my opinion, even if it is off-limits to hiking. I mean, getting blown up by an unexploded shell can ruin your whole day.

Nacimiento Road snakes westward, forcing the difficult decision of whether to slow down and look at the scenery or speed up and enjoy the road. I did some of each. I saw two coyotes crossing the road in front of me, a mere 100 yards apart. I wonder if they work together?

Outside the Fort, in Los Padres National Forest, I saw a deer crossing the road, then another two. Don't they know there are thousands of men with guns nearby?

An overnight stay at the Hacienda is a really good way to start the Tour. It puts you in a great location to start some enjoyable driving right from the moment you turn the key. In fact, a Hacienda stay would be great even if you did only a 24-hour trip, returning home via Highway 1. That would be only a mini-Tour, but a terrific one.

So here's my NSX event idea -- call it the 24 Hours of NSX or the Dawn Patrol Extreme: Drive Highway 25 and either Bitterwater or 198 to King City to Jolon. Gas up at Fort Hunter Liggett, check in to the Hacienda and have dinner. In the morning take Highway 1 north to Post Ranch Inn or Nepenthe for lunch, then head home. Unfortunately, nobody seems to go for these extended duration events. Oh well; it's their loss.

Climbing the coastal range, I saw some effects of the heavy winter rains. One hillside had slid onto 1/3 of the road behind some temporary cement barriers. The nice thing about cruising this road in the summer is that the road crews have had a few months to repair winter damage and clear off the debris.

In the forested area east of the ridgeline, squirrels are everywhere. These are gray squirrels, not the brown ones you see in much of coastal or central California. Another deer took a good look at me, then decided to run up the road in the same direction I was going. It finally wised up and got off the road.

If you're on a group drive and not in the lead, you won't see nearly as much wildlife as I see, other than the two-dimensional variety. This Tour is setting some sort of record for wildlife sightings. And that doesn't even count the ones I killed.

Near the ridge, I took a few superb NSX shadow pictures at a spot a few turns lower than the place I remembered. The camera's shadow spoiled my first photo, so I turned the camera upside down and shot with the body of the camera in front of my face. My usual location for shadow photos didn't have the right sun angle for a full car shadow half an hour or so after sunrise, but by then I already had great photos from this new spot.

When you top the ridge, you can immediately see all the way down (and it is really DOWN) to the Pacific Ocean. That's when you find out whether or not you will be driving through fog or haze. This day there was a little haze down low, that's all. The ocean was visible from shore to about half a mile out. The low morning sun casts shadows westward, outlining the mountains on the ocean and highlighting the contours of the road as it slices down the mountainside far ahead.

On the way down I saw some quail and some wild fennel, and I stopped a few times for more great pictures.

Almost exactly an hour after leaving the Hacienda, I reached a totally empty Highway 1. "Yee ha!" The wide and smooth expanse of pavement elicits that involuntary reaction after the tight 20-minute descent. I only got 3 miles south before I had second thoughts and decided to make the most of this opportunity. I made a U-turn, heading north toward Big Sur. Another detour, but really, can you blame me?

As wonderful and scenic as Highway 1 is, in my opinion it's not a match for some of the finer interior roads. I prefer Del Venturi Road, for example, but maybe that's just me. Or maybe I'm just jaded, having seen the coast so many times.

I was going to continue to Post Ranch Inn, an ultra-expensive place to stay with a restaurant to match. The dining room has a glass wall toward the ocean, and it's spectacular. But at 7 AM it's closed with a capital C. So is Nepenthe, which is slight farther south of Big Sur. Besides, no restaurant can compete with an empty Highway 1.

So 30 minutes after turning north, I made another U-turn and headed south. It was still only 7:30 AM, and I had only seen a handful of cars heading south. They were probably all local residents. Still, I didn't push the car too hard. There's no need to be in a hurry to catch up with other cars and get stuck behind them.

This is probably the 5th Tour that I have started this way. You might think that I've gotten in a rut in my route selection for the first couple days. But each year I think about it, my conclusion is the same: "Why mess with perfection?"

Speaking of perfection, my CD changer just then started playing "Blue Sky" by the Allman Brothers...

As the sun came over the coastal range, I stopped to clean the windshield and incidentally to maintain the space between me any cars ahead. Usually I'm off the coast by the time the sun clears the mountains.

I passed Nacimiento Road again and looked at the clock: My little detour had given me an extra hour on Highway 1. An hour during which I wasn't behind another car THE ENTIRE TIME. I didn't have to pass anyone either. It was simply empty. Awesome.

Just that thought jinxed me, as I caught up to a car 3 minutes later. But that lasted only one minute before a passing zone set me free again. Ten minutes later, a second vehicle pulled over even before I caught up with him. The sight of an NSX in the rear view mirror can do that. :)

Suddenly I came upon a northbound pre-1959 Porsche speedster with grillwork-covered headlights. I waved to the driver, who obviously also knows the benefits of the Dawn Patrol on Highway 1. I had to pass just one other car, and a fourth let me past after a short wait. That was 90 minutes on Highway 1 with perhaps only 3 minutes of being behind anyone.

In the flats about 8 miles north of San Simeon there is a long straight section where you can see several miles ahead. That's far enough not just to slow for other traffic, but to come to a complete stop if necessary. It was there that I may have beat my personal best speed in the car. The car was perfectly smooooooth, stable, and confidence-inspiring. It felt like no more than 90 mph, but it was at least a full gear higher. Good thing I had had the front wheels re-balanced.

There is a dip near the end of the straight section with warning signs, so I slowed down in plenty of time for whatever the hazard might be. There was still nobody in sight as I switched back from kick-ass mode to picture taking mode.

I stopped at the ocean viewpoint just north of the Hearst Castle, and just like last year I saw a couple dozen elephant seals on the beach and in the water. They huddle together on the sand, completely inert until one of them digs in and expertly tosses a flipperful of sand up in the air and onto his back. The seals in the water are more active, continually jousting with each other. That makes for some great photos.

This stop also features meal service, but the meals are for the chipmunks, not the people. Not content merely to beg, they work for their meals. They form an impromptu cleaning crew, climbing into the front end of the car and eating the dead bugs from the radiator. I'm sure they enjoy the NSX: It's so close to the ground that they have no trouble hopping up and in.

At San Simeon State Park, just south of the Hearst Castle, I turned inland for the wooden bridge photos I neglected to take in 2005. Another advantage of repeating the same start of the Tour is not having to consult a map. This time I went all the way to the end of the pavement, 6 miles up this tiny, bumpy road. A set of 8 mailboxes without matching houses confirmed that this was the end of the line. Nope, this is not a Tour quality road in any sense.

Across Highway 1 from San Simeon State Park are a handful of very impressive waterfront houses. How much do they cost? If you have to ask...

My usual route inland is Old Creek Road, and my second choice is Santa Rosa Creek Road. The problem is that both are narrow and I've never been able to avoid getting stuck behind local traffic. So this time I chose Highway 46, despite its reputation for being heavily patrolled. It proved to be an excellent choice, delivering a superb 16 miles over the coastal hills to Vineyard Drive.

I had forgotten what an entertaining driving road Vineyard is when it's empty. The scenery, as good as it is, is actually secondary to the driving experience. This year I decided to do a complete tour of the area, going east on Adelaida, back west on Chimney Rock Road, and east to Paso Robles on Peachy Canyon Road. On my first Tour in 1999, Chimney Rock Road had the best pavement, but now, thanks no doubt to skyrocking property values, Adelaida and Peachy Canyon Road have newer pavement. Chimney Rock Road remains the best driving experience: its curves are spaced just right and the road is wide, without those deep shadows in which hazards can hide.

Peachy Canyon Road reminds me of Mines Road, with tight turns, no dividing line, and no markings for any of the turns. It demands constant attention.

I decided to add a couple gallons of gas at Paso Robles for a worry-free drive to Taft, which I guessed would be 100 miles farther. (It turned out to be 97 miles.) Still working without maps, I took Niblick Road to Creston Road, crossing Highway 41 onto La Panza Road. I decided to skip Highway 229, which is just a stone's throw west across the river.

By noon I was on Highway 58, in full car commercial mode. I was inspired by the rock-solid brakes, nice sticky tires, perfect pavement, and an empty road.

Highway 58 is such fun. First you have curve after curve. Then there are long straights where you can give the engine another road dynomometer test. Then you have several sets of huge dips capable of slamming you onto the ceiling if you're not careful. The road is just so playful. Next you zigzag up, over, and down another range of hills into the Central Valley.

As the road flattened out, I did a little experiment: What happens to a tumbleweed when you hit it at 90 mph?

Well, I didn't actually find out, because there wasn't enough left of it afterwards to analyze. Thank goodness I have a nose mask on the car. My Dali StoneShield did a superb job protecting the radiator from tumbleweed implants.

All the Highway 58 fun ends at the dreary Highway 33, which leads south to Taft. 15.5 gallons of fuel later, I was heading south again on 33, past Maricopa, up a big hill, and finally making my escape from traffic onto Cerro Noroeste Road. Once again I was alone enough to stop for pictures, "rest" stops, or for no reason at all. Not only could I stop, but I could choose any forward speed I liked within the laws of physics. On this road, that was rarely over 55 mph.

It's great to have been born at the right time to drive the Tour de California. Fifty years ago the technology wasn't at nearly this level of fun. Fifty years from now if things aren't too crowded the roads will probably be deteriorated. Or the authorities will be GPS tracking you and mailing you tickets for exceeding the speed limit in the middle of nowhere. That's if they even let you, rather than a computer, control the car.

I see one ray of hope for the future of enthusiastic driving. If this sort of driving is banned, the auto makers will not be able to show commercials with cars screaming down empty roads. With that as ammunition, the automakers might have enough political clout to prevent the end of untethered driving.

But growing population is still a problem. I've already noticed that some of my favorite roads from 10 years ago aren't usable any more for enthusiastic driving. These are mostly the ones closer to urban areas.

Speaking of population centers, by the time Cerro Noroeste becomes Cuddy Valley Road, I always get stuck behind other cars for several miles. Turning right onto Lockwood Valley Road always solves that problem.

Lockwood Valley Road has a few dry riverbed crossings that show evidence of positively wicked water flows in the recent past. They indicate water levels more than sufficient not only to wash your car, but to wash your car AWAY if you are foolish enough to cross during a heavy rain.

While I was taking my second photo with the car parked right in the middle of one of these crossings, an almost dry stream bed, a black and white Sheriff's truck passed by in the oncoming lane. I waved and he waved back. I hadn't actually been going fast enough to pick up a ticket, but he didn't know that.

Continuing from memory, I turned south on Highway 33, then followed Highway 150 through Ojai to Santa Paula. There I turned left on Harvard just before the freeway, then right on 12th Street. That put me on the causeway to South Mountain Road, which parallels 126 at the foot of the hills south of the river. Highway 23 and the freeways concluded my day uneventfully.

I took almost 2 hours to clean the car, recovering from a grasshopper mini-attack (about 50 of them) and removing plenty of tumbleweed debris. The Dali Stone Shield did a great job, saving me from possibly having to find a replacement radiator, which would have been tough to find on short notice.

The car looks great when it's clean. Some people have said that the NSx's looks are dated. I disagree. They are timeless. The NSX has that in common with my wife, who can't be dated either. At least not since we've been married.

Day Two stats:
12 hours, 526.4 miles
Road kill: none

Day Three was a Sunday drive to the desert. I started out at 7:20 AM with a very clean car, a pair of sunglasses, and some food and drinks. Even if I wanted to stop for lunch out there, there are precious few places to do so. I decided to try once again to do the day's drive without maps.

Car commercials show cars zooming along scenic, empty roads. Presumably this sells cars because people imagine themselves taking such drives. The funny thing is that so few people that I know actually do this. The only ones I know of are Sacramento's Dawn Patrol crew. I've been trying for years to get people to go with me on longer drives but nobody will do it.

Perhaps this is one of those cases in which the fantasy substitutes for reality, even among owners of these cars who can go out and tour whenever they want. If they can get their spouses to agree, that is... Oh, I think I see the problem now.

If convincing your spouse is your problem, try this syllogism on her: Those car commercials work. If there weren't an attraction to driving empty roads at high speeds, you wouldn't see those commercials. This proves that any husband is perfectly normal for wanting to take a tour now and then. See, wasn't that easy?

After 70 minutes of freeway, I fueled up at the Highway 76 exit. I always see several motorcyclists here, also on their way to Mount Palomar. It takes another 45 soporific minutes on Highway 76 to reach the foot of Palomar, where I stop and wait. The idea is to pull out in front of a distant approaching car after allowing several minutes for other cars to complete the climb. I waited 4 minutes before launching.

According to my dashboard clock, I needed 8 minutes to complete the climb to East Grade Road. There were plenty of vehicles coming down, but nobody in front of me going up. I was disappointed with my lack of smoothness on the curves. Some of them are decreasing radius, some not. You can't tell the difference unless you know the road. I would benefit from memorizing the road, but that would take more time and energy than I have on the Tour. The correct strategy in such a situation is to enter each corner conservatively until you know what you face. I was pushing too hard and having to slow down mid-corner, and that's slower overall than doing it the right way.

I would normally go back down and try it again, but there must have been 30 cars coming down the mountain, plus 2 bicyclists. I didn't really want to deal with that level of traffic, and bicyclists on the road pose a special hazard.

So I turned right and took East Grade Road down the mountain instead. No more Palomar for this year. Palomar is a good workout and it's fun, but you have stay on your side of the line and be alert for others who don't. Today everyone was on his side of the line and it was just fine.

Nevertheless, it's undeniable that running Palomar is dangerous. You never know what other people are going to do, but the superbike riders often cross the center line. I've never seen bicyclists there before and that adds another nasty variable to the equation. Maybe I have to get up WAAAAY earlier or something. Getting up at 5 AM is pretty tough after you've just driven two days (8+12 hours) of the Tour.

East Grade Road is a fairly ordinary looking country road until you suddenly pop out of some trees and you're right on the edge, at least 2000 feet above a huge valley and Lake Henshaw. That's breathtaking every time.

Descending, I couldn't get over how perfect the brakes felt.

Next I drove Mesa Grande Road clockwise, taking pictures to remedy an omission from previous years. The downgrade at the western end is much more intense than I remembered, with tight switchbacks. It ends at a bikers' bar. I made a U-turn and drove back counter-clockwise, which I now realize is the better of the two directions. That uphill section from the bar is a true first gear road, one on which you don't need to exceed 40 mph.

At 10:30 AM I reached County Highway S2. This is by far the earliest I've reached the desert. At its north end, S2 is an extremely smooth 4-lane that just happens to be striped for 2 lanes. It gives you quite a feeling of security with all that extra lateral room. And the weather wasn't scorching hot, as it usually is in summer.

If I were videotaping the drive down S2, it would be so boring it would put you to sleep. That's what a wide road with sweeping turns looks like on video. But if you looked at the speedometer, you'd be surprised to see what speed I'm actually going.

About 15 miles down the road, I crested a small rise a got a big surprise: a speed radar. My Valentine 1 gave out just a little beep as I topped the rise, but it was too late to do anything useful about it. The police car was 150 yards ahead at the side of the road. I quickly hauled my speed down to 55. Fortunately for me, the patrolman was already giving someone else a ticket, and he could only look wistfully at me. I'll bet he was as surprised by my presence as I was by his.

The intersection of S2 and Highway 76 is called Scissors Crossing because it has that offset diagonal shape on a map. South of Scissors Crossing, S2 is narrower and completely desolate.

Toward the town of Ocotillo and the Mexican border the road straightens out. The car was completely stable at high speed, despite or perhaps because of the fact that I was driving with the front tires flipped, the left tire mounted on the right wheel and vice versa, in both cases with the sidewall labeled "side facing inward" facing outward. This has the effect of pre-steering the front tires inward, rather than outward as they supposed to be. The stock setting is for faster turn-in, but I'm betting that the stock setting also decreases high-speed stability. Regardless, I have yet to notice any difference in the handling between the stock mounting and this flipped mounting.

Flipping the front tires does, however, dramatically improve the tread life. With the stock mounting, the inside edges go bald before the outside is even halfway worn. Flipping the tires almost completely eliminates this uneven wear. OK, enough about tires.

Probably 8 years ago when I was planning my first Tour de california I had a conversation with an NSX owner from the San Diego area. He told me about Highway S2 to Ocotillo. He said that you could test the high speed capability of your car if you didn't mind getting airborne at 135 mph. I never could figure out which section of S2 he was talking about until this trip. I think it's the last 5 or 6 miles on the southern end. They are almost completely straight but with quite a few dips.

The reason I took so long to figure this out is simple: In my opinion you'd have to be nearly certifiable to try driving 135 mph there. Besides the big dips (in the road, not in the car), the road isn't even terribly smooth.

The other problem I have with dips is that I slam my head on the roof. That kinda hurts. Not to mention that if I knocked myself unconscious it would be really unpleasant when I woke up. If I woke up.

As you head south, you can see a good-sized mountain in the distance across the border in northern Mexico. Since there's nothing of interest in Ocotillo, I always make a U-turn at the edge of town and head back north. From there you can see another mountain in the distance to the north, with two white structures on top. Palomar would be about 40 air miles away, so that must be what it is.

Clouds were keeping the air relatively cool. Relatively being the operative word. It was probably 95 to 98. The temperature, not my speed. The forecast for my speed is high and variable, with some acceleration toward the afternoon.

Back at Scissors Crossing, I turned east on Highway 76. Six miles later is the turn north for Highway S3, also known as Yaqui Pass Rd. S3 has a nice zigzaq pattern, rocking you back and forth as you wind up the mountainside. Then it descends gently on a straight glide slope of a plain into the 20-mile wide valley containing Borrego Springs. If this weren't the desert it would be quite pretty. If you like desolate desert scenery, then I guess it is. At this distance from town, you can't see the mobile homes.

You don't need a map to transit Borrego Springs because when you come in on S3 you can see the entire layout from above, and Highway S22 is easily visible slicing up the mountainside to the west. If S3 is a glide slope approach, S22 is more like the escalator.

I decided to do a triple run of S22, driving up, taking pictures on the way back down, then driving up again.

On my first ascent I was pretty smooth except for the one decreasing radius turn where I needed to slow more abruptly. I try to avoid using the brakes on the way up, letting gravity slow the car as I ease into the turns. There's no risk of a speeding ticket, because you almost can't exceed 55 mph without full race tires.

At one point I saw the temperature needle rise about 1.5 marks, so I shifted to third gear to let the cooling system catch up as the slope of the road climb decreased. The top of the climb is 11 miles from the bottom, so this is a serious ascent, much longer, faster, and safer than Palomar. It makes great photos, too. On the way down you can see how the road twists here and there, and then hugs the side of the mountain on the steep parts.

My second ascent was nearly perfect. I recognized the one decreasing radius turn that does require tapping the brakes, but gravity did the job elsewhere. That was much better driving than I did on Palomar. I found it easier to be smooth while pushing on the "dead pedal" with my left foot to force myself backwards into the seat. To keep the temperature gauge from moving upward (remember this was a 98-degree day and my Stone Shield reduces radiator air flow somewhat) I alternated between second and third gear.

Highway S22 quickly brought me back to S2, where I had only five miles before rejoining Highway 79. That was the end of empty roads for the day. I stopped for gas at Sunshine Summit, the continued west to Redec. There the intriguing County Road R3 heads north into a rapidly developing rural area.

There is one really, really nasty turn on R3. It's the first one marked by a big horizontal arrow. There are skid marks all over the road. It surprised me a bit the first time, but I stayed in my lane. Still, once is enough for you to remember it a year later. The rest of R3 is great for driving, as you can tell by the heavy rubber deposits on the apex berms of most of the curbs.

This area is going very much upscale from where it was. There is more traffic than last year or the year before, presumably due to increased population. The amusing thing to me is that this fine road is probably one of the attractions for living out here, but it won't be such a fine road after all the people move in and make it crowded.

At Sage, which is more an intersection than a town or even hamlet, I turned west onto East Benton Road. I've never had a map of this area south of Hemet. I've always navigated by the sun, and this day I was making a point of not using maps.

At the T, I turned right on Glenoaks. Here I got the payoff for this particular detour: I saw a fellow pulling out of his driveway in a burnt orange metallic Lamborghini Gallardo. I've never seen one of those before. I waved.

You might say that spending $200k on a sports car is a little ridiculous. But considering that the real estate prices in this area are even more ridiculous, that sports car is a relative (and I stress relative) bargain.

A left on Rancho California Road, still following the sun and my memory, brought me straight to I-15. Yippee! Completely accurate navigation without maps, for the third day in a row.

Entering the freeway, I had to remind myself that freeways have actual speed limits and actual police patrols enforcing them. Time to switch mental gears accordingly.

As I finished the day, the CD changer was playing Ted Nugent's "Flirting with Disaster". Let's hope that's not an accurate description of my driving...

Cleanup took less than an hour, with only a dozen or so grasshoppers.

Day Three stats:
9 hours, 509 miles (lots of dull freeway miles in there)
Road kill: none

Day Four was a Friday drive north from the Los Angeles area. I got a later than usual start at 10:00 AM, but perhaps that helped a bit with the freeway traffic. Right there on the 405, I saw what turned out to be a Spyker C8 Spider on a flatbed. See
http://www.newporteuropean.com/details.html?VID=1-18l1151523467

You probably wouldn't drive that thing very many of the places I've been with the NSX. The crawling traffic gave me a chance to snap a few photos. At the same time, I also saw about 15 Porsches in a row go past in the car pool lane. Perhaps they were all going to a model introduction event of some sort?

Before leaving the Los Angeles area, I stopped at the Nethercutt Auto Museum in Sylmar. Entry is free, and the collection has plenty of fine cars, mostly from the 1920s and 1930s. There are just a few cars from the 1950s and later.

The most prominent impression I got at the museum was of a multi-million dollar Dodge. Specifically, a Tax Dodge. You can indulge your hobby and deduct the whole thing, if you are just willing to let a few yahoos like me look at your collection.

One of the most fascinating items is displayed right next to the entrance. It's a coin-operated electromechanical music paying machine with an automated piano and an automated violin. See http://www.marvin3m.com/arcade/violano.htm

Now it was time for the Tour. I took California 14 to Placerita Canyon Road, turning right on Sand Canyon, which becomes Little Tujunga Rd at Bear Divide.

Oh, this day's drive absolutely required consulting my maps. For one thing, there were plenty of decisions necessary. Near sunset on Day Four I typically need to adjust the route according to how much time I have left.

On Sand Canyon, I briefly smelled ozone (that burned electrical smell). It disappeared as quickly as it came. Strange. I never did figure out what it was.

At the saddle where Sand Canyon become Little Tujunga Road is a ranger station and Bear Divide Road. The road is labeled "not a through street". They're not kidding, but the road winds through 4 glorious miles to a spectacular view before it narrows down to a cow path. It's worth the detour. I got to the top at noon and invested a minute or two in cleaning the windshield. That paid dividends for the rest of the day.

Little Tujunga Road and Foothill brought me to Sunland, where I decided to get gas. From there, Oro Vista Avenue becomes Big Tujunga Road. The part of the road damaged in winter 2005-2006 still needs repair, but it's only 100 yards' worth. Big Tujunga has great high-speed sweeping turns, literally a nice change of pace from Little Tujunga.

As planned, I turned right on Angeles Forest Highway. On a hunch, I pulled over, climbed over a berm, and got a photo of Big Tujunga Road looking down from above.

Back underway, it was Yee-Ha time again, with zigzagging S-curves snaking/slicing down the mountainside. A left turn onto Angeles Crest Highway and another 5 miles brought me to Mt. Wilson Road. Mt. Wilson Road is a dead end, but not before you drive 5 miles of tight turns, climbing to the top on a steady grade. It reminds me of Little Tujunga Road. There's no time for snoozing on this road. The view from Mt. Wilson was obscured by the usual summer smog, but I could still see hints of downtown buildings and Palos Verdes.

When your brakes are working well, the descent back to Angeles Crest Highway is perfect for second gear. Gravity provides almost all the acceleration you need. It's very confidence-inspiring and relaxing. I had not a sign of fade or shudder.

Back on Angeles Crest Highway, I turned east. I had checked
http://www.dot.ca.gov/hq/roadinfo/sr2
for the road conditions, finding that the road is blocked at Islip Saddle. That means I should have the road to myself. Well, actually I saw some motorcyclists and there was a guy with a Viper parked in the shade. The eastern part of this road has a 55 mph limit, and that's about all you need. The curves are plenty of fun at 50 mph in the NSX.

A few miles before Islip Saddle there is a 100% genuine "Welcome to Oregon" road sign that someone transplanted 600 miles south. That's hilarious. The vegetation fits, too.

I passed Cloudburst summit (elevation 7018 ft) and the entrance to the Snowcrest ski area. But then there was a gate blocking the road. Unlike 2005, I didn't make it to the twin tunnels that make your exhaust sound so sweet. That's a disappointment. Oh, well. I turned back, with the road still empty, completing my loop via Upper Big Tujunga Road and joining Angeles Forest Highway about an hour after I left it. Yes, a one-hour loop of virtually empty road, virtually within sight of Los Angeles.

I passed through Palmdale and Lancaster on Highway 14, exiting at Backus Road and heading west to Techachapi Springs Road. It's always so spectacular going through the Tecahapi Pass with all the windmills, some of which are absolutely huge, with what look like 50-foot radius blades.

Heading past Oak Creek Road, through the heart of the wind farm, I especially liked the part where a huge windmill is on the far side of a hill. As you approach, the windmill progressively disappears behind the hill and all you see is the blades slicing over the top of the hill.

The taller windmills with the smaller blades turn more rapidly. They look like the hyperactive children of the slower-moving large "adult" windmills.

Descending toward Techachapi, I saw two trains stretched out parallel to Highway 58. One of them looked to be over 2 miles long. I wondered if I would find the famous Tehachapi Loop this day.

I got on Highway 58 west as usual. Then, 12 miles later a sign at exit 139 at Keene read "Tehachapi Loop next right". Game on! You turn right, then the road crosses east back underneath Highway 58. Three miles up the road is a monument overlooking the loop. See http://www.tehachapi.com/loop/

I was lucky enough to see a train heading through the loop.

I continued east to check out this country road. Next time I will come down from Tehachapi via Keene, using this road to avoid the heavily patrolled Highway 58. This road is nearly the equal of the ascent going to Bodfish. It also has a view of the train tracks from above the tunnels, which are above Highway 58.

Heading back, I saw yet another train transiting the loop. I got a photo of it making a complete circle at the loop. (The loop is nearly a mile in circumference, but you can see all of it from above.) This must be rush hour for trains. I saw two at the loop plus a third one waiting below the loop to pass. (The loop is single track only.)

A mere six miles west on Highway 58 brought me to the Caliente exit. Almost immediately the road begins a descent into a pristine valley full of amber-colored grass. Every time I arrive here, my reaction is the same: "Wow, that's pretty." It's like a painting of an idyllic countryside. Even the wildlife was moving slowly: I managed to avoid a lethargic bunny in the center of the road.

Four miles off the highway, the road separates into Caliente-Bodfish Road to the left and Caliente Creek Road to the right. The first snakes up and over the ridge into the huge Walker Basin, while the second circles around through the narrow canyon carved by the creek. It's a tough decision, because both roads are fun, but Caliente Creek Road is better when you're heading uphill. Normally I circle all the way around and then backtrack, but this year I was running too late for that. So I limited myself to Caliente Creek Road. Day Four has plenty of other nice roads to drive.

The road has one and only one passing zone, right at the beginning. I got around a horse trailer and I was off to the races. As pretty as the pictures I've taken of this area are, it's even prettier in fast forward.

Cattle graze on both sides of the road, without any fences. The road has cattle guards, but I can't figure out why, since I see cattle both before and after crossing them. I have no beef with them if they stay off the road. Road kill is one thing. But running into a cow... that's a whole different animal.

On the upper stretch of this road,the canyon gives way to brown grassland with live oak trees. It's attractive except for the trailers that the humans like to live in. Some day, I'm sure, they will be replaced by real houses.

There's no getting around it: if you want to live out in the country you had better like animals and you had better like to take care of them. That's about all there is to do out here. Then when you get too old to take care of the animals you kinda have to move. I don't know what people did in the old days other than just die at home.

Caliente Creek Road becomes Walker Basin Road at Piute Mountain Road. Walker Basin is a bowl-shaped plain perhaps 10 miles wide encircled by mountains. When it's a little greener it must be even prettier.

Bearing right at the major intersections eventually puts you onto Caliente-Bodfish Road. About 3 miles before then I had seen a group of cars coming north on Caliente-Bodfish Road across my line of sight. I accelerated and beat all but one of them to the junction. Apparently they were traveling together, because the car ahead of me pulled over immediately to regroup. Avoiding getting stuck behind a group of cars is a big deal here, because 2 miles later the road snakes up the hillside where there are no passing zones. Safely passing multiple cars on a two-lane road is no picnic, and it generally requires a wide open road.

At the foot of the final climb over the mountain to Bodfish Lake Isabella, the dividing line disappears. The road winds up and up through tight turns, then suddenly you are over the top and slanting straight down the side of a ridge directly toward Lake Isabella, 2000 feet below in the distance. The right half of your field of view looks just as if you have just turned onto final approach for a landing.

I turned left on Kernville Rd, which is Highway 155, crossing over the Kern River. I didn't have time to stop there, but the river is quite impressive as it flows over the rocks. You wouldn't want to risk swimming there, that's for sure.

Highway 155 is superb when you're not stuck behind someone as I have been every time before this year. This year's drive was really a treat. I got a nice photo here of a rock formation poking out of the water.

I found fuel five miles north of the river. It's important to refuel as late as possible on Day Four in order to maximize my route options for Day Five.

Following Highway 155 west, I saw an adult quail with several babies (baby quail, that is) crossing the road. They took off to avoid the car, but one of the little ones didn't quite clear my windshield, hitting it fairly gently and fluttering over to other side of the road. It seemed to be flying OK, especially considering that baby quail don't fly that well in the first place. So he wasn't road kill, but merely the recipient of an important life lesson in road reality.

This summer Highway 155 is getting some new asphalt, and the crews are making quite a mess of it. The asphalt is still soft, and it is covered with light oil and some loose gravel. That's not NSX-friendly. But at least the road is empty, if you don't count those cows standing at the edge.

Highway 155 descends thousands of feet in turn after turn after turn. It's a workout for both your arms and the car's tires. I lost count of the decreasing radius turns within the boundary of Sequoia National Forest. The nasty turns are not marked. In fact none of the turns are marked. You just have to use your eyes and common sense and be ready for the all-too-frequent surprise.

With the daylight getting short, I decided to skip Granite Road. That would have required nearly another hour, putting me at the campground well after dark. Instead, I turned right at Jack Ranch Road, but next time I have to remember that turning a teeny bit earlier at White River Road provides a slight shorter route over to Jack Ranch. Jack Ranch Road is hard to top. It has live oak trees and grass and plenty of curves: not too slow and not too fast.

Old Stage Road was next on the menu. It descends a pretty canyon and it's always empty. The pavement was buckled badly last year, but the worst spots have been rounded off. The lower section has a series of naturally banked turns that feed directly into crests that have turns in the opposite direction, just like a roller coaster.

At Fountain Springs, Hot Springs Drive provides a newly repaved path back up the mountains. When I stopped to think whether this was the correct turn, a pickup truck got in front of me. Drat! It didn't take me too long to pass, and then I noticed that the partially re-assembled Z-car I had seen earlier was doing a good remora imitation. He kept up really well until I took a sweeper at 60 mph, very close to the limit for that curve on my A022 tires. He exited that turn way behind, leading me to surmise that his tires made cornering at that speed much more interesting if not downright scary. Very few cars can out-corner the NSX on its stock tires, and this road needs a lot of cornering.

I reached the T and Highway 190 at 7:30 PM, with the sun still up. A deer wasn't shy about being seen in daylight, and just wandered across the road. Highway 190 curves up the last one or two thousand feet to the ridge line, then follows that ridge northward. Hence its name "Western Divide Highway". The ridge divides the Kern River basin to the east from the Tule River basin and the Central Valley to the west.

Driving Highway 190 in daylight is a pleasure that I have not had for several years. The first thing you notice is the giant sequoias. They are seemingly everywhere, including in the campgrounds. From the ridge you can occasionally see Sierra peaks to the east.

At 8:15PM I reached the Ponderosa Lodge, very near my campground. It had been closed last year, apparently after the death of the long-time owner. Now it's open 8AM-8PM weekends 9AM-8PM weekdays. I bought a couple of snack items for my breakfast, well sealed to avoid detection by any roving bears.

By 8:30PM I was at Quaking Aspen campground setting up my tent for the night. I chose a different site this year because several of the trees have been cut down, leaving debris all over my former tent spot. I remembered to park clear of trees to avoid dripping sap. After I realized that I had forgotten my car washing bucket, I decided not to put my clean car cover on the dirty car. I had also forgotten my sleeping pad, but that proved no problem. I had bought a thin plastic drop cloth in the morning to replace the ground cloth I left at home, so at least the tent would stay clean.

The car may have been dirty, but I could still see the reflection of a star off the shiny black roof. If you wait until it gets totally dark, you can see a whole lot of stars from up here at 7000 feet.

In my tent I spent a few minutes looking at the maps. Days Four and FIve have the most options for where to go depend on time and tires and energy. I decided to skip Granite Road entirely for this year. It's heresy, I know, but this way I could be fresher for Minarets Road even taking the back roads to get there. Next year I need to start Day Four at 5 AM or 6 AM to beat rush hour and allow running Granite Rd and reach the camp site at a reasonable hour.

I had been thinking of checking out Lloyd Meadow Road, from which I saw a very, very dirty car come out in 2005. I decided that I should try that in a future year. The dirt to reward ratio for that road is quite high, so the best way would be to arrive earlier, drive that road near the end of the day, then wash the car that evening so I'd have a clean car for the next day.

Day Four stats:
11 hours, 416.9 miles
Road kill: none


I slept straight through the night, waking up at 5:45 AM. It was then I realized that the bears had not visited the area overnight as they had every other year. As I sat up, a baby quail walked by my screen door.

I took my time getting organized and got on the road at 6:55 AM. The tires looked fresher than they ever have at this point of the Tour, easily able to handle the rest of the trip.

I made two departures from past practice:

1. I didn't wash the car. I had no bucket and I was too lazy to make do with smaller containers. Also, I didn't want to scratch the paint due to insufficient water. Besides, the car wasn't really THAT dirty, was it?

2. I decided to limit my Day Five miles to be more alert for the Minarets run.

After paying for the camp site, I started north down Highway 190. This is a terrific descent, and I was going to run the upper stretch twice, but a few uncured 200-foot-long asphalt patches with loose debris made that an unttractive option. When the asphalt hardens this will once again be one of the best descents there is. It goes on and on and on. After it seems that you must be halfway down, a sign tells you that you're only down to 6000 feet (from about 7000 feet at the campground).

I saw a mother and baby deer and some quail within 50 feet of each other next to the road. Descending toward Camp Nelson, it's almost like skiing down the mountain: left, right, left, right, left, right. Past this point there was more uphill traffic, but they all did a great job of staying on their side of the road.

At the Tule River bridge, an old flume crosses over and above road. Farther down the road you can see a rickety wood structure that appears to be the same flume high on the mountainside to the north. The things people will build in the middle of nowhere. According to the Internet, this is probably the Mount Whitney Power Company's flume, which was built over 100 years ago. It was controversial at the time, and now it's just as unsightly, although I suppose you can say that it adds character to the place.

Highway 190 doesn't stop descending until you pass the 2000ft elevation sign. A whole mile down from the top!

I turned north on Balch Park Road, which leads through a farming valley to Yokohl Valley Road, which goes up and over a ridge. This is a pretty area but the buildings are not attractive. Even if the natural scenery were a match for Vineyard Road, which its not, the buildings are downright ugly.

The descent to Porterville is largely free of buildings and scenic enough for photos. I took some there in past years, and this year I recognized where they came from. Live oak studded, rock studded, brown grass hills. You know, California.

Yokohl Valley Road doesn't have the greatest pavement. It has some very tight turns, one of which is accurately labeled 10 mph. But it's scenic and empty, and it connects other nice roads, so you should just go for it. Renew your membership in the pro-journey, anti-destination league.

Just south of Yokohl I took a side trip on Avenue 280 up the hill to a central valley overlook. The valley floor disappears in the west into the haze. That is one big valley.

I turned northeast on Highway 198, then stopped for food at Lemon Cove. From there I turned west on Highway 216 past my usual Dry Creek Road to Woodlake. I had decided to try Highway 245 instead this year.

Highway 245 starts out in the flatlands, but once it climbs out of the valley, the drive is superb. It's hardly ever straight. This is far superior to Dry Creek, which is somewhat bumpy and narrow. The scenery is good too. I like it. There are no speed limit signs on Highway 245. They would be pointless, since there are few places you could exceed 55 mph, even in an NSX.

As good roads do, Highway 245 goes on and on. It's magical. Even better than Road 600, for example. Too bad there are so many trees blocking the views: I could only find one good spot to take a photograph.

Taking Dry Creek Road you miss at least 15 miles of twisties on Highway 245. That's too much. From now on, it's Highway 245 all the way. This is definitely an A-list road.

As the area became somewhat residential (mailboxes, but no houses in view), I turned left on Dunlap Road. Three miles later I was shocked to suddenly be driving on dirt! It turned out to be an intersection replacement project, and the pavement resumed.

I wound my way through the area without any usable maps, selecting the road with the better pavement at each turn. I drove Sundew (excellent road), Chuckwagon, Sand Creek, Pepperweed, Squaw Valley Road, Sand Creek (different section), Mistletoe, then finally George Smith Road which took me up to Highway 180.

County maps are nearly essential for this sort of thing. You can do without them, as I just did, but not as efficiently. And you will miss opportunities that you'll see later when you review the map and it's too late to do anything about it.

I got a little gas at Squaw Valley and continued north on Elwood Road. Now I was back on the beaten path. There I passed the Wonder Valley Ranch Resort and Convention Center, which is also the home of River Way Ranch Camp, a summer camp for kids who like water sports.

A right turn on Piedra Road and another quick right on Trimmer Springs Road brought me to the Trimmer Springs Reservoir. The almost empty road follows the shoreline. The turns are wide and fast, if you are in the mood for that.

I turned north on Maxon Road, then right on Watts Valley Road (straight ahead is gravel, if I recall correctly), which becomes Burrough Valley Road. By this time I was totally mapless, having left my Bay and Mountain map at home. Back to driving from memory.

Speaking of which, I should get Infrequent Driver miles for the Tour de California. At 2000-2500 miles per year, after 10 years I could get a free trip!

I turned right on Tollhouse Road, then straight onto Lodge Road, across 168 to Auberry. There must be other and perhaps better routes, but this one worked fine.

Leaving Auberry, I followed the sign for North Fork, bearing left onto Powerhouse Road, which becomes County Road 222. I took a side trip down Mammoth Powerhouse Road to check out the San Joaquin River Gorge Park. A roadside sign announced: "Warning: No target shooting for public safety". No target shooting. Hmmmm. Do they think it's safer if you just shoot aimlessly?

It was 5 miles down to the BLM campground and a dead end. I suppose I could camp here some time if it's too cold up on Minarets Road. You can blast back up this road if you like, since there are no side roads or residences.

Powerhouse Road to North Fork is not for acrophobes. There's a steep drop on left (800 feet or more) as it slices down mountain toward North Fork. The road makes an endless series of tight S-curves. If you take a passenger, this could be a 3-bag descent. I refer to airsickness bags, of course.

Right before Redinger Lake Road (County Road 235), there is a beautiful 90 degree turn on a bridge over the river. Drat! I should have gotten a photo of that.

As you enter North Fork, a sign proclaims: "Welcome to North Fork, exact center of California." I suppose that means this would be the balance point of a cardboard cutout of the state. Either that or they gave the most money to Arnold's campaign. :)

I always refuel at North Fork. The stop also gives your mind a chance to clear and get ready for the next shift.

Five miles down County Road 225, I made the left turn onto Minarets Road. The turn is well-marked with a Scenic Byway sign. The elevation is marked 2640 here. It's something over 7000 feet at the top.

Near the bottom, a fellow with a boat trailer pulled aside to let another vehicle and me pass, then I was easily able to pass the other guy. This entire road is marked with a dashed line. You can pass wherever you feel like it. That is to say, you're supposed to use your head. It all depends on how much empty space there is, doesn't it? Both on the road and in your head.

This road is the rare one on which arriving earlier than usual actually increases the traffic you face. Those boaters go up the mountain early in the day, and return late in the day. I usally get here at 3:00 or 4:00 PM when nobody's going up.

The lower section of Minarets Road has a Redinger Lake overlook (an excellent photo stop), then you have a long way driving through tall pine trees blocking the views. In motion, this gives a pleasant tunnel-like video game effect. Closer to the top you get some Sierra peak views, with a great photo stop at Mile High Curve.

Soda Springs campground is up here, next to the west fork of Chiquito Creek. It looks like a popular spot, probably for good reason. I'm thinking that some future year I will stop here at 6:00 PM or so, then continue on Sunday through Yosemite, Quincy, and some roads in between. But this year I needed to be home all day Sunday.

At the split for Mammoth Pool Road all the boaters are required turn to right toward the reservoir. NSX drivers are required to bear left and continue up the mountain. :)

However, as I turned left I noticed an enforcement SUV just ahead, also on its way up the mountain. Rather than worry about him, I pulled over to consult my map and plan the remainder of the day. So what happened next? A second enforcement SUV passed me! I could hardly believe they have two vehicles up there, let alone in the same place at the same time. Back to reading the map...

After 5 minutes I took off at my normal speed. It was 15 miles to the top, but I never did see those guys again. I suppose they pulled into a ranger station or something.

Between two forks of Jackass Creek there's pretty good evidence that the mountainside is made of sandstone. There's sand all over the road on some of the turns. Sand comes from sandstone, and sandstone is made of sand. Dust from dust.

With all that stopping, it took me 75 minutes to reach the top. Normally I can do it in 60, but I had just as much fun going slower this year. There's plenty of room at the top for the necessary U-turn. Don't even think about trying Beasore Road: its upper section is not paved.

On the way back down, two miles below the junction with Mammoth Pool Road is a direction sign to Beasore Meadow. I turned right onto the tiniest road that's a regular part of the Tour: Forest Road 6S71, which changes later to 6S01 according to Google maps. This road has one good feature: it's paved. Actually, it has two good features: it's paved, and it's empty. No, wait, it has three good features: it's paved, it's empty, and it goes somewhere fun. Oh! Oh! It has four good features! It's paved, it's empty, it goes somewhere fun, and it's graded like a roller coaster. No, wait! Never mind, actually it only has those four good features...

I'm not kidding about the roller coaster description. There's never a dull moment on this road. This is a bottom-the-suspension, scrape-the-front-end-on-the-ground, hit-your-head-on-the-roof road. If you take one of your kids here, he'll love it. If you take your wife, she will be dialing a divorce lawyer on her cell phone as soon as you get off the mountain and back into cell coverage.

Despite the bumps, the only serious danger here is oncoming traffic, which can include some wide trailers. This year I lucked out and only encountered one car and one motorcycle. I also detoured (yes, a side trip off this already tiny road) to Lower Chiquito Campground. That was the greenest, most stagnant creek I have ever seen at an official campground. No thanks! Rejoining 6S01, I encountered a Volvo driver who gave me a very enthusiastic thumbs up.

This is a first gear road, almost entirely. I had plenty of chances to practice my rev-matching downshifting to first. You could make a very different kind of car commercial filming me on this road -- different, but possibly quite effective. Toward the north end of the road, redwoods appear. Then a picket fence marks your return to civilization. Time to turn left, down Beasore Road.

There are no boat trailers or any other vehicles heading down Beasore Road most of the time. It's empty of cars, but not quite empty of rocks. In 2005 I encountered an 8-inch rock hiding in the shadows of a curve. I was unable to get all the way around it, and it tore open my right front sidewall, necessitating use of the mini-spare. Today there are 2-inch rocks near the side of the road, but those I can handle.

Some years I descend on Beasore Road, and some years I choose Minarets Road. Without traffic, Minarets would easily be the better choice. In particular, if I camp overnight up there I will definitely drive down Minarets Road early in the morning.

At the bottom of the hill, I turned right, or north, toward Oakhurst. A mile or two later, three antique cars pulled onto road behind me. One of them was clearly of pre-1920 vintage. At Highway 41 I turned left to Oakhurst. There I got gas and continued to marvel at the number of nearly 100-year-old cars cruising into town for some sort of gathering.

Five miles north of Oakhurst on Highway 49 is the left turn for Road 600. This is often the last fun road on the Tour. At one point, I backtracked 2 miles to photograph and run a section again.

I still had no map of this area, so I didn't realize that I should have taken a right turn a few miles before I did. But the fact that the Central Valley roads are rectilinear and the sun was almost directly west allowed me to get my bearings and end up on Avenue 26 (as distinct from Road 26, which I first thought was the same) in Chowchilla. There I jumped on Highway 99 north.

Freeways took me home, arriving at 7:00 PM with daylight to spare. My 15-year-old car had performed perfectly for the entire trip. My thanks to the designers and builders at Honda.


Day Five stats:
12 hours, 506 miles
Road kill: none

Total stats:
51.5 hours, 2304 miles
Road kill: one snake (probable), one squirrel, a record low
No tickets, no accidents. My 7th successful Tour, matching Lance Armstrong's record
 
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Hi K!
Great tour, as always. This time, I tried following your route with Google Earth, as I was reading along. I hope to someday take a few days off and enjoy these roads. I appreciate you roadtesting them for us. It was a very enjoyable recollection of a wonderful vacation. The way you describe it, one can almost envision the trip.
Hope to see you sometime at one of the local events.

Take Care,
J.
 
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do you have a cliff note version? great tour though.
 
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man i was thinking of the same thing!!!! (Cliffnotes) or is going to take me like 3 days or so to read this.
I dont know if i can go drive like that by myself.
 
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As Blaise Pascal once said: "The letter I have written today is longer than usual because I lacked the time to make it shorter."

The short version (or maybe just the photos only if I'm really lazy) will appear in NSX Driver eventually.
 
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Quite a writeup! It took me literally 5 hours to finish reading it in between normal work duties.... Your story sounds like the dialog of a true driving enthusiast doing what he desires.

And what's this? Another quote from Pascal? :smile:
myf16 said:
As Blaise Pascal once said: "The letter I have written today is longer than usual because I lacked the time to make it shorter."
 
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