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On the Run with the Phantom:
a virtual Road Trip with Diannek

Clever Magazine's regular readers know that our content usually changes monthly, but last year (Feb of 2000), the editor and a pal took a road trip through California and Nevada. The Phantom posted journal entries to clevermag on a daily basis. Here's a summary of that trip, which began in San Jose, went north to Chico, then south to Palm Springs, then to Las Vegas, Death Valley and then back to San Jose, a thousand-plus mile odyssey.

Day 1 (2/28/00)
: The trip from San Jose to Chico takes 3 hours if there's no traffic and you don't have to stop for lunch.  It took us a little longer. 


Here's a familiar site along I-5.
It was a pretty day, cool, breezy with 
fluffy clouds to accompany us on
this February afternoon.

After you've driven up and down California's Interstate 5 a couple of times, it takes longer to spot the interesting stuff.  I-5 cuts the state in half, right through the Central Valley, which is a wide flat plain of fertile farmland. But watching the farmland whiz by can become a little monotonous.

The sky was cloudy but the weather was nice.  No rain for a change.  It's easy to tell when you're getting close to Chico because you start to see orchards. We were lucky, the almonds were in bloom. A pretty sight. Nancy, my sister-in-law and traveling companion, had been visiting me in San Jose, but we were going to have to go back to Chico, her home town, (way Northern California) before we could head to Palm Springs (way Southern California).

Nancy, had to go to a meeting last night so I had dinner with her kids, my niece and nephews. I asked Ryan, who is a Chico State college student, to take us to his favorite restaurant. That was easy for him -- Thai Vegetarian. We sat around nibbling on deep fried sweet potatoes dipped in peanut butter sauce and sipping coconut lemon soup, and drinking the local pale ale.

Ryan's an entrepreneur already. He and a couple of his pals are starting up an ecommerce website for record albums. Well, that's what I called them when I was his age. They refer to them as vinyl, and his website is vinyljunkie.com. So, naturally, much of our conversation revolved around the internet, and covered such amazing topics as DSL versus 56k modems, bandwidth, advertising schemes and all that other geeky stuff. It's always great fun for me to hang out with younger family members.  I get lots of new ideas! We'll get a late start tomorrow.  I've got my fingers crossed that it won't rain.

Day 2
: We couldn't leave Chico until Nancy's Rotary meeting was finished but we were all packed and ready to go very early. 
heated pet igloo
Here's a photo of Max and Cujo getting ready for bed in their heated pet igloos!

I spent the morning looking over Nancy's stash of used paperbacks for some suitable page-turner for the road, watering her plants and watching over her elderly cats. They sleep in heated pet igloos on the back porch. They truly do think they've died and gone to heaven.

Around noon it started to rain.  I should have taken a photo of it for you.  It was unbelievable. I grew up in Portland, Oregon, so I'm something of a rain expert, but I can't remember ever seeing such a heavy rain. It looked like a solid sheet of water being dumped from the sky and then it rained even harder. I was glad that we weren't out on the road. Unfortunately, rain in Chico equals snow over Donner Summit (I-80). We had thought of going over the pass to Highway 395 and going south from there, just for a change of scenery. The rain and snow meant our fate was sealed. We were destined to travel down I-5 once again. Rats!
This is Brook, who works at the Cafe Mondo in Chico. She's making us one for the road. We finally got started about 2:30 in the afternoon, but by then the rain had stopped. We figured with any luck we'd be in Coalinga by seven pm. Hi Brook, thanks for the great coffee!

We stopped for the night in Coalinga, which is known for three things: oil wells, earthquakes, and Harris Ranch. That's where we stayed. It's an oasis exactly in the middle of nowhere, half way between Chico and Palm Springs. The ranch has recently become very famous, thanks to Costco, where you can buy its cooked beef products. This is a carnivore's paradise. The restaurant boasts a wide variety of steaks. They feature a tray of raw meat you can choose from. Even the menus are bound in cowhide. Moo!

By the time we arrived it was too dark to take a photo of the ranch, so I'll take one on the way out of town today. As I write this update, Nancy is trying to decide which road to take into Palm Spring. We have lots of options, all of them awful. LA freeways everywhere. We'd like to avoid as much of terror as possible. Sounds like we'll be having a driving adventure. I don't know which of us will have the worse job today, the driver or the navigator.

Harris Ranch, Coalinga, CA

Day 3 On the Road: Harris Ranch was a stunning oasis in the early morning. Flowers, grass, shrubs and palm trees surrounded it. There were birds twittering everywhere. We lingered over our breakfast in the coffee shop, caught up on paperwork and then spent more than a few minutes figuring out our day's travel to Indian Wells. We wanted to detour around the Grapevine and as much of the LA traffic as possible.

Our route took us through such hotspots as Bakersfield, Lancaster, Palmdale and Pinon Hills, before connecting us up with commuter traffic into the Palm Springs area. The desert is not in bloom, at least, not yet -- same old sand, rocks and sage brush. I navigated, but I renamed the job to nagivating, which means to nag the driver into moving into the slow lane in time to read the road signs and still have enough time to keep us on the right path.

Sand hills
Along Highway 138, just outside of Pinon Hills, we came onto these strange sand hills. This photo does not do them justice.

The scenery didn't change too much until the San Gabriel Mountains came into view. They were spectacular snow-capped peaks. The most outstanding moments, scenery-wise, were when we drove through the mountain pass. We saw strange-looking trees (I'll find out the name of them eventually), sand dune-like hills and sand stone rock formations that I've never seen before. It was a very eerie landscape.

I've seen pictures of the Palm Springs area and watched the golf tournaments on TV but they don't do it justice. What a miracle! (I'll refrain from getting on my soapbox and complaining about the dreadful waste of water and whatever else it must take to keep this place is such beautiful condition.) And it's so big! We're staying at a family friend's condo, which makes it even nicer for us. We're living in the lap of luxury here and enjoying every minute of it.

The sky is blue, the flowers are blooming, the scene out our window is gorgeous, there's grapefruit on the tree for us to pick and we're feeling very lucky indeed.

Day Five, Palm Springs: 
Somebody just told me that there's an underground lake here in the Palm Springs area. That's what they use to water everything! So maybe they aren't using up all of Northern California's precious water for the 100 golf courses. Whew!

Yesterday was glorious with a blue sky and a balmy seventy plus temperature. We visited the Living Desert Wildlife and Botanical Park. (And you all thought we weren't into the wild life.) We saw all the desert flora and fauna imaginable and some we never imagined. The cacti were in bloom. Then we saw the caged animals: coyote, foxes, wolves, cats of all types, birds, rodents, snakes, a tarantula. They all looked healthy, but not terribly happy. There was even a section of African animals on view, which reminded me of the Lion King cast in captivity.

I didn't realize how many retired people there are here -- and I mean really well into retirement. Nancy went out to the pool and one old fellow gave her a message, which he said she should pass along to her parents. I guess she looked rather child-like to him. That made Nancy's day.

As soon as the grounds-keepers finish watering, I'm going to practice some pitching and putting. I know I promised not to play golf on this trip, but there's a course right in our back yard. Get this: it's a four-hole golf course for the residents and nobody ever uses it! I can't resist.

Day 6, Still in Palm Springs!
Yesterday we wandered off to the Palm Springs Desert Museum. It was quite a drive because we're actually staying "down valley" in Indian Wells. P/Springs seems to be a little older and, (how can I say this tactfully)…quainter? The museum was great fun. The special exhibits were a collection of objects from the home of dead actor William Holden (He collected Egyptian artifacts!); and furniture and paintings from George Montgomery. He must be a very interesting guy. In addition to being an actor, politician and tap dancer, he made Windsor furniture and bronze sculptures. Who knew!

When we got back to the condo I decided it was time to play golf.  Here's how I did it: I found 9 balls and took them out to the tee-off area behind the condo and spread them out. I play what I call stealth golf. I took a 7 iron and sprayed the balls all over the course. I sort of sneak up on the landing area. When I had the hole surrounded, I took my wedge and lobbed the balls onto the green, and around the green and over the green, so I continued circling until all 9 were in the proper position for putting. Did you know that 9 balls will actually fit into the hole? Actually, you have to be a little careful with the last few balls. If you don't use a light touch, they'll ricochet right out of the cup. Then I gathered up all 9 balls and did it again. So now I can say that I played 18 holes at the Casa Dorado Indian Wells. Of course, it was all on one hole and it only took a half hour and nobody was watching, except Nancy, who waved and laughed. She was busy on the telephone. (She's getting married soon so she has more important things to do than to play stealth golf.)

Today we have to clean up, pack up and leave for Las Vegas.  It's a four and a half hour drive so we don't need to get up at the crack of dawn. We'll pick some grapefruit to take with us.

The lemons and grapefruit dripped from the trees. It was hard to pass them up. 

Lemon tree

Day 7, Las Vegas:
What can I say about LV that hasn't been said before? 
-It was raining and cold.
-The food was good.
-We went to an art exhibit.

We're staying at Harrah's because everything else was booked. Our room is standard LV-- barely adequate and very expensive. Get this: $269 for Saturday night and $69 for Sunday night. The lower price is about what the room is worth. There's a little sign in the bathroom asking us to conserve water by using our towels twice (no fresh towels for the second night!) Now, as you know, I'm all for conservation, but in this town of total excessiveness, I find that request to be a rather meaningless and silly gesture. After all, this is the city where nobody turns off the lights and water-wasting is the rule.

We spent yesterday wandering around the casinos. As you know, all the newer clubs are casino-theme parks. Bellagio is by far the classiest. The ambiance and décor are upscale Italian -- the shops reminded me of Milano. The casino itself was quiet, the ceilings were higher, and the décor was tasteful. Unusual for LV.


We found this life-sized sculpture in the middle of Harrah's casino.

We spent about an hour looking at the Bellagio Collection of fine art, which is a small gallery show that contains about thirty lovely paintings by the world's finest artists.

We were given a nifty audio player that would let us view the paintings in any order we wanted to. Each painting has a number and we could plug in that number and listen to the recorded message about it. The viewing experience reminded me of those music CDs that are offered on television of the World's Greatest Hits. The show was a sampler of the Greatest Western Art.

Next, we crossed over to Paris. This casino front is dominated by a mock-up of the Eiffel Tower and the casino floor is built under the tower supports. Paris has a charming shopping area with cobble-stoned streets and quaint shops offering fine French things, and many of the clerks have French accents -- a nice touch. We had lunch in Paris -- le hamburger avec les pommes frites.

Then we wandered over to the Caesar's Palace shopping arcade. You can't miss it -- just head for the Statue of David, the (hmm) well-marked entrance. Nancy was looking for a wedding dress so we thought that was the perfect place to shop. (Just kidding!) I did see a purple teddie with rhinestones and matching plumed slippers that would be perfect for her honeymoon. Somehow I couldn't convince her of its perfectness.

The Stage Door Deli is in Caesar's, not New York-New York. I always wanted to read its menu so we stopped in there. We got the bucket of pickles even though we were only ordering dessert. Nancy had a dilled tomato and a pickle before our order arrived. I was wondering if they would have to throw away the ten huge pickles we were unable to eat. The desserts, chocolate mousse cake and apple pie, were too big, but we ate them anyhow.

We ended up back at Harrah's, which was packed. It's an older club, smoked-filled, dark, with low ceilings, and noisy. This no-theme club must feel like home to veteran gamblers. Nancy and I found a very silly slot machine called Reel 'em In, that is actually a video game. If you match up enough fishing lures, you get to go fishing. The computer screen changes to a scene of five fisherman in little boats. You choose one and you win points, depending on the size of the fish that's caught.  If you catch a bottle, you go to a fishing contest and win even more points. It was charming and fun -- isn't it amazing what the new technology can give us. We're leaving Las Vegas this morning and heading off to Death Valley. The storm has passed and the sky is blue, a perfect day to get back on the road.

Day 8 on the road again:
We got out of LV around eleven. Nancy had a little shopping to do and then we had to go fishing one more time before we left. Good thing: the fish were biting.


Pahrump, NV - thumbs down.

We'd had a continuing debate about which might be the best road into Death Valley. There are several options but we wanted the quickest route. The gas station attendants finally reached a consensus so we took their advice.

Go out of town the way we came in on Hwy 15 for a couple of miles to Blue Diamond Road. Head for Pahrump, NV. Continue on to Bella Vista Road and follow the signs to Death Valley Junction. Pahrump was not on our map, nor was BV Road, but the directions were accurate. We stopped in Pahrump, which is a small, homely Nevada desert border town. The lunch was okay but the fishing was lousy. The casino was called Terrible's. Get the idea?

The sky was blue and the temperature was a coolish 50 degrees as we motored along the empty highway. We made good time. The scenery was breath-taking. The desert mountains surrounding Death Valley are awesome. The pass into the valley is at 5,000 feet and ground level in the valley is 219 feet below sea level. All along the road we passed signs that said Watch For Wild Horses and Burros. We didn't see any.

We crossed into DV and stopped at a lookout called Zabriskie Point. A short trail ends at the top of a ridge overlooking starkly beautiful undulating landforms called Badlands. A group of photographers were hard at work, using what we learned were large-format cameras. I asked about one of the larger cameras. They could get 8x10 contact prints from it.  Those must be amazing photos.

We're staying at a place called Furnace Creek Ranch, which is a stream-fed oasis in the center of the valley.  The accommodations are plain and totally adequate, they remind me of those found in Yosemite. We opened our bottle of Merlot and had a drink on our little patio until it was time for dinner. It's very dark here at night, so like the rest of the desert animals, we went to bed early. We've got another big day of sight-seeing ahead of us.

Here are the remnants of the old Borax mine in Death Valley.

Day 9, Death Valley:
We didn't get an early start on our Death Valley sightseeing because the dead bolt on our door was stuck and we couldn't get out. Well, actually we could because there's a patio, but we had to hang around while a variety of staff members tried to fix the real door. Eventually the security-fix-it guy came around and installed a new dead bolt. Just as he finished, we heard a knock from the next room. Their dead bolt was stuck too. Strange doings in the desert.

So we had breakfast at 10 am and then started on our day's tour. First stop was the borax mine of 20-mule team fame. Don't laugh now: we saw crumbling adobe walls, some rusted metal piping and what's left of a borax wagon. 

Moving on we stopped at Salt Creek, which is a fast running salt water stream in the desert, with fishes and everything (fast running in winter, don't know about hot summertime). The park service has built a wooden walkway through the marshy area around it. The weather was lovely, a sunny seventy degree shirt-sleeve day, so the little desert geckos were all sunning themselves on the planks. We startled them as we walked along, hoping that the desert snakes hadn't decided to sunbathe with them.

It's about 50 miles from Furnace Creek to Scotty's Castle, our next stop. The distant mountains surrounding the valley are spectacular. There's a dusting of snow on the tallest ones, which the local residents say is quite unusual. The lower land forms are multicolored geological delights, but soon we were counting the miles until we would get to the castle. The guidebooks had suggested we watch our mileage indicator to know just how far we'd come. Apparently lots of people get antsy about distances in the desert.

Scotty's Castle
Scotty's Castle, Death Valley ~ truly he middle of nowhere!

Scotty's Castle is a tourist curiosity on a grand scale. Probably built in the '30s, by a Chicago millionaire named Johnson, who bankrolled a wheeler-dealer named Scotty (whose personal heroes were PT Barnum and Buffalo Bill Cody, who you know what kind of a guy he really was). It's named, or misnamed, Scotty's Castle for some strange reason, but the sign over the entrance reads The Johnson Ranch. They call it a castle but it's actually a Mediterranean style mansion with a clock tower that sort of resembles a castle. There's another stream nearby which provides water for the estate, which must have needed lots of it in its heyday. The place is tricked out in heavy dark furniture, painted tilework, iron filigreed wall sconces, specially-made carpets -- you get the idea.

We were treated to a living history tour by a park service person. She was dressed in '30s costume and assumed the style and manners of the time as she guided us through the house. She told us about the relationship between the Johnsons and Scotty, and how the Johnsons resorted to giving tours of their castle in the late '30s to make ends meet. Apparently he lost a great deal of money in The Depression. The tours are replicated from the ones that Mrs. Johnson gave because she kept notes in her journals.

The castle remains unfinished. Johnson had great plans, but unlike Hearst, he didn't have the cash or the energy to finish the project. Also like the Hearst Castle, this castle belongs to us and is maintained as a museum for tourists. It is probably the most popular venue in DV.

The drive back to our room was even longer, or so it seemed, even though the desert scenery was beautiful and never-ending.

Day 10: Home again! Death Valley has been experiencing an extremely interesting winter this year, complete with drenching rainstorms and even snow on the surrounding mountains. 
The Phantom
Clever's editor, Diannek during the road trip.
This will probably make for a lovely spring showing of desert flowers, but for us, it meant hanging around our motel room for an entire rainy day. We decided to take our chances on the road because we heard that San Jose was experiencing a return to sunny weather, but that the rains were due back soon.

Once we made that decision, we had the car packed and were on the road fast, and like the horse that smells the barn, we couldn't wait to get home again. The hotel clerks said to check with the park rangers for road conditions, which we and maybe ten other visitors all decided to do at the same time. Nevertheless, the rangers were polite and even helpful by suggesting a shortcut out of DV that would take at least an hour off of our journey.

We encountered rain right off the bat which turned to snowflakes over the pass. Three snow plows passed us going the other direction -- into DV -- which I thought was remarkable. Out of DV we headed towards Mojave and then over the Tehachapi pass to Bakersfield. It rained the whole way. There was no traffic through the desert but once we got back into civilization, the roads were crowded with huge trucks. But our trip was uneventful and we made good time.

As we rolled along I-5 once again, I got to thinking about our journey and how safe we felt everywhere we went. Nevertheless, in the back of my mind the whole way, I didn't forget the three women tourists who had died so horribly on their Yosemite road trip last year.

We hadn't taken any undo risks. We were driving a reliable car, and we carefully watched the gas tank at all times. We didn't stop at any ATMs after dark. We had reservations for every motel or hotel we stayed in, except for the first night when we stayed at the Harris Ranch in Coalinga.

At several gas stations where we stopped we found women "manning" them, and many times they were the only attendant on the premises. In addition, we talked to many strangers: housekeeping staff, restaurant waiters, hotel and casino personnel, fellow travelers here and there -- the typical mix of people every traveler meets along the way.

On the road we noticed the usual number of erratic drivers and managed to avoid the total idiots, which luckily were few and far between. Also, we tried to drive in a safe manner and we remembered Nancy's mother's advice "to drive safely and don't tailgate," which she always says to family members, whenever we say good-bye.

When we got home I scanned the newspaper and read about a horrible road accident that hilled a whole family, and also that an enraged driver at the San Jose Airport had gotten out of his truck and pulled a pet dog out of another driver's car and thrown it into oncoming traffic, where it died. Two horrible incidents.

What does this mean for us: The awful incidents of violence, crime and idiocy that happen along America's roads scare us. It's true that something horrible can happen to any one of us when we least expect it. I don't mean to infer that when something bad happens that we should blame the victim, but  staying alert for dangerous situations increases our odds of staying out of harm's way. I believe that it's still safe to go out on the highways. The Great American Road Trip is lots of fun, and even the short trips to places we've seen before can be exciting and interesting. We hope you enjoyed this trip as much as we did. 

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