In 1982, I read Blue Highways, a bestseller written by William Least Heat-Moon. It chronicled a journey by car taken entirely on the small roads—the mapmakers’ blue highways. An English instructor as a small Missouri college, Least Heat-Moon, disoriented by a fracturing marriage, chose to look for himself by choosing, as Paul Simon put it, to “look for America.”
Buoyed by Least Heat-Moon’s adventures and observations, I have, whenever practicable, chosen those blue highways for my travels: a two-laner and small towns versus hurtling through interchangeable Interstate spaces at 70 mph.
So, for our road trip to Ann’s high school reunion in Casper, WY, I planned to include back roads whenever possible.
Day #1 was to begin at our home in Sonoma County’s Wine Country and end near Trinity Center at a large stone home hand-built by one of my high school chums. The trip would take just under six hours if I drove I-5 north, and would include virtually no towns once we left nearby Lake County. Multiple zooms into the Google Map, however, showed another more intriguing way north: Road 306 west of I-5 through Leesville, Lodoga, Stonyford, Elk Creek, Chrome, and Paskenta.
According to Google, this “blue highway” route would add two hours to our drive time, but would offer A) scenery new to us, B) the opportunity to eat lunch at whatever Elk Creek might offer, and C) a drive through Grindstone Indian Rancheria.
Equipped with our iPhones, a full tank, and an audiobook of Sherlock Holmes stories, we guided our Prius jauntily across two counties toward the first exit off the usual-and-common thoroughfares. It was a fine plan, but it began to crumble about a dozen miles before where I supposed the turn might be when cell service disappeared (and therefore, our internet hotspot). This meant I, navigating as Ann drove cheerily, would be unable to zoom in on the Google map. Having trusted technology to replace study, I had not memorized the stations of our cross-country jaunt, and was unable remember at what blue highway hamlet I was initially supposed to aim the iPhone’s GPS.
I mused, squeezing my brain cells for a dozen miles until “Wilbur Springs” emerged from some grey matter repository. I entered it with a shaky resolve. A hairpin left appeared in blue on the screen a few miles ahead. Although that color was standard for the Google Maps app, I was internally amused by the parallel.
Following Google’s directorial triangle and my “Go for it,” Ann turned onto Bear Valley Road. It was dirt…which was a surprise. In a mile or two it forked, with the screen’s blue triangle directing us onto the tine with a No Outlet sign. Foolishly trusting Google more than the sign, we were soon at the closed gate for the Wilbur Springs Resort.
Ann was delighted. Twenty-some years ago, she had visited this resort with a beau. A wrong turn had serendipitously returned her to place she had completely forgotten. Neither of us was disturbed that she could not remember who the beau was.
A U-turn took us back to the fork. Though we still had no cell phone service, the GPS still showed its authoritative blue line, so we chose the road untaken, heading north. Not a single car passed us for many miles. There were no habitations. The narrow valley was long, flat, and barren, but fenced for grazing. I wondered how many so sere acres would be required for each head. Leesville appeared on the blue route far ahead; I felt assured, even though our tires bounced on dirt, we had stumbled onto the path I had originally selected.
Leesville. Lodoga, and Stonyford passed as crossroads of few homes and an occasional church. At last the dirt returned to macadam, but my plans unraveled again when we got to Elk Creek and found the only foodery shuttered.
Two small packets of trail mix later, we drove through Grindstone Indian Rancheria. From what I had read online, I expected depressed, rundown clutter and subsistence res life. The houses, however, were well kept, and the tribe appeared to be renovating their sacred, ceremonial round house.
We were now nearly two hours past lunch, so I aborted the Paskenta leg and cut east toward the restaurants of Red Bluff. The downtown was surprisingly alive. An attractive clock tower anchored a small park near clever shops and there were none of the out-of-business Main Street store skeletons. We ate at the Sugar Shack Café. Billed as an Asian restaurant, the menu and the wait staff seemed more of a white guys’ sincere attempt. We enjoyed our lunch even though none of the employees had ever heard of Jimmy Gilmer and the Fireballs’ 1963 #1 hit, Sugar Shack.
Back in the car, and once again on the net, I entered my destination into Google Maps. But this time, I used my friend’s street address instead of the generic Trinity Center. I did not notice that Google decided against the indirect, but civilized route around the west side of Trinity Lake in favor of a more direct path. I should’ve been suspicious when the road west from I-5 sported a sign reading “no services.” A few miles later, the pavement turned to dirt. “Turn around!” the cricket on my shoulder screeched. But emboldened by the recent success of our Bear Valley Road adventure, we felt this this dusty byway could be no worse.
It was way worse…vertebrae-shakingly, axle-torturingly, confidence-shatteringly worse.
Twenty miles at 15 mph later, we had crested Slate Mountain and emerged from anxiety just two miles from my friend’s road. Google had offered a shortcut that was, we later found out from my incredulous friend, an unmaintained, unmarked, rutted, rock-strewn logging road.
Day #1 has ended, and I intend to write two thank-you letters: one to Google, and the other to Toyota. The former, sarcastic; the second, sincere.