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The Grandest Road Trip

Cruising down U.S. 395, arguably
the state's most spectacular route,
to ghost towns, granite peaks, and
incongruous lobster taquitos


It's said that to find the West in California, you go east.

Counterintuitive maybe and a bit Zen in its retro-geography. But when a buddy and I decide to break from the California of palm trees and beaches, we heed this advice and set out on a classic road trip to the Eastern Sierra lakes, high desert expanses, ghost towns, and small settlements along U.S. 395.

South from Lake Tahoe, we follow State 89 and drop nearly 3,000 feet from 8,314-foot Monitor Pass to the 395 junction. The highway twists through the stark canyon carved by the West Walker River before emerging into the broad Bridgeport Valley. Snowcapped peaks tower over a verdant meadow where cattle graze along meandering creeks. Move over, Montana: California's got its own Big Sky Country.

Towns on 395 share some common traits. Grand public buildings that hint at bygone civic aspirations come with the territory. In Bridgeport, it's the Mono County Courthouse , a restored 1880 Italianate structure still in use. Then there's the hanging neon trout sign, a veritable 395 art form. Bridgeport's light-up version marks Ken's Sporting Goods , where a sidewalk freezer displays local catches. We peek in and glimpse browns and rainbows, all identified by date, weight, bait, stream, and angler.

You won't find fish—neon or living—in Bodie , the country's best-preserved ghost town and now a California state park. Bodie boomed after gold was discovered; 10,000 people lived here by 1879. Today, the operative term in Bodie is "arrested decay." That is, this town, once described as "a sea of sin, lashed by the tempests of lust and passion," is pretty much as it was when its last residents departed. No phony gunfights or cotton candy here. Just remnants of the past, whether it's the winged radiator cap from a Maxwell car or a calendar that insists it's March 1906 forever.

Outside Bodie, lightning zigzags above the horizon and thunder bounces across the hills. Ominous to be sure. But less intent on catching and releasing trout than catching the light and releasing the shutter, we're inspired by the weather to test our chops against the photographic legends who captured this part of California—from Ansel Adams to the late Galen Rowell (a stop at Rowell's Mountain Light Gallery in Bishop is a 395 highlight).
Cruising down U.S. 395, arguably
the state's most spectacular route,
to ghost towns, granite peaks, and
incongruous lobster taquitos


It's said that to find the West in California, you go east.

Counterintuitive maybe and a bit Zen in its retro-geography. But when a buddy and I decide to break from the California of palm trees and beaches, we heed this advice and set out on a classic road trip to the Eastern Sierra lakes, high desert expanses, ghost towns, and small settlements along U.S. 395.

South from Lake Tahoe, we follow State 89 and drop nearly 3,000 feet from 8,314-foot Monitor Pass to the 395 junction. The highway twists through the stark canyon carved by the West Walker River before emerging into the broad Bridgeport Valley. Snowcapped peaks tower over a verdant meadow where cattle graze along meandering creeks. Move over, Montana: California's got its own Big Sky Country.

Towns on 395 share some common traits. Grand public buildings that hint at bygone civic aspirations come with the territory. In Bridgeport, it's the Mono County Courthouse , a restored 1880 Italianate structure still in use. Then there's the hanging neon trout sign, a veritable 395 art form. Bridgeport's light-up version marks Ken's Sporting Goods , where a sidewalk freezer displays local catches. We peek in and glimpse browns and rainbows, all identified by date, weight, bait, stream, and angler.

You won't find fish—neon or living—in Bodie , the country's best-preserved ghost town and now a California state park. Bodie boomed after gold was discovered; 10,000 people lived here by 1879. Today, the operative term in Bodie is "arrested decay." That is, this town, once described as "a sea of sin, lashed by the tempests of lust and passion," is pretty much as it was when its last residents departed. No phony gunfights or cotton candy here. Just remnants of the past, whether it's the winged radiator cap from a Maxwell car or a calendar that insists it's March 1906 forever.

Outside Bodie, lightning zigzags above the horizon and thunder bounces across the hills. Ominous to be sure. But less intent on catching and releasing trout than catching the light and releasing the shutter, we're inspired by the weather to test our chops against the photographic legends who captured this part of California—from Ansel Adams to the late Galen Rowell (a stop at Rowell's Mountain Light Gallery in Bishop is a 395 highlight).
Hardly lacking for photo ops, we pull out at 8,138-foot Conway Summit for one of 395's best panoramas—the view over Mono Lake. Me, I focus on the guardrail. It's festooned with decals touting political causes, environmental struggles, and, befitting the Eastern Sierra's adventure sports reputation, stickers for snowboards, mountain bikes, and skis.

We get no more extreme than the dipped soft-serve big enough to be its own Sierra peak at Lee Vining's Mono Cone (a rare dairy product/geological double entrendre, referencing both ice cream and the region's volcanic cinder cones). Then we catch sunset along ultra-salty Mono Lake , once a vast inland sea and now famed for its surreal tufa towers (formations of once-submerged calcite). Surreal too is one of 395's destination restaurants, Whoa Nellie Deli . It's inside a gas station near the junction with State 120, which leads into Yosemite National Park . You just don't expect lobster taquitos in a mini-mart.

As evidenced by the deli, 395 offers unexpected culinary surprises. The next day after hiking near Mammoth Lakes , where spring skiing is about to cede the slopes to summer mountain biking, we pull into the modest town of Independence. A spot called the Still Life Café, in tiny Independence, rustles my memory. Years ago in the blink-and-you'll-miss-it 395 town of Olancha, I had eaten at a place with terrific French- and Mediterranean-influenced food and a never-ending soundtrack of vintage jazz and obscure blues.

Can it be? The bistro ambience is unmistakable, and I recognize its French-born owners, Michel and Malika. We settle in for a languid repast (words usually not uttered on 395) as Malika prepares fresh pasta sauces. You don't come here for fast food or drive-through service.

Nor is 395 a road trip to rush through. We spend the following morning at Manzanar National Historic Site , the relocation center where Japanese-Americans were held during World War II. An impressive interpretive center in the former auditorium tells the story of Manzanar's 110,000 detainees. We search for remains of gardens and photograph the white cemetery monument. Our last stop is the Alabama Hills, a go-to movie location for everything from Gunga Din and cowboy flicks to Gladiator.

We're seeking an arch that perfectly frames Mt. Whitney, the highest point in the Lower 48. But our brochure with directions is buried in the truck. So armed only with photographs, we set out among the boulder stacks and washes to triangulate the location. A noble, if doomed quest.

Surrendering, we return to the truck, eventually find the brochure, and quickly reach the arch. Picture made, dilemma solved. But gazing up at Whitney and back toward the Inyo Mountains across the Owens Valley, we have a decision. Do we traverse the Inyos east to reach Death Valley and the lowest spot in North America? Or do we head west to Whitney Portal and the High Sierra?

We've definitely found the classic American West along 395. Finding time to see it all? That's another story.—Matt Jaffe
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