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#7: My First Solo Road Trip

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#7: My First Solo Road Trip

Gregg Evans

          I bought my first car, a '71 Mustang, in the spring of '74, and that summer I took my first solo adventure. I took two weeks off from my job at Gunderson Jewelers in Tacoma, WA, and headed south with the plan of skiing Mount Shasta in Northern California. Skiing Mt. Shasta in July would involve hiking up because no lifts would be running, and what I had in mind was a high elevation ski run that would start far above the lifts anyway.  My plan was strong concerning the goal – ski Shasta in July – but weak on the details – I didn't really know anything about Shasta, what facilities were there, where I'd camp, what I'd eat. I'm still a little like that when it comes to planning adventures - strong on goal, weak on details.
          A burst radiator hose outside Weed, CA, threw me off the vague schedule I had in mind for arriving at Shasta before 9:00AM. I hitched into town and bought a replacement hose, hitched back to my car, replaced the hose and refilled the radiator, and by the time I got to the parking lot at the base of Shasta, it was already mid afternoon. With my skis and boots resting on my shoulder, I hiked up Shasta for a couple hours. I met and talked with two skiers who'd started hiking at dawn and were now on their descent. They wondered why I was hiking up at that time of day and cautioned me about hiking much further. I continued hiking long enough to assure myself that I was my own boss but not so long as to get caught on the mountain after dark. I got a pretty fun 20 minute run for my effort, but at the end of it, standing in the empty parking lot next to the closed lodge, I realized that I didn't want to spend the rest of my vacation there. I drove back down to I-5 and headed south, turning southeastward either from Redding or Red Bluff.
          Driving through the impeccably tended walnut orchards in that swath of rich farmland between I-5 and the Sierras, the colors, smells and rural scenes spoke to me; planted something in me; introduced me to the love of the road and solitude and silence and the luxuriousness of private thoughts. With windows rolled down (back then, we rolled windows down), I could smell the rich earth and feel the little micro climates of cool and warm as I drove through them. I was enthralled by the purple haze of dusk and the thousand shades of darkness in the orchards; the bats and moths darting through and flitting around the yellow glow of the occasional street light; the tiny community rodeos and softball games under flood lights; farmhands and field workers and their families piling out of their trucks and cars and heading to the ballpark gates. I imagined it would be grand to be among them, to sit in the bleachers with them and share in their tortillas and tortas, to meet a Mexican girl and learn how to make her brothers laugh. My heart was bursting with the joy of freedom and travel and driving and being in a place so beautiful and full of life, and I especially loved that I was having that experience alone.  Some things are best experienced privately.
          Late in the night, I found myself in Marysville where there was some sort of festival going on with a carnival and a concert. I strolled around and felt so alive and free, without schedule or supervision. I think it was my first taste of such freedom, and I loved it. I was completely on my own, in a strange town, among people I didn't know, and loving every second of it.
          Dylan's Blood on the Tracks wouldn't come out until the following year, so at the time, my favorite LP was Jackson Browne's Late For the Sky which was pretty much on constant play in my mind. Other than the reference to “my old neighborhood,” a stanza from the song Walking Slow captured my Marysville night perfectly:

Walkin' slow down the avenue through my old neighborhood
Don't know why I'm happy, I've got no reason to feel this good.
Maybe it's because I'm all alone and I've got no place to go
And everywhere I look I see another person I'll never know.

          The next day, I drove into the Sierra foothills and, being a ghost town buff, checked out Grass Valley, Nevada City and the remote old town of North Bloomfield with its extensive hydraulic and placer mining tailings. My plan, to the extent that one was forming at all, was that after visiting a few historic towns I'd drop down to I-80 and buzz over to Sparks, Nevada, to see Harold's car collection (then recognized as the largest collection in the world), but my plan changed when I picked up a couple hitchhikers, towheaded brothers about my age, who needed a lift to Downieville where they expected to catch hell for not coming home the night before. It didn't matter to me that a Downieville roundtrip would be about 100 miles out of my way – I wasn't going to be controlled by any schedule, not even my own! We smoked cigarettes and shared stories for an hour or more as I took them fifty twisty-turny miles up the highway along the rushing Yuba River to Downieville, dropping them off right at their ramshackle house, an abode that reminded me in every way of Ma and Pa Kettle's place at Cape Flattery. Seriously, the screen door was hanging off one hinge and the dilapidated porch was occupied by a couple ancient rocking chairs, a beat old davenport, a vintage washtub with wringer, a few mangy cats, and a lazy bloodhound. An assortment of rusted machinery, farm implements, mattress springs and decomposing cars littered the bare-dirt yard where chickens, geese and goats wandered freely. Invited in, I suddenly decided I needed to stick with my plan after all; needed to get going. I'd seen Deliverance.
          From Downieville, I got back on 49 and retraced the route I'd just driven, passing through Nevada City and Grass Valley, then crossing I-80 at Auburn, and continuing south to the Marshall gold discovery site on the American River at Coloma. For several years, I had immersed myself in gold-rush history and lore, and to at last arrive at the place where the California Gold Rush started was a dream come true. I parked the car and wandered all over the place, from one end of it to the other, looking into every building, talking to shop keepers and park rangers, standing at the water's edge and imagining what it must have been like 125 years earlier. To me the place was magical, sacred. Still is. I've been back at least 20 times since then, not for what is there but for what was. I can sit there for hours, content to be lost in thought about the lives, fortunes and failures of the gold rush. Though I didn't know it at the time, my maternal great grandfather, Aaron Cornelius Hall, was with the party of miners who had quit California only to touch off the Oregon gold rush of 1862 when they found gold in Canyon Creek south of John Day.
          I continued down 49 to Placerville where they were having a festival complete with parade. Traffic was backed up for a mile and it took me over an hour just to get across Hwy 50 and through the two-block town (Placerville is at the junction of east/west 50 and north/south 49). The day was hot – over 100 degrees – and there was a cop in the street directing traffic under the blazing sun. I gave him an ice-cold can of Pepsi from my ice chest. Just a little ways ahead of me, a couple guys on chopped and raked Harleys – ape-hangers, straight pipes, bobbed fenders – twisted their throttles and thundered up the hill out of town like desperados who'd just knocked off a stagecoach – an image and sound that thrilled me and planted a seed that would bear fruit about 12 years later. Not that I ever robbed a stagecoach but I did get a Harley.
          I followed 49 on down through Plymouth, Dry Town, Amador City, Sutter, Jackson, Mokelumne Hill and all the way to Angels Camp where I prowled around a bit to see the vestiges of Mark Twain's time in Calaveras County. I headed back north on 49 before turning east across the Sierras on 4 and then north again on 88. I camped up in the mountains somewhere south of Tahoe, and the next day went to Virginia City, scratched around in the city's 19th century garbage dump where I found an old snuff box, toured the museum in Carson City, and locked the keys in my car at Harold's in Sparks. After sundown, I took twisty highway 50 westbound back over the mountains, putting my road-hugging Mustang through its paces and managing to miss dozens of deer by mere inches.
          I don't recall the next few hundred miles, but I know I didn't go to the coast, so I'm pretty sure I took Hwy 99 down through Lodi, Modesto, Merced, Fresno and Bakersfield, but that part of the trip is a total blank to me now. My next clear recollection is of driving west through Topanga Canyon (a canyon I'd ride through in a rusted-out Mustang Fastback piloted by LSD guru Thaddeus Golas a few years later), taking a right at the Pacific Coast Highway (California 1) and driving that magical strip of the PCH up to Surfrider Beach at Malibu. As a fledgling skateboarder, wannabe surfer, and faithful reader of Surfer Magazine, hanging out at Malibu was heaven to me. 

          The Malibu of my mind had been formed by early 60's music and movies, and the Malibu I actually encountered was so much like the one I had imagined, there was a time-warpy feel to being there. Bikinis and board shorts; palm-frond lean-tos; a volleyball net; the pier; perfect little barrels peeling right and left.  The names of legendary Malibu surfers Johnny Fain and Mickey Dora were still scrawled on the wall as its only graffiti. I half expected to run into Moondoggie and Gidget.  There was a sun-addled beach hippy in a comically huge sombrero dragging a big burlap bag behind him that was tethered to his waist with a rope. He was picking up cans and bottles on the beach, making a big production of each find, holding it up to the sun, examining it from every angle, and then sky-hooking it into the bag. Or near it, anyway. I ran into him a couple more times over the ensuing few years. He lived at the mouth of Malibu Canyon in the thickets of the dry wash behind the old shopping center where the theater was. The theater was a popular place to sleep as it screened movies all night and management didn't kick anyone out between showings. When I got back to my car, I found on the windshield a handbill for a screening of Five Summer Stories, a classic early 70's surfing documentary, soundtrack by Honk, who became one of my favorite bands and I saw in Seattle a couple years later. They still play together once a year to a packed house at The Coach House in San Juan Capistrano. I hope to be there for it next year.
          Somewhere along the PCH, I picked up some hitchhikers who'd never seen skis before. Imagine that – they went from never having seen skis to sharing a seat with a pair! Without a ski rack, my skis were inside my car, lying diagonally from back left to front right, the tails wedged into the corner of the back left seat, the bindings between the two front bucket seats, and the tips butted right against the glove compartment. The guys wanted to know what the hell I was doing with skis in Malibu, and when I told them I'd skied Shasta but decided to come down and check out the surf scene at Malibu, they thought I was on the coolest adventure ever. I liked that.
          As adventures go, I suppose the trip I just recounted doesn't strike anyone else as something special, but as my first solo road trip, it occupies a special place in my heart. In some ways, my life today is a continuation of that trip, suggesting that its impact really was as strong as I recall. As I write this, I've been on the road and camping for the last three weeks. It's only May and I've camped more than 30 nights already this year. Yesterday morning, I awoke in my tent in Kingman, AZ, around 6:00 and was on westbound I-40 by 7:30.  Around noon I was filling the tank in Barstow, and by late afternoon I arrived here in Midpines up near the west entrance to Yosemite. I'll visit Yosemite today, work in Mariposa over the weekend, and then head on up 99 or 49 on Sunday or Monday. Full circle.
          Early in my trip in July '74, on the night I drove through the walnut orchards between Redding and Marysville, I scribbled a note to myself: “If I ever give a young person advice, it will be to take a driving trip, alone, without a schedule or a destination.” I actually did give that advice for awhile, but I don't think anyone took it, or if they did, they never reported back to me that they were positively impacted by it.  But it worked for me. My first adventure was formative. Over 40 years later, I'm still on the road and loving every minute of it.