California Highway 167, a short route in the Eastern Sierra region that runs from US 395 near Mono Lake to the Nevada border in an almost perfectly straight line. The straightness, wide-open space, and desert landscape are something I am missing very much at the moment.
Mono Lake at dusk. Shot last September (2019).
If you have not already done so, please check our latest video featuring scenes from Mono Lake set to original synthesizer music.
Abstract photo from Terminal Island near the Port of Long Beach, California. Taken using the iPhone Hipstamatic app.
We at CatSynth love traveling and exploring our adopted home state. This includes day trips from the Bay Area as well as longer adventures. But one thing remains a bit of a challenge. For much of the state, the main highways are primarily north-south, with very few east-west routes. One chooses one of the long-haul north-south highways, California 1, US 101, I-5, California 99, or US 395 and is pretty much locked in with only a few options for efficiently traveling east to west. There is I-80 in the middle north, California 152 or California 46 from the coast through the Central Valley and California 58/I-40/I-15 further south.
North of Sacramento, east-west travel becomes even more difficult, with routes like California 20 and California 299 being relatively rural and windy for much of their length. The end result is that most of our trips – especially single-day trips heading north – are forward and back along one of the main north-south routes unless we have extra time or necessity to use the smaller east-west roads.
This north-south bias can be seen in an almost self-similar way when zooming in on the extended Bay Area. South of San Francisco, there is California 1, I-280, US 101, I-880, I-680 and then not much at all until one gets to I-5 in the Central Valley.
In the North Bay and wine country, a similar pattern appears with CA 1, US 101 and CA 29, with another large gap until I-505 and I-5. We have made use of east-west roads like CA 128 to get between them as in our recent wine-country trip that featured Elsie the Library Cat. But this is a long detour.
This north-south axis may be frustrating at times (especially the further north one gets), but there is nothing particularly sinister about it. It’s all a matter of Calfornia’s geology. The interface of the Pacific and North American plates that give us our reputation for earthquakes also lead to long bands of north-south mountain ranges and valleys. The Sierra Nevada may be the most dramatic, but it is only one of several that form vertical stripes, with the Central, Sacramento, Salinas, and Napa valleys in between. The San Francisco Bay can be seen as another such valley in a way, with shallows bounded by high hills running north-south.
The exception to the “north-south rule” can be found south of the San Gabrial mountains and into the desert. From Los Angeles and San Diego, one can easily travel east-west to the desert towns and to the Arizona border on I-10 and I-8, with a network of other east-west freeways in between. It is definitely a different experience traveling down there once one gets over the Grapevine or the Tehachapi Pass and into the southern realms. As for the rest of the state, there is no escaping the geographic reality, so it is best to embrace it, and even enjoy it.
At least since 2010, all of my trips to NAMM have been road trips, heading east from San Francisco on I-580 to meet Interstate 5 for the long trek south through Los Angeles to Orange County.
I-5 takes a more direct route through the sparsely populated western side of the Central Valley, compared to CA 99 (former US 99) that connects the major towns and cities of the region, including Fresno and Bakersfield. The small communities that one does pass are related to travel on the interstate itself or to the farms and orchards that dominate the landscape between stretches of emptier space.
It is a long trip, and one that I know many people would find boring. But for me, it is something I look forward to, an integral part of the experience along with the show itself, the after-parties and all the other little adventures. This year there was the added fun of testing out Highway☆ on the road trip, but even without that heightened sense of purpose, it is simply an enjoyable “flow experience.” Once over the Altamont Pass and into the Central Valley, stresses begin to fade as the mostly straight line of the road and the low stimulation of I-5 takes over. It may seem “empty” but there is still is just enough detail along the route to provide balance. After many years, I have come to know just about every major junction and many of the other details, such as the names of the small communities along the highway. By the time I arrive in the Los Angeles basin, I am recharged, enough to even remain unfazed by the notorious traffic!
The return trip along a nearly identical route is similarly an opportunity for psychic calm and flow after the nonstop overstimulation of NAMM (I do spend a half day after the show either with friends or at a museum as part of the decompression process before getting back on “The 5”). This year was no different, as I headed back with a tailwind and sense of optimism. Life seemed calm, free, but also filled with curiosity and excitement about professional opportunities in technology, music, and even travel. That feeling lasted into our arrival back in San Francisco, at least until my second bout of this year’s awful flu kicked in, along with some other stressful local responsibilities. One of the mental exercises to help through the ensuing week was to focus on how my mind and body responded positively to the I-5 trip (and to the many tendrils of travel in and around L.A.) and thought experiments on how to capture that sense of enjoyment and calm even when not traveling down a straight and empty stretch of road. I come back again to flow experience and how much that seems to be a product of solitude for me, but it can also come in playing together with musicians at the highest levels. And then there are situations where flow is stymied or non-existent. It is important to recognize both, and I hope to explore these topics more in upcoming articles.
See more of Interstate 5 in California and many other fine places across North America in our Highway☆ app, available on the Apple App Store and Google Play Store.
We at CatSynth have been following the events at Oroville Dam here in California quite closely. While the worst of the crisis has passed for, we do send our thoughts to those in the along the Feather River and in the low-lying areas along the Sacramento River that remain in danger of flooding, especially during and after massive storm systems like the current one were experiencing.
Oroville, as the name implies, was an important trading town during the Gold Rush era. It sits at the foothills of the Sierra Nevada along the Feather River which cuts through the mountains. The Oroville Dam was built it the 1960s – it remains the tallest dam in the United States, and Lake Oroville is a rather deep lake – second to Lake Tahoe but a distant second. It also the second largest reservoir in the state.
The landscape in the area is quite beautiful as the water combines with the Sierra foothills as well as the human-made structures, like the dam, the hydroelectric plant and the Bidwell Bar Bridge. The original Bidwell Bar Bridge was the oldest suspension bridge in California. It was relocated when the area – including the town of Bidwell Bar – was flooded in the creation of Lake Oroville and still serves as a pedestrian bridge.
[Jet Lowe [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons]
A newer suspension bridge replaced it over the lake.
Highway 162 crosses the bridge, and connects the town of Oroville to Highway 70 and the Sacramento Valley. Highway 162 continues westward towards the wide flat Thermalito Afterbay, a wide shallow reservoir that is part of the Oroville system, and serves both agricultural water delivery and regulation of the main lake and the power plant.
Highway 70 heads southwards towards Sacramento, passing the towns of Marysville and Yuba City , where it continues as a freeway towards Sacramento. Yuba City is interesting as the home to perhaps the largest Sikh community outside the state of Punjab in India. Many of the Sikh settlers in the area became farmers, in particular peach farmers. And the town hosts a large annual festival that brings in thousands from outside the area.
The volume of water in the lake, its height, and the dramatic contrast between the foothills and fertile flat low-lying Sacramento Valley make Lake Oroville a “lynchpin” of the California water system, but also quite dangerous in the event of a dam failure. We should be clear that currently the main dam is sound, it is the main spillway and emergency spillway off to the side suffered damane rainstorms. But that could still send large volumes of water to flood large areas of the valley below. The original evacuation order (lifted before the current storm system) covered Oroville, Yuba City and other communities along the rivers. The danger in terms of a catastrophic event would also extend to the Sacramento River and the delta, where numerous “islands” exist below sea level and are protected by an aging levy system.
We hope everyone along these vital waterways remains safe. And as the Oroville Dam system is repaired and upgrade, hopefully this provides the state the proverbial “kick in the tuchus” to address the rest of our aging infrastructure.
A few years ago, I acquired several highway shields to use in photography, including one for California Highway 41. It was particularly good for photos like that one shown above. But I only knew small bits of the road itself. So when a certain birthday came to pass recently, I decided it was time to travel Highway 41 in its entirety.
Highway 41 begins in Morro Bay at an interchange with Highway 1. Morro Bay is a cute seaside town, and is distinctive for its large volcanic rock along the ocean.
The highway heads northeast through a relatively gentle section of the coast range and crosses US 101 in the town of Atascadero. It then climbs into the hills as a narrow two lane highway. Along the way it passes the many bucolic scenes of farms and ranches. As it climbs the hills, the trees disappear but the landscape remains quite green.
A little further north, Highway 41 joins Highway 46, a major east-west connector, and runs concurrently for a while. The change in traffic and speed was unmistakable.
As one heads east, the land becomes a drier and more sparse. 41 splits from 46 and heads north on its own. After coming over a ridge, the highway descends into a rather arid valley, quite different from the coast and the verdant hills further south.
We cross Highway 33 at a rather unassuming junction. There was an interesting looking roadhouse there, and I wish I had the courage to stop and try it. But I did press on across another, even more arid ridge to a junction with I-5 near Kettleman City. Kettleman City, which is not really a city or even an incorporated town, is probably the single sketchiest location along the entire route. I had been here before and taken a few photos. One of my favorite sites is still “alive and well.”
Continuing north, we move to the interior of the Central Valley at the edge of the former Lake Tulare, once the second largest freshwater lake entirely within the United States. It has since completely dried up, leaving a very flat landscape of farms. Many fields appeared to be fallow, perhaps due to the drought. It is a beautifully bleak landscape.
Just west of the town of Hanford, Highway 41 crosses CA 198, another major east-west highway. 198 is a freeway here, something I was not aware of. 41 itself becomes a four-lane expressway north of the interchange, and increasingly busy as we head north towards Fresno. As we pass the city boundary, it becomes a full freeway. It traverses the area south of downtown as an elevated viaduct, where it crosses Highway 99 and provides access to both downtown and nearby industrial neighborhoods.
I stopped here to do some photographs, one of which already appeared in an earlier Wordless Wednesday. Here are some more.
Heading north out of Fresno, 41 becomes the Yosemite Freeway, as it heads north towards the park.
The freeway narrows and then becomes a surface road as it approaches the foothills of the Sierra. The road climbs steeply into the hills and then descends equally steeply into the town of Oakhurst. The road narrows and climbs again into more mountainous wooded terrain.
We find the signed END of Highway 41 as we approach the southern border of Yosemite National Park.
But this is not the end the real end. The legal definition of Highway 41 continues into the park, although it is not signed as such. It goes through a tunnel the exit of which provides spectacular views of the Yosemite Valley.
Ultimately Highway 41 ends at a junction with (also unsigned) Highway 140 as it enters the valley.
This was an interesting road to complete beyond its numerical value in that it crossed through so many terrains and parts of the state. And a worthwhile and unique trip.