Sunday, January 3, 2010

The Grapevine

Anyone who has lived in California, or has spent time here long enough to drive from SF to LA, must know about The Grapevine, or 'grapevine hill' as the old timers called it. It's a mountain pass near southern California, named after the small town at the foot of the hill, south of Bakersfield. The Grapevine is a steep stretch of highway that climbs over 4,000 feet in less than 12 miles through Tejon Pass...Today, it's part of I-5, and with today's efficient engines and transmissions, most cars make it up the hill with a minimum of effort. But not too long ago it was the stuff of legend, for decades, when cars blew radiators trying to get up that hill. My parents remember riding to LA when they were kids, and it would be a two-day trip, either sleeping in the car, or at the motels near Fort Tejon, and this was in the early days, when it was a two-lane road, and moter hotels became an obvious necessity...
When I was a kid in the 60's, my parents would drive to LA from San Jose, with me in the back seat, and for me at the time, it meant fun times ahead...Disneyland, Knott's Berry Farm, and visits to my cousins Larry and Gary...they had a pool, and they were always a blast to hang out that's how going to LA always involved going somewhere fun, and also the grapevine experience.
I remember that divide in the road, when you could see it go uphill. My dad would say, "okay, here we go!" and even then, in the Ford Fairlane with its V8 engine, cars at that time didn't have the fuel efficiency or the ability to deliver enough torque to zoom up the hill like they do now...he shifted to D2 and even we watched the rest of the cars slow down too...some were parked on the side of the road with their hoods up, overheated...and the trucks! oh man...they crawled at 10 or 15 miles an hour...and to this day, there's still signs like, 'radiator water ahead'.

Fast forward about 10 years, I had my own car, a Pinto...all four cylinders, ha! Looking back, it was a great little car, I drove it countless times between Chico and San Jose, to Seattle even...I learned to maintain it, work on small repairs...and yes, I drove it over the Grapevine a few times.
Going up the hill it was okay at first, then I had to shift to 4th gear, still losing power and speed, I shifted to 3rd....oh maaaan...I was only going 45 with my foot to the floor, and cars were coming up behind me...I tried to move over, but the two right lanes were reserved for trucks that still carried their heavy loads at that same snail pace...other cars were going slow also, as if we were in a race through molasses, it was very frustrating as other cars still tailgated...
Then the temperature gauge I installed said the engine was getting hot, and I was at only 2,000 feet...okay, second gear, 'wawooooom' the engine kicked in a little more as I poked along...maan! I watched the more powerful cars with bigger engines drive past with enmity, as I said, "sorry car, sorry to put you through this..."
At Tejon Pass, it finally started to go downhill, a welcome relief to both me and the Pinto, and indeed, its temperature cooled. I thought at the time, no wonder they called these things Pinto's...faithful little horses in the Old West, and as I always do with my cars, I placed a faith and a certain spirit within what is just a machine...but cars have always been 'friends' to me.

And so, like any roller coaster, you go go down...

On the way back down, going in the other direction, it's important to know how fast your car can take curves, and how good your tires and brakes are...because before you know it, you're going 80 or 90, like you're literally on a roller coaster, only not on fixed tracks, but on a slippery downhill road with a few dozen other drivers along side going 'whoooaa nelly!' The runaway ramps for trucks are always a reminder...but it's all good if you know what your car can and can't do...and if you play your brakes like a finely tuned musical instrument, you're fine...

Even a couple weeks ago, driving up the grapevine with zero effort this time, I still remembered that part, driving's still the same.

1 comment:

  1. This post brought back so many memories! i, too, remember seeing all the cars parked along side of the highway with their hoods up. I also remember that one part where the lanes change places and the cars going north are on the opposite side of the cars going south... it sorta messes with your head for a tiny bit. Fun post! I didn't realize it was a two-day trip for many back in the "day".