SF to Bakersfield


OK, it was my first time there and it was also a really good excuse for a road trip taking those convoluted routes I’m so fond of, this time including more chunks of Route 66 and Highway 99 through the Central Valley. This time, the raod led through Bakersfield and Pixley and Barstow.

Like it or not, you have to be impressed by Las Vegas’ unchallenged status as “white trash cultural capital of America”. Plus there’s really cheap food, 24 hour bars, and more neon than the mind can fathom.

So my friend Duncan e-mails me from Charlotte and says “wanna go to Vegas?”. He was going to be there for a convention and invited me along to share in the fun. Being unemployed and bored, how could I say no to a good road trip and dirt cheap (OK…free…) accommodations? So, equipped with my newly acquired “NAC Green Book”, the 1941 auto club guide to the west coast, off I went.

As always, I ended up leaving later than planned. And as usual, I took the old road as opposed to the new. I’ve developed this real fascination with Highway 99, which was the main California north-south route before I-5 was constructed in the late 1960s and early 1970s. Having done the Fresno and Sacramento/Stockton portion of the journey, I was excited about finally hitting Bakersfield.

Highway 99 is great. It’s easy to see the remnants of its former dominance, and the towns scattered along it have not been gentrified and modernized into a generic mess like most of coastal California. My first major sighting on the road was an abandoned Horne’s Restaurant near Kingsburg. I knew it was going to be a good trip.


Several miles down the road, I found the Elmo Highway. Anyone who really knows me knows how exciting this moment was for me. I don’t know where it goes and I didn’t drive on it, but I’m glad to know it’s there. More towns followed, and I felt compelled to take the “99 Business Route” (the old highway) through most of them. Interesting sights all around.


Pixley! Suddenly, there it was in the distance. Seeing Pixley was more than I’d hoped for. Although there were no traces of Hooterville or Bugtussle nearby, I was happy to see that the commercial tradition started by Sam Drucker’s Store was alive and well at the Pixley Mini Mart and the Pixley General Store. After watching a train go by (I don’t think it was the Cannonball), it was time to leave and make the rest of the journey into scenic Bakersfield.


The only information I had about Bakersfield was from maps and the song “Far Away Eyes” by the Stones. I was delighted to see that it looked just the way I’d imagined: flat, dusty, and a little bit trapped in 1962. Block after block of old motels, coffee shops, and drive ins caught my eye. While I’m sure that an “80’s strip” full of chain stores and the like exists somewhere, I was mercifully spared the sight of it and my fantasy remained unchallenged. Thank you Jesus. Thank you Lord. (Thanks Mick…)


The terrain was flat and low-lying. The streets were wide. The buildings by and large were not “modernized” (which in the 80s and 90s usually means stripping away the original modernism in favor of something which is neither modern nor aesthetically pleasing).


I decided this would be a dang nice place to spend the night.

Downtown Bakersfield was great! Traditional “historic district” types would not be impressed, because the whole area seems to have been built between 1940 and 1965. Of course, this was right up my alley. Old department store buildings, a cool Woolworth’s, and an old Kress store brought back to life as the City Planning office. Overlooking it all was the Padre Hotel, in all its seedy beauty, with coffee shop and “casino room” intact. There are also a couple of great old theatres and a really exciting drug store which I managed to see prior to its repainting in tones of “corporate blue”.

OK…maybe it was because it was Sunday night. I don’t know. But the nightlife just wasn’t happening. The queer bars were not jumpin’, there seemed to be no one out on the streets (except the police, who were very much in evidence), and live music was not happening at all.

All the same, I managed to hit a few spots, none of them tremendously populated. First on the list was the Casablanca Club (1030 20th Street). It was a friendly type spot; the bartender, Rick, was out front and bored and greeted me upon my arrival. I will say that walking in was a bit intimidating. There were about eight people sitting in the darkened room, IN TOTAL SILENCE. Apparently, the juke box hadn’t been fed recently. When the music started again, it was country. Had two beers, talked to a couple of people and got recommendations on other spots, and hit the road…


…to the Cellar (K Street between 19th and 20th). A sign out front warned that parking was limited to 36 minutes. I didn’t use all my allotted time. I was in and out in about ten. Scary place. It tries really hard to be “nice”, but the music was horrible and the crowd was desperately seeking something I was unable to define. Probably a good thing. This bar reminded me a lot of the Palms in Greensboro, except that I like the Palms.

The evening’s last stop was The Place (3500 Wilson Road). The never accurate Bob Damron Guide listed this as a “country western” bar, so I was a tad leery. Needn’t have been; it was standard generic faggot disco in a strip mall setting. It wasn’t a particularly bad place…just not my scene. It was, I will admit, the only place in town that seemed to have any sort of energy.

Home. Bed. Alone.

Bakersfield to Las Vegas


I found a really great breakfast spot the next morning. The 24th Street Cafe (24th Street near Chester) was an old coffee shop, which may have pretensions toward being “chic”, but fortunately the prices and clientele haven’t caught up yet. Great waitress who called me “honey” and kept refilling the coffee cup, great local regulars who had conversations about things you rarely hear in SF (crops, the church bazaar, gas prices), and great hash browns.


A quick trip to the Salvation Army for the thrift store fix, a stop by the gas station (pump first THEN pay), and Bakersfield was history.


I followed the route of what used to be US 466 out of Bakersfield, through Tehachapi, Mojave (the town and the desert), and Barstow. Currently, the road is California 58 from Bakersfield to Barstow and I-15 from Barstow to Las Vegas. It’s interesting to see the terrain get progressively hillier and browner moving east from Bakersfield. This part of the Mojave Desert is actually pretty far above sea level (upto 4800 feet at Mountain Pass near the Nevada border). I even felt inspired to take a few nature pictures, knowing full well it might ruin my image.


Barstow is a strangely wonderful place. Its main reason for existing seems to be its role as the junction of a number of major highways. One of these highways used to be Route 66, the “mother road”, before it was replaced (at this stretch at least) by the cross-country Interstate 40, which begins in Barstow. Barstow was a pilgrimage I had to make because Greensboro, my hometown, used to be the eastern terminus of I-40 (it now cuts all the way through to Wilmington).


Main Street is home to much roadside beauty, including the El Rancho Motel and the Beacon Bowl and Coffee Shop (East Main Street), where I felt compelled to have lunch. As luck would have it, a busload of high school age Belgian tourists felt compelled in the same manner at the same time. Each of them paid individually…with travelers checks. This tended to slow down service tremendously as there was but one increasingly harried waitress. Good food though. I was well-fed for the remaining desert crossing.

Las Vegas in the daytime is so ugly it hurts. It’s flat, full of vacant lots, and sand blows through all the major intersections. The roadsides have no grass or plantings, only sand and dirt. The surrounding mountains have no trees. The buildings are without any trace of color. Suburban sprawl of the most generic king surrounds the city. It’s hard to imagine a more unappealing locale for a resort destination.


And tourism is most definitely what Vegas is all about. It’s the only local industry covered in the press (casino receipts are up six per cent this year), and tourist facilities are everywhere. It’s almost hard to imagine that anyone lives here if you don’t leave the “strip”. Of course I did leave the strip.

The good thing is that things look much better at night. Perhaps it’s because you can’t see anything but the lights. White trash culture has been raised to an art form here. EVERYTHING is tacky and gaudy. It’s inescapable. Don’t get me wrong; this is not necessarily a bad thing. My tastes run toward the lowbrow, after all.

The locals complain about all the tourists, although without them there would be more or less nothing here. They complain about the lousy drivers, although most of the cars I saw pulling out in front of me, stopping for no apparent reason, etc. had Nevada tags. I had flashbacks to the love-hate relationship I noticed while living in Myrtle Beach. I think I saw lots of the same tourists as well.


The reason for the trip was the NAB (National Association of Broadcasters) convention. Home was the Palace Station Hotel and Casino. Vegas rule number one: EVERY business doubles as a casino, including the Seven Eleven and the corner bar. The host was Duncan. The political issues of the week were the write-in candidacy of Jack Russell (a dog) for City Council and a new Nevada law prohibiting sexual relations between teachers and students, even those above the age of consent (16 in Nevada).

Duncan summed up Vegas very well when he pointed out that the only vice still legal in the city is gambling. Therefore, non-gamblers find little to do there. Vegas is a lot like Times Square; it’s been cleaned up too much. The city even advertises itself as the largest theme park in the US. It’s pretty much true. Reality seems unable to gain a foothold here.


Random notes: walking is not something which can be easily accomplished in most sections of Las Vegas. I tried it. It didn’t work. Smoking, on the other hand, is very easily accomplished. You can do that ANYWHERE…

In Vegas


Las Vegas is now marketed as a major family resort. There are carnival rides (including a roller coaster and “drop” ride atop the Stratosphere tower). There are “all you can eat” family-style buffets. There are shows and museums and any number of diversions. That’s all well and good, but gambling is what Vegas is all about. Do not be fooled into thinking that these “improvements” are concerned with diversifying the economy. No, no, no. The added attractions are designed — like everything else in town — to draw and suck in gambling tourists. Gambling is where the profits are. Period. And the “strip” casinos are where most people do it.


Las Vegas Boulevard is pretty amazing, especially at night. What was originally an attention-getting form of roadside advertising has now become a tradition. Strangely enough, a subdued and “tasteful” casino might be more likely to stand out now, if it could be seen through the sea of lights.


For a good look at where Vegas has been (and, alas, where it’s going) check out the Fremont Street Experience. The Fremont strip was the original casino zone and is the one you usually see in movies and videos. You know the one which inspires awe when you drive through it? It’s located downtown and is much more concentrated and dense than Las Vegas Boulevard, where everything is surrounded by a sea of asphalt. Unfortunately, it’s being turned into a mall. The street is now closed to vehicular traffic, and a strange post-modern “roof” has been added. Light shows are projected on the roof to compete with the neon. An 80’s aesthetic nightmare which was constructed in the 90’s. Pity.


Cruising Vegas

How to eat and drink in Las Vegas? It’s pretty damned easy, I must say. If you’re gambling in the casinos, you can usually drink free. Even if you’re not gambling, food and drinks are dirt cheap in these places (see below). The only catch is the design, which requires you to wind your way through every square inch of gaming space in order to arrive at the buffet or the bar. Marketing, y’know? Kind of like the way that milk and eggs and other staples and things you want to grab fast are always at the back of the supermarket…

As to that queer scene, Vegas is a huge closet of a town. This is most likely due to the fact that the redneck factor here is even higher than in some parts of the south. I’m referring both to the tourists and to the locals, unfortunately. A big minus is that there is no “gay zone”, so bar hopping requires some major driving. On the plus side, many of these bars are located in residential areas off the “strip”, so it’s possible to get a feel for what the natives are really like.


Some nightlife:

After visiting the vey snotty Inferno and the very creepy Badlands, I found myself happier at Eagles/Texas, which wants to be a leather bar, but the patrons won’t seem to let it. Wednesday “Underwear night” was crowded and fun. Tuesday “Keno night” wasn’t. Fun place, generic music. The “Texas” side resembles a set from “Gilligan’s Island”. We referred to it as the “Sugar Shack”.

I also liked Angles/Lace, which had nifty new wave videos the first night. It was a big bar with lots of rooms to explore. Wednesday was “Goth Night” in the back dance area, although the DJ’s definition of “gothic” included New Order and other 80’s new wave. I ran into a friend from SF here incidentally.

I liked Snick’s, which was friendly and cruisy and was locked (wityh patrons apparently inside when I tried to revisit late at night), and Buffalo. I hated Flex and couldn’t even be bothered to stick around long enough to buy a beer.

And then there was the Mini-David room. How could I resist a porn theatre with an eight dollar cover? Straight stuff in the “theatre”, gay stuff in the back room. Not much action, but lots of old discarded console TV’s scattered about.


And some buffets:

Wind your way through the casino. Pay a small amount of money ($5-8 tops). Eat all you can. Feast on prime rib, ham, and turkey. Sample Seafood Newburg, Chicken Masala, macaroni and cheese, baked potatoes, chocolate cream pie, pastries, pink Bundt cake, and more. This is how you eat in Vegas. Even the locals do it in lieu of grocery shopping. It’s cool. It’s fattening. It’s gluttony at its finest. And they have smoking sections! I noticed several patrons who were so excited they smoked and ate at the same time!

The Palace Station (West Sahara at South Rancho) was my favorite, but was also three bucks more than the Sahara (South Las Vegas Boulevard at East Sahara). Prices ranged from $2.49 for breakfast at the Sahara to $8.79 for dinner at the Palace Station. Just do it. It’s good for you.

Cheap Motels:

Once again, Fremont Street is the place to be. This was the original Vegas strip, before the monster complexes sprouted along South Las Vegas Boulevard. It’s tremendously seedy now, but it’s still obvious that this used to be “the place”. I was excited. The “highly recommended by owner” motel was my favorite. I’d stay there based on that recommendation. You?


Vegas Music:

Radio ranges from generic modern rock to a cool heavy metal station to a “music of your parents’ life” station. The second and third options seemed most appropriate to cruising the city.

There seemed, alas, to be no live music scene except in the casinos. I opted against paying $65 to see Huey Lewis at Caesar’s.

The background music at the Place Station took the prize, however. When I drove in, the first sound was “Feels So Good” by Chuck Mangione. Very fitting arrival music. The assault of forgotten hits of the 70’s, those songs even the oldies station avoids, continued throughout the trip. I must have heard “Magnet and Steel” by Walter Egan at least four times (although once was in a very depressing Jack in the Box in the ‘burbs).


The main thing I wanted to see in Vegas was the Liberace Museum, reputed to be a veritable temple of kitsch. Alas, I never caught it open, so there’s no report and no pix. Sorry…

The Long Way Home

The trip home led me on the most convoluted route so far (on purpose, of course…). The original plan was to drive south to Kingman, Arizona and cross the desert on old Route 66, but this proved to be too much of a drive. I settled for hitting the “mother road” back at Barstow by way of Zzyzx Road and I-15. From there, I headed south through Victorville and across Cajon Pass to San Bernadino (site of the very first McDonald’s).


Route 66 runs across Foothill Boulevard, Alosta Avenue, and Huntington Drive as it winds its way through the “Inland Empire” toward Los Angeles. Unfortunately, a lot of what was once there has been replaced by strip mall nightmares, especially around Fontana and Cucamonga. There are still sights to be seen, however, including one of the original Wigwam Village Motels in Rialto.

In Rancho Cucamonga, a small sign caught my eye, directing me to the Route 66 Visitors Center (7965 Vineyard Avenue, off Foothill Blvd.), a museum and gift shop devoted to the road. Great place, and I spent a good half hour there poking around and talking to the “greeter”.


The next stop was LeRoy’s Restaurant in Monrovia. It’s been there since Route 66 was still the main highway, and still does a brisk local business. friendly, homey kind of place, with a counter (where I sat) and yet more waitresses who called me “honey” without fearing I might sue them for sexual harassment.


The drive through the north section of Los Angeles was daunting, but the scenery was good. It’s hard to trace a few original portions of the route, due to freeway construction. The alignment I followed was Mission Drive to Cesar Chavez Blvd. to Sunset Blvd. to Santa Monica Blvd. At this point, I left Route 66 for old Highway 101 (Ventura Blvd.) headed north. Eventually, I had to hit the freeway at the early end of rush hour. I was making better time on the surface road…

Before long, I was in the thrift store mecca of Ventura, also the headquarters site for Kinko’s. I’d spent time there before and didn’t feel the need to give it more than a half hour of my time.

Next stop was Santa Barbara, where I’d originally planned to stop for the night. I can’t adequately describe how much I hated this town. The place is nauseatingly cutesy and precious and white. There were no malls, except for a downtown which very much resembles one. The whole town was completely sanitized and reminiscent of Marin County. Nothing could have made me spend a night here.

Thus I continued on to San Luis Obispo, home of the Hearst Castle, the Madonna Inn, and Cal Poly. Definitely a little higher on the reality scale than Santa Barbara, although this was a most obvious college town. Since it was almost 10PM, and I’d been driving since 7AM, a stop was in order.

A beer or two was also in order, so I headed to the local queer bar, Breeze’s (11560 Los Osos Valley Road). Nice place, fairly generic music, and a couple of cute boys. I didn’t meet my first obsession. If anyone knows him, tell him to get in touch. I’m guessing age 25 or so, medium height and build, goatee, curly dark hair, and he won a T-shirt for knowing that ABC denied a lesbian cruise line the opportunity to advertise on “Ellen”. He drives a red car. I crave him.

I did, however, meet an off-duty DJ and fellow Mac supremacist named Glenn. He seemed a good person to pass last call with while sitting outside. I sat outside a lot; a city ordinance prohibits smoking inside bars in San Luis Obispo. I could never live there…

Back to SF


Lots of sleep followed by Saturday morning cartoons, and I was off. This was the uneventful part of the trip, where I covered more familiar territory. I did see beautiful downtown San Luis Obispo as well as a really cool original A&W Drive-In in Paso Robles.

As luck would have it, traffic jams on every freeway slowed my approach to San Francisco and (once again) dampened my enthusiasm about the return. All in all, though, a great trip. Perspective will follow soon in the inevitable postmortem.

Thanks for coming along!