Many highways in this land remain for me undriven. I’m guessing that certain thoroughfares between various Hootervilles and Bugtussles will stay that way, at least in this particular incarnation. But there’s one road I know pretty well, and I’ve driven down it many times in my life, from Red Bluff up north to the Grapevine below Bakersfield down south. I’m talking, of course, about California State Highway 99, which runs down the hickoid interior of my home state, the part where hipster bloggers from the San Francisco Bay Area fear to tread.
Not me. I’m a valley boy, almost a native. My parents popped me out in Berkeley, then got job-transfered or something and ended up in Stockton, which is where I grew up. And so whenever we went anywhere, it was either west over the Altamont to visit my dad’s family or to go to a Giants game, east up into the mythic Gold Rush lands of Mark Twain and Bret Harte, or up and down Highway 99.
If there’s a stretch of 99 I know best, it’s between Stockton, where I grew up, and Sacramento, our state capital and my home for the past quarter century. It’s only something like 45 miles, and now I drive it every day — or at least I drive that stretch between downtown Sacramento and Lodi, about 10 miles north of Stockton. I’ll spare you the southernmost 10 miles, which includes Morada, birthplace of Pavement and erstwhile home of Steve Malkmus and Scott Kannberg, and the now-disappeared Pollardville Chicken Kitchen and Ghost Town, or melodrama theater, where among the regular actors was one Grant-Lee Phillips, now a songwriter of some renown in Los Angeles who had the occasional stint as a troubadour on the television show The Gilmore Girls. Oh, and Womble Party House and Armstrong Road, gateway to Micke Grove, and the Cherokee Memorial Park, where my father met a cremation retort 30 years ago.
Driving home, I get on at Turner Road on the northern edge of Lodi, just south of the Mokelumne River. Immediately there’s the shuttered Goehring Meats complex, home to the world-famous Victor Brand hot dog, whose footlong was a mainstay of Bud Bakalian’s Dok Shoons Armenian hotdoggery in Stockton’s Lincoln Center, where once Victor Elvis and I were noshing dogs one afternoon before Victor started elbowing me repeatedly, saying that the man in the monkey-poop brown leisure suit with matching Hawaiian floral print shirt was guitar god Dick Dale. “Naw, get out of here, Victor,” I said. To which he waddled over to the man, poked him in the side with his stubby finger and said, “Hey, you’re Dick Dale.” “Why, yes, I am,” Dale politely answered. Then Victor got down in a combat crouch with his air Stratocaster and started making weird noises: “Dugga dugga dugga dugga duggadugga duggadugga bow mow mow mowmow mowmow mow mow ….” Guess you kinda had to be there. Anyway, Dick was playing a gig, before the hipsters rediscovered him, in the local Polynesian frou-frou cocktail joint, Tommy Lee’s Islander, a restaurant that was lost at the Lake Tahoe tables and then repurchased from legitimate businessmen more than several times, before its outrigger roof ended up on Highway 99, moved there on a truck to the Pollardville Chicken Kitchen. It never looked right in its new location.
After Goehring Meats there’s the Coloma Cellars, or maybe it’s before, but the Bush economic miracle appears to have killed that, too. Then comes about five miles of really pretty country, all grape vineyards and farmhouses. First there’s Woodbridge Road, then Acampo Road — which looks kinda like the San Joaquin County version of the old Warner Bros. Records “orange crate” center label, as it’s lined with palms and a few eucalyptus trees, and everywhere you look there are grape vineyards. When I drive to work early every weekday, if there’s that spectrum of morning light that makes everything more gold or even slightly reddish, the sight of it is a beautiful high.
Next up is Peltier Road and more vineyards, and after that on the left there’s an airport, which on certain days features skydiving, and there are times when parachutists rain down from the sky and drift over the highway. Sometimes I fear one of them is going to mess up and land on the highway and get converted to hillbilly hamburger by my bumper.
Just past the airport is Jahant Road, which I never know how to pronounce. I mean, is it “JAY-hawnt” Road, said with an Okie accent, or is it the more pretentiously oeneophilic “Zha-HAUNH,” as in Rue de la Phuquestique? “Sheriff’s Deputies apprehended two culprits on JAY-hawnt Road on suspicion of constructing a whiskey still fabricated from stolen Volkswagen parts and the brothers’ mother’s vintage Westinghouse washer-dryer combo. Adelbert McFnooftie, 39, and his twin brother Eufilbert McFnooftie, of the same approximate chronological age, were intoxicated to the point of knee-walking stupidity, and were transported to the County Jail complex on Mathews Road in French Camp after unsuccessful pleas for just one more slice of mama’s famous peach cobbler.”
Anyway, I digress, as is my wont. There are two eateries off Jahant: One’s the Airport Cafe, which is often surrounded by Chevy Silverado pickups. Bad sign. If they were F-150s or Rams, I might venture trying a bite there, but all GM is a no-go; the other place looks even more sketchy — Rockin’ Robin’s Cafe, with a hand-painted sign of the quality often photographed at various Tea Party rallies. Could be lethal. But I am curious, in the way that the Silver Skillet on I-80 off I-5 lured me in for awful chili at least once.
Next up is Collier Road, then Liberty Road. My dad used to tell me the famous chain-gang car-washing scene from Cool Hand Luke was filmed down the road apiece. Dunno for sure. There’s a small graveyard at the intersection with 99, though. Further up at the county line is a golf course, which runs under the elevated roadway.
After that, Galt, the first stop in Sacramento County. Now, I have a personal rule: I’ll never live in a town named after a character in an Ayn Rand novel. Especially a place that gives me a nasty Okie vibe, having grown up near East Stockton and endured more than my share of taunts from hostile hickoid Okie jackoffs. I think I must have had some kind of bad experience in Galt that my mind’s blocking out, because I speed through there. But not too fast to notice the sail-like signage announcing the Galt Mobile Estates, a mobile home park where once in the early 1970s I ventured to inquire about a primer-gray 1951 Plymouth station wagon, which leaked oil and smoked like Tom Waits so it was a no-buy. Then there’s D2 Trailer Sales.com, which always cracks me up because they have a huge inventory of horse trailers. Did they unhinge on crack cocaine and order way too many trailers, or are they masters at selling horse trailers, a conveyance I’ll most likely never need? One wonders.
Then, north. After Arno Road, on the right going north, there’s a clump of trees with this strange-looking gun tower in the middle of it, like something you’d find in a first-person shooter video game. It overlooks some wetlands that must be overflow from the nearby Cosumnes River. There’s corn on the left and a watering hole for geese on the right, then Dillard Road, and then a stretch of woods or thickets where the Cosumnes runs. And then, around a bend and dogleg left up a slight hill then down, and Elk Grove looms ahead.
On the right, a nine-hole golf course amid high-voltage towers; my kind of bucolic charm. Past that, warehouses and these two huge propane tanks that some meth-marinated mental midgets from the sticks trah’d ta blow up, or threatened to do so, wile they were gakked out of their minds circa 1999, freaking out about looming Y2K. Yikers. And at Grant Line Road, which I used to use as a shortcut to Citrus Heights when it was a country road 30 years ago, there’s a huge overpass now, because some greedy Einsteins decided this might be a great place for a new shopping mall, the half-constructed postmodern wreckage of which can be viewed on the left, west of the highway. I’d guess that huge colonies of subterranean termites are busy returning whatever wood was used to build the unbuilt mall to the earth from which it grew.
North of there, on the left, one of my favorite highway phenomenons: the new car mall. At Elk Grove Boulevard, there’s a good-sized graveyard amid the suburban sprawl, and the four-lane highway widens to a big-ass freeway. Not much to say about Elk Grove; the remains of the dealingist dealers of the 1960s, Bob Batey Chevrolet and Frank Cate Ford, are on the right; the Chevy dealership, for a long time abandoned, recently got inhabited by Mike Daugherty’s new store, after he apparently got forced out of his Fulton Avenue Chevrolet and Hummer dealerships. The old Ford store next door is some kind of fundamentalist or charismatic Christian church now.
Used to be that Elk Grove was all country. Landmarks I remember are the cemetery past Bond Road, first known as East Lawn Southgate, then Southeast Lawn, and now it’s East Lawn Elk Grove, with a huge mortuary now next to an Applebee’s and across the freeway from a Best Buy. And what’s this “Southgate” and “Northgate” thing, anyway? Like Sacramento is some moatless feudal outpost with gates to the governor’s castle? Anyway, I remember hunkering down in the back of our old VW on the way to Sacramento on foggy days, and the graveyard would come up and I’d hide because I could imagine all the bodies six feet under in their caskets, rotting and mouldering and growing huge whiskers of fungal Lovecraftian fur and leaking abominable fluids into the ground, which is where the mind goes when you’re a weird little kid with an overactive imagination.
Just past the boneyard, there’s another country church, and then they ruckused up enough cash to build a bigger church next door. Somewhere on the right, there was a drive-in church, too, which always fascinated me. I dug the idea from a California Googie point of view, but the reality was most likely the kind of hell-fire and brimstone snarling and barking that sends me running for the comfort of my Dhammapada these days. There’s another graveyard in there, too.
And after that, Sacramento. Generic city, U.S.A. Home sweet home. Yep. It is. —Jackson Griffith