Sunday, March 15, 2015

Welcome to the Highway California

Back in the old days, in the 1960s, there were just maps. There were no MapQuest, Google maps, Google Earth, GPS etc. You took it at face value that the Atlas you held in your hands was correct. If it showed a straight road in an unfamiliar state, you hoped and prayed it was correct. Before that, in the days of pioneers and explorers, men made their own maps. In 1805 the Lewis and Clark Expedition set out to explore a portion of North America to find a route west, hopefully one that could be traversed by water. Of course, they needed an experienced guide to show them the way and ask directions. They found that woman -- Sacagawea a Shoshone. They had no GPS, no maps, just a will to explore the unknown.

"No GPS!" You gasp. Ah, dear young reader of mine, the common citizens did not have GPS technology at their fingertips until a decade ago. I don't even think our government did in the 1960s when the following story takes place. Even with this wonderful technology, I know of people in the desert who were led to the ends of cliffs because their GPS said the road continued. It happened to some tourists from Israel about seven years ago who were visiting the canyon lands of Arizona and Utah. Someone couldn't wait to pee, so a driver stopped one of the rental vehicles part-way through their trek in the middle of the desert. As the boy began to relieve himself he said, "We're at the edge of a cliff!" Had they gone farther in the dark, their caravan would have plummeted, taking the families to their deaths.

Which brings me to my story. My daughter and I spent her recent spring break in Death Valley. (I hate the desert with a passion; still too blazing hot even in March.) Anyway, sometimes we got lost, or at least I thought we were because the maps my daughter and I were using weren't accurate. I'd just go a little farther and sure enough, we'd be where we hoped to go. At some point, I got to thinking about a family story. (Note to readers hoping to visit Death Valley, DON'T. Okay, you still want to go. Take water, about a gallon per person per day, and if a guidebook says you can travel a dirt road and that four wheel drive is not required, you still need four-wheel-drive and a high clearance vehicle, but I digress.)

About 1962, before I was born, my dad drove my mom and sisters to California in his station wagon. Almost to their destination, he and my mother studied a map. My German-born mother, no Sacagawea, said, "This road looks shorter," so my dad agreed to take it because he valued her opinion. I still don't know why; he was Scots-Irish and Cherokee and had a keen sense of direction. My mother on the other hand, bless her heart, got lost in the super-market or on her way to garage sales.

The road, possibly California State Route 130*, started out paved but then, became dirt, then rocks, then boulders. A narrow one-lane path most of the way, it was washed out in spots, and began to ascend, at first gradually. Soon it was no more than a deer-path as my dad called it, with steep drop-offs and serious grades. He had to stop several times, he was sweating so badly. Dad said his sight went all white even, for a brief few seconds. The way zigged and zagged, having several switch-backs and hair-pin turns. He feared that another car, picking up speed with the pull of gravity, might come down one of the curves as he creeped up the path. My oldest sister Jeanette recalls looking out the window, seeing how close the car was to the side of the mountain. She feared falling off the edge on the other side. Jeanette remembers that she and the three other family members in the station wagon were the only people on the road. Would anybody find them if they careened to their deaths? (Even as recently as about fifteen years ago, an elderly couple who went missing were found at the bottom of Arizona's Virgin River Gorge, months after they were last seen. They were still in their van, strapped in their seatbelts, not much more than skeletons and dried sinew.)

The journey continued as the sun got low on the horizon, but there was no place to rest, no place to turn around. Soon, night fell. According to my sister Margie, "Not a peep was heard while we traveled on that road." Finally after tense, bone jarring hours upon hours they found a real highway and proceeded on their way.

Several years later, George Pierrot had a guest, possibly Stan Midgley, on his show "George Pierrot Presents". The guest discussed the worst roads in the country and he said by far the most dangerous was the exact same one that my dad had driven! Mr. Pierrot commented, something like, "Wouldn't it be sad if some poor fool were to get lost on that trail, thinking it was a short-cut, not knowing what he was up against?"

The guest replied, "There isn't anyone that stupid. The man would be a fool! Something like that would never happen!" Well, my dad sure felt pretty low when it happened and then again when the show was broadcast.

So the moral of this story is, even with the best technology or a colorful map, use good judgment and common sense. My Papa had common sense. He was a well-read man. He was an experienced man who served in the Navy and even he was caught in a dangerous situation. Additionally, if you ever survive a similar experience, be sure to tell the story and see the humor in it as my father did, years later, because there is more to life than just survival. There is also laughter around a good campfire. Now, turn off your computer and go make history.

*Note, if I can find or verify the actual route, I will update this blog.

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