A Road Trip with Jack

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Roar TripI have cabin fever. I’ve been spending too much time jammed in a cubicle working a job that normally measures progress in negative numbers. Rain has kept me in and fatigue has prevented me from mustering the effort required to go in search of outside entertainment.

Today, I needed a road trip.

My Yoga is a Road Trip

The feel of tires on the road, the solitude of a passenger-less car, and the soft wish of the highway are my yoga. The sound of silence is my mantra. The endless scroll Jack Kerouac used to write On the Road the perfect metaphor that soothes me. I stop thinking about “stuff” and compose an endless dialog in my head. I write virtual travelogues no one reads but me.

Every few years I do a weeklong trip with no path and no destination. I awaken each morning, choose a random direction, and go that way, subject only to the vagaries of weather and the remaining time to get home. I’ve been to 9 of the 10 least-visited national parks (and a few of the most visited) along the way. I’ve ranged as far as theocratic Salt Lake City and the Texas border. Lunching in Arizona I, watched illegal aliens travel three blocks down the street of a dusty border town to walk around the official crossing point out front of the restaurant. I’ve left Death Valley and driven past Mt. Whitney, the highest point the lower 48, within an hour and a half. The road is full of interest and adventure, and in my case, comfort.

I started the road trip today the same way, randomly selecting south.

Breakfast at the Temple of the Pig

A few blocks along, I stopped for breakfast at Emil Villa’s. It claims it has world famous “St. Louis” ribs, a dish I’ve never heard a native St. Louisan claim. If you believe the story on the menu, they involve hickory smoke in a patented smoker and a secret mix of herbs and spices fluid-injected into the meat. The secret allegedly started with a Missouri Indian recipe and migrated its way to California via Emil and a dust bowl-era trip west. I can vouch for the smoker, the place is hazy with hickory smoke and it is patented. The rest is probably a three quarter-century old marketing campaign.

While they serve dishes other than meat, it is primarily a temple to the pig. Dozens of anthropomorphized porkers gambol around the place. I always think about how they suggest pig-on-pig cannibalism. Even the vegetarian omelet comes with a side of smoked bacon.

It has a shopworn, truck stop ambience featuring broken-spring, spongy seats pulling up to expanses of worn Formica and clever bundling boards that allow the booths to be expanded and contracted as the traffic dictates. The place is filled with loud talking and the hefty chop of cleavers. In true pre-global warming Bay Area style, crooked ceiling fans stand in where air conditioning now rules elsewhere.

Even the Saints are Lost

Driving south along Mission Boulevard I realize I haven’t come this way in a long time. The road winds along the foot of “hills” that rival mid-size Appalachian peaks. Eventually it passes real Spanish-era Mission San Jose, hidden in a suburban Fremont, CA. Don’t be confused, the mission in San Jose is actually called Mission Santa Clara, proving that even saints don’t know where they belong.

Mission Boulevard is a study in contrasts. A few blocks from Emil’s it is an endless string of car lots with varying degrees of success. Some sell new cars; others are no-name lots with easy terms for bad credit. One enterprising car-shark modified the sign on a former Infinity dealership to Infinitude.

Colorful Aztec murals, pupusarias, and carnicerias selling halal meat are shoulder-to-shoulder with Indian shopping centers featuring sari sellers, Afghan kabob shops, and Sikh temples. The local school district once argued with Sikh parents over whether their boys could wear ceremonial daggers to school. In an area with frequent gang activity, the school board wisely fell on the side of caution, but lost in court.

The ethnic shops eventually give way to typical suburban houses and garden apartments. Not long ago, there were endless tulip fields where the houses are now.

The Little Tramp and the Oceana Roll

I peel away at the small town of Niles. Once it was home to Charlie Chaplain’s Essanay movie studios. On its soundstage, he danced the Oceana Roll with, well, real dinner rolls and Tom Mix shot cowboy movies in the hills above town. Today it is a suburb of Fremont. Main Street is a mix of trendy shops and run down storefronts. It has the feel of a wannabe Rodeo Drive meets another roadside attraction.

The steam-powered Niles Canyon Railway runs through the canyon. Notwithstanding Promontory Point revisionists, the final spike in the transcontinental railroad was actually driven along a non-descript stretch of track directly across the Bay in Palo Alto. The exact location is unknown, but there is a playground near the supposed location.

Where Intelligent Life is From Labrador

The canyon isn’t much more than a crack between earthquake faults. It is just wide enough for a two-lane road, the tracks, and a small creek. Today it is swollen with a recent rain, but still far below its normal level in drought-ravaged California.

The railroad is a mystery, crossing back and forth across the creek and road, using tunnels hidden in the brush. Atop the almost vertical walls, SETI operates giant radio telescopes looking for extraterrestrials.

Halfway through the canyon, four huge eucalyptus trees mark the site of an old fishing camp. A flood swept the shacks away almost 20 years ago, but the eye-stinging, sinus-clearing pall of Hall’s mentholyptus cough drops is still there. I first passed the spot nearly 25 years ago when I came to California. A realtor showed my wife and me the way in a vain attempt to sell us real estate we couldn’t afford, despite selling our house with an in-ground pool on an acre of land in Springfield, OH. The house has barely appreciated $10,000 in the years since. During the same period, there were times Bay Area real estate increased that much quarter-annually.

Clearly, there are no real estate moguls in Springfield.

The canyon ends at Sunol, a town chiefly famous for its pizza parlor and Bosco, the duly elected Labrador retriever mayor until his death.

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