Friday, July 1, 2011

Bishop, CA to Lancaster, CA on Historic Route 6

Bishop, CA to Lancaster, CA
On Historic Route 6
188 miles

From Bishop south, old Route 6 is but a memory.  Though US Route 6 ran from Provincetown, MA to Long Beach, CA from 1937 – 1964, in ’64, California renumbered the routes, truncating Route 6 in Bishop.  But there are still purists who try to recreate the former road, and I did attempt it and for the most part succeeded.  I have to tell you, though that if you do decide to follow the Old Route 6 you will be amply rewarded.  I stayed off the thruways as much as possible and was glad I did.

From Bishop, I took Highway 395 South through Big Pine, traversing outcroppings of lava chunks coughed up by the Eastern Sierras. My little car was blowing all over the road – there were Wind Advisories – as I headed straight into a dust-storm, impacting visibility. 

In Independence, I made sure to visit the small, low-tech, but quirky Eastern Californa Museum.  The curator took much delight in guiding me to the antique dentures, made for a human out of coyote teeth.  So very weird.  Other great exhibits include photos of Japanese Americans who were interred nearby at Mazanar taken by a fellow prisoner, Shiro Nomura, a collection of artifacts and photos from rock-climbing legend, Norman Clyde, “a disciplined intellectual who had the look and manners of a tramp,” and a terrific collection of Native American woven baskets – works of art, really.  I’m telling you – it’s worth a stop just to see the coyote dentures.


A few miles south of Independence, I visited the Manaznar National Historic Site, where 11,070 American citizens of Japanese ancestrywere imprisoned.  All of these people – adults and children alike – were taken from their homes and placed in similar camps all over the west.  Not one was charged with a crime, yet some were confined for as long as 3 ½ years.  Newscasts of the day called the packed trains to the camps a “voluntary migration,” and most who were instructed to go were told that they were being evacuated for their own safety, as animosity towards Asians skyrocketed after the bombing of Pearl Harbor.  This was our country’s dirty little secret until President Ronald Regan signed a Bill of Restitution in 1988, calling these “war relocation centers” a “big mistake.”  The Visitor’s Center is a must-see – with a 20-minute documentary that will break your heart.  The land is so windy and bleak, I’m amazed that the prisoners there created schools, social societies, orchestras and the most gorgeous water-gardens.  That they made the most out of their imprisonment is testament to the importance the Japanese place on culture and education. 

Beverly and Jim Rogers Museum of Lone Pine
Film History, Lone Pine, CA
About 20 miles South in Lone Pine, I stopped once again at another can’t-miss museum; the Beverly and Jim Rogers Museum of Lone Pine Film History.  It’s a long name for a relatively small museum, but when you watch the 20 minute documentary about the true Hollywood hills – the Alabama Hills just up the mountainside – you’ll understand why every single silent western, singing cowboy movie and later the movies that made John Wayne and Clint Eastwood household names all look the same – setwise.  That’s because they were all filmed in these strange, rounded sandstone formations that were called the Alabama Hills.  The museum is stocked with costumes, props and posters from Tom Mix, Gene Autrey. Randolf Scott, Wayne, Eastwood and others.  Though now relatively quiet, every few years, directors get a hankering to film here.  The terrain was weird enough to attract the producers of Tremors and Iron Man, and its still used quite a bit for TV ads.

Of course, I had to drive up into the hills (only 3 miles) to take a look at the formations. Freakish (leaning ghosts, cloaked lady,) but oddly familiar.

Outside of Oleancha, I started to see billboards for “Fresh Jerky,” and with such marketing prowess, I just had to see these jerky purveyors.  Turned out to be a small, old converted gas station building covered with decals.  In the middle of nowhere, they better advertise big!  I bought the Teryaki flavor ($9 for a large vacuum packed bag) and hit the road again.  Soon, a “wide load” truck carrying what had to be a 50 or 60 ft. yacht breezed by going north.  Woa – looked more like an ocean-going vessel but perhaps a mega billionaire is carving out his own Great Lake.

Highway 395 traversed “China Lake” – I was coming into the hotbed (both literally and figuratively) of the aerospace industry.  A billboard proclaimed “Now Hiring Scientists and Engineers,” which is a great thing for scientists and engineers in this economy.

Indian Wells Brewing Co.
Inyokern, CA
Still southward, 395 splits off towards the east, so here, I merged onto 14 south, (yes, formerly 6) where I discovered a great pit-stop; Indian Wells Brewing Company.  This small brewery sits atop an Indian watering hole, which saved the life of many a pioneer back when this  harsh land was being settled.  It now turns out beers like “Lobotomy Bock,” “Blackout Stout,” and “Amnesia IPA,” along with uniquely flavored sodas.  I tried the popular Mojave Red and it was very satisfying. 

Red Rock Canyon SP
Route 14 slices right through Red Rock Canyon State Park, comparatively tame next to Glenwood Canyon, but striking nevertheless.  I would have loved to have taken a Jeep Tour up into these red rocks, but I pressed on through Mojave (lots of planes on the ground, lots of wind turbines, lots of traffic lights, fast food and a big commercial strip), then, in Rosemond, I jogged left then right onto the Sierra Highway – the REAL original Route 6.  Right away, I felt at home.  I passed the familiar brown Historic Route 6 sign.  I rode that Sierra Highway right into the big town of Lancaster, CA – a city on the verge of change….for the better.

Bordering Edwards Air Force Base, Lancaster is primarily an aerospace city, though it fell on tough times.  In order to “bring Lancaster back” city officials decided to invest in downtown – to beautiful effect.  Main Street – now renamed “The Boulevard” –looks like a tree-shaded park, and though not entirely pedestrian, it has the feel of a pedestrian mall.

EAT: I ate at a terrific “Farm to Table” restaurant, The Lemon Leaf, and had the best pizza since I left Connecticut.  (Sorry Lemon Leaf – no one can top Pepe’s in New Haven, CT in my opinion).  Across the street, the really funky, factory-like Bex (“Be Extreme”) serves “extreme” pub food; “extreme salads, extreme sandwiches” – and downstairs in the darkly atmospheric Underground Bowling Lounge you can try for strikes on neon-lit lanes. (Why are strikes good in bowling but bad in baseball?).  On a Tuesday night, the place was pretty quiet, but I’d imagine (and would hope) it’s hopping on weekends.  Outside, a live band was playing to a big group of bikers (Bike Night) and kids swung on tire swings in a clever side-walk space playground.  A new Museum of Art and History is nearing completion, and the whole street has a very inviting vibe.  Lancaster, CA plans to capitalize on the fact that Judy Garland got her acting chops here as a little girl when her family moved here from the Midwest.  The small theater near her elementary school still stands (though it’s now a warehouse with a nice fa├žade), and some city boosters would like to see it come back to life.

Lancaster also has one other very unique attraction – one that can only be found in  two other places; Japan and South Korea. It’s a “Musical Road.”  If you take a right off of the Sierra Highway onto Avenue G, and stay in the left lane, you’ll come to some grooves in the road.  Pass over them at around 50MPH and you’ll hear the first five or ten seconds of the William Tell Overture.  This “vinyl record” like method of music-making was created for a Honda Civic commercial a couple of years ago and freaks people out if they ride over it without warning.  Very cool.

STAY: I would recommend the Inn of Lancaster even if they hadn’t put out a big sign welcoming “Malerie Yolen-Cohen On Her Route 6 Adventure” right outside the lobby.  Oh my gosh, was that a surprise.  (The bigger surprise came the next day when I was interviewed on camera for local and Los Angeles news stations.  Gulp).  Lancaster identifies strongly with the what used to be Route 6, the Sierra Highway, and though most people travel here on the parallel and faster Highway 14, The Boulevard is actually off of Sierra.  And the Inn at Lancaster is actually ON Sierra Highway.  Like several of the Mom and Pop motels I stayed in, the Inn at Lancaster is a wonderful, clean, comfortable and pretty place with lots to offer;  a nicely landscaped outdoor pool, a complementary dinner in the early evening (hamburgers when I was there), a complimentary continental breakfast, and free Wi-Fi (always a plus). The Mom and Pop of record, Andy and Jeannie Holnberg, have a place to be proud of.

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