The 395 south of the sign is south of heaven.
Written by Kyle Magin
Scenic US Route 395 ends abruptly.
Somewhere southbound along Eastern California’s beautiful backdoor byway toward Southern California, around Olancha after you see the first Joshua Trees popping up from the shitty soil, CalTrans makes it very clear you are leaving the state-designated Scenic 395 corridor.
The land beyond it–a collection of places that make you question how anyone could live out here, much less make a living–is worth less, in the state’s eyes.
At first, this seemed capricious to me. Why spit in the face of the denizens of that weird lunar landscape between the Sierra Nevada and Mojave Desert by stating in certain terms to motorists that ‘the show’s over, there’s nothing more to see here, get up to about 7 over the speed limit and make good time before you hit a slowdown on the 15, a sure sign of civilization?’ Why not just let people make their own decision about when the drive turns from tour to commute?
I’ve driven 395.2 miles of U.S. 395 twice in the past month-and-a-half as I moved the crap my girlfriend and I have accumulated, plus my dog, to Southern California after nearly a decade at Lake Tahoe.
The highway runs from the Washington-Canada border to Hesperia, California–the least SoCal Southern California town in the world. Think if those shitheap monster vehicles from Mad Max had to have a proving track; Hesperia is where they’d put it.
395’s jog through most of California–from Topaz Lake on the Nevada border to about Olancha, where the sign is–is rightly lauded by outdoors enthusiasts and retired RVers alike as just about one of the prettiest drives in America. Give someone from the Patagonia set roughly seven hours and they’ll drone on or enrapture you with tales of the road’s beauty and attractions, from the Sierra Nevada’s rising peaks as you head southward, to spur roads leading you to the ‘American Alps’ of the June Lake Loop, to the world-class skiing at Mammoth to the site of a great national shame at the restored Japanese internment camp at Manzanar. You’ll find guidebooks filled with treatises on bouldering the Alabama Hills and poking through the long-dead ghost town of Bodie. But, this isn’t about that 395.
395 South of the Sign doesn’t start sucking immediately. Depending on your ability to appreciate different scenery, it may not suck at all. But the State of California, which designates Scenic Highways and affords them extra funding for upkeep and protections from development, doesn’t view the land after the sign with anywhere near the value as the land before it. In fact, the Scenic Corridor’s last addition, from Independence to Olancha-ish, was the very last portion to be added 36 years ago.
After the sign, it’s flatter on a map even if it doesn’t appear that way to the eyes, with great red denuded hills hanging over bone-dry canyons and maybe a few I’m not dead yet cottonwoods. The Sierra don’t really tower over the roadway any more, but instead lose altitude quickly and slink southeast toward the Tehachapi and Transverse ranges. The scenery becomes more immediate–the quick dips in the road immediately to your left and right, the J-Trees reaching ever higher as the weird calculus of whatever mixture of unrelenting sun, wind and no rain that makes them successful begins to optimize. The people change. Where you might be riding next to a pair of Nebraskans enjoying their golden years while pulling the fifth wheel near Convict Lake, here you’re surrounded by people desperate to reach a destination and locals with stickers supporting the presumptive Republican nominee on their beaters.
The pull-offs in this region–necessary when you have a dog and full bladder–are almost picturesque. Sage crops up for miles around you and you see a view few people in California are afforded–big sky. There’s no endless ocean horizon over which to watch the world bend away from you. There’s no ring of mountains to tantalize you with what may be over the next ridge. There’s just what you see, a long, dry, sloping plain interspersed with small hills and maybe a diminutive rent or two in the Earth’s crust.
Maybe this country South of the Sign doesn’t need extra protections. Its people are few, and they care for it or exploit it as they see fit and finances or commercial interests allow. It’s surely not the same as the State’s Scenic Corridor, but damned if it isn’t some sort of scenic.