Day 4: Thursday, December 30th. Total Miles for the Day: 729.8*. For the Trip: 2554.2*.
Despite my disgust with our hotel accommodations, I was grateful that we stopped for the night when we did. Driving on would’ve been a LONG trip before we reached another city, and would’ve meant losing a lot of beautiful views to the dark. This area of Southern California was gorgeous; such rich browns and reds, with lovely mounds and mountains appearing in our windows where the day before we’d seen plateaus, and the day before that only flatness. Sitting in the same car for days, it’s hard not to feel sometimes like you’re holding still while the world is shifting and moving outside. It was a remarkable change.
At some point we were passing a very long train with colorful cars. I thought it looked like the desert was wearing a necklace.
We had traveled off the Interstate for some time—we had to get from I-40 to I-5, and the best way to do so without having to drive south and without risking encountering city traffic was to take a few highways. We wound up taking California State Route 58 (being done with I-40 felt like a feat in itself!) to State Route 223, which would get us to I-5. (We saw some gorgeous countryside and a beautiful cemetery/memorial site, but unfortunately I have forgotten its name.) Along the way we stopped at a vineyard, and that’s when things began to go a bit wrong.
After I’d parked to take some pictures, we got back in the car only to find the last thing you want to see in a relatively desolate area on a long road trip: the check engine light was on. We thought back to the night before, when the car had taken a second longer to start than usual in the parking lot of In-N-Out. We’d had no trouble since then and hadn’t worried about it, but now we stopped using the cigarette lighter to charge our electronics. After a nervous phone call to my dad, we found a garage who would look into the matter for the nominal fee of $75. I instructed Stephen, “Use my phone to find an Auto-Zone”—and found one a block away. Good fortune!
Bad fortune: California Auto-Zones, it would seem, will not tell you why your check engine light is on. But they will test your battery and alternator, and what do you know—“Bad Battery.” I am ashamed to say that I was not comfortable changing the battery (and not comfortable letting Stephen try, despite the fact that he’s quite good at these sort of things). And unfortunately, California Auto-Zones will also not install your battery, but conveniently, the clerk had a friend who would do this for us. She called him. “He lives right over there,” she informed me.
“How much will he charge for that?” I asked. We decided to simply try our luck driving on when the answer was something along the lines of, “Oh, he’ll only charge what is fair, I promise.” [SPOILER ALERT: The car made it the rest of the trip without incident. But the battery did not survive a week of not being used in Washington. It has since been replaced and gone to Battery Heaven, where good batteries that live 6 years and still manage a cross-country trip in their Golden Days go.]
The stress of a check engine light and the fear of battery failure made the drive through Southern California a nervous one. It didn’t help that as soon as we hit I-5, traffic became much more congested, and a gross haze (seriously, was that smog? is that what smog is?) lay over everything. And as if that wasn’t enough, we made the mistake of stopping in farmland to eat and found the smell of manure so overpowering we had to hold our breath every time the door to Taco Bell opened. But we soldiered on, eventually making it out of the congestion (and the smelliness).
We didn’t hit traffic again until Sacramento, which we drove through toward the end of evening rush hour. While it should have been stressful, it was mostly just hilarious. If I were to title a chapter for this section of our trip, it would be called “Unapologetically Bad Drivers and the Unapologetically Angry Drivers Who Like to Aggressively Address Them.” The highlight of this chapter was when a man, after having suffered some traffic wrong at the hands of another driver, threw his middle finger into the air with all his force, pushing his entire arm out the window and above his car. Classic.
We pushed on in the dark for several hours, hoping to reach Oregon… but as it turns out, California’s a pretty big state and Oregon is pretty far away. We settled in Redding, California for the night in what turned out to be the nicest hotel of our trip, a Best Western. Another last minute pizza order, a comfy King bed, and the knowledge that we had just one day of driving left made for a pretty happy night.
Coming Up in Episode 5: A detour through Middle Earth! Oregon! Impatience! Washington! And maybe… home?! Stay tuned for the mildly-exciting conclusion!
*A note about miles: I had made an effort to note our mileage each morning when we set out, since by the time we stopped each night not only were we exhausted, but we had to unload a lot of the car (suitcases, cat stuff, electronics). Unfortunately on Day 5 I forgot to note the mileage until we’d driven for a few miles (3-5?), so alas, there’s minor inaccuracy in the exact mileage here.