Robert L. Sharp: Memories along 99 -- Much to explore on highway

02/14/2009 1:37 AM

02/20/2009 11:50 AM

As a boy we would drive from Linden to my grandmother's house in Modesto, taking the back way, through Farmington and Escalon.

Not going down Highway 99 from Stockton means missing the opportunity to chant "Rip through Ripon, Slide through Salida, Mosey through Modesto."

Modesto's "Water, Wealth, Contentment, Health" arch from 1911 is still there, at Ninth and I ("Eye") streets.

From Modesto we would pile into my uncle's 1950s-era Hudson, the one that looked like an inverted bathtub, to drive to visit my maiden great-aunt Mamie in El Monte, outside of Los Angeles, where she taught school for 40 years.

Zooming down Highway 99, bypassing all the towns en route, left the sad impression there wasn't much there. Rusted bedsprings and old farm machinery in the fields, wisps of cotton stuck on barbed wire fences and poisonous oleander bushes down the center divider, useful to prevent straying, as cows wouldn't eat it.

Depending on the time of year, an excursion down Highway 99 meant dealing with the terrible Tule fog, right up there with driving on black ice for a fear factor.

These were the days where travel meant visiting friends and family and as my mother would say, "staying all night." I learned later other people not coming from the Midwest used the term "staying overnight," but in any case, there wasn't money for hotels or motels, so the trip down 99 was always done in a hurry in one big gulp.

After retirement, I wasn't so much in a hurry. So to visit our children, I took two days to cover the Los Angeles to San Francisco trip, going off the highway to explore the towns I had always zipped past. I stopped for every historical marker.

The Grapevine has been straightened out, but turnoffs for runaway vehicles remind you how steep and scary it could be. It remains a mystery why on descending you have to go eastward on an overpass to get to I-5 which runs up the west side of the Valley, and go westward to get to 99, which runs up the east side. More work for Caltrans, I guess.

Bakersfield may be best known for country music singer Buck Owens, but for me the Basque restaurants are a draw. Wool Growers and Noriega Hotel are tops.

Some towns were as dreary as they looked from the highway, Delano, Pixley; the kids from there I knew in college became successful and never looked back.

When hunger pangs hit, turning off to a small town, maybe Earlimart, I found that the local Subway Restaurant, run by an East Indian couple, was the social hub. Some towns had been spruced up and were quite charming, such as Visalia. Many have beautiful old homes from an earlier era.

Tulare's main street is nice, and if you have an interest in local boys, Olympic champion Bob Mathias or U.S. Navy Admiral Elmo Zumwalt, the youngest four-star in U. S. naval history and the youngest man to serve as Chief of Naval Operations, the Tulare Historical Museum is a stop you should make.

Of special interest is Hanford, about 20 miles west of Highway 99, which has an impressive gaggle of classic buildings straight out of the movie "Back to the Future." Outside of town in the walnut orchards is the unique Clark Center for Japanese Art and Culture, with authentic buildings by Japanese craftsmen.

As I wanted to see the Japanese-American history exhibit, I discovered Merced and the magnificent County Courthouse Museum. Although the museum was closed, banging on the door roused director Sarah Lim, who kindly let me in for a brief look.

I was fortunate enough to stumble upon Merced on a day they closed the main drag for a farmers' market and street fair, complete with mounted police. Great fun!

Oddly enough there is only one quality bed-and- breakfast between Los Angeles and Lodi on Highway 99, the Hooper House Bear Creek Inn. They put me onto De Angelo's Italian Restaurant and the Mansion House for dinner.

In respect to more culture, dinner at De Angelo's introduced me to the artist Jack Vettriano by way of a print of his "Billy Boys" in the men's room. Where else would you find fine art?

Unfortunately, that print was stolen last year, but Vettriano's crisp work (sorry, Mr. De Angelo, Vettriano is Scottish!) can be seen at http://tinyurl.com/d4nc22 and other places on the Internet.

Going forward, Castle Air Museum in Atwater displays a great collection of aircraft. Its Startrekky Lockheed SR-71 Blackbird evokes what Batman would fly.

And now I know where those little towns are that Linden played in our football league of small schools -- Denair, Gustine and Le Grand. That trip meant another ride through the fog, this time in a school bus.

I wish farmers would identify their many different crops along old Highway 99 with signs. Then we would appreciate that food doesn't just originate in the supermarket.

Robert L. Sharp grew up in Linden (population 1,000) and spent most of the following 30 years as an international banker in Asia including four years as a naval officer in that part of the world.

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