THEY DRIVE BY NIGHT
It is a stilted, grainy old movie from 1940. Still, They Drive By Night, starring Humphrey Bogart and George Raft, remains one of my favorite “road” movies.
I am unsure when I last watched this film, or even when I last gave thought to it, but this weekends adventure brought it to mind. See, in recent years almost every one of my road trip adventures have taken place between the hour before the rising of the sun and within an hour of its setting in the west.
As a result, this film, and the allure of running the highways in the dark of the night that is enhanced by the fascinating and unique culture found in the scattered oasis of light along the way had almost slipped my mind. This weekends refresher course commenced with my agreement to help a friend recover a Toyota 4 Runner that he was thinking of purchasing in Salinas, California – a drive of almost 600 miles.
The primary obstacle to overcome was time constraints, his as well as mine. Our narrow window of time for this journey was between Sunday afternoon and Monday night. As it turned out, his work schedule, and issues with a hitch for the trailer, narrowed that window by preventing departure until four in the afternoon.
We rolled west toward the setting sun and by the time we made Barstow, darkness had settled across the desert transforming the isolated homes, dusty communities, and service stations into islands of light in a sea of black. As the interstate highway, and the glow of Barstow, were enveloped by the darkness we continued the westward trek on state highway 58.
Against a starlit desert sky the stark, dark outlines of mountains and empty homes presented a distorted illusion of depth, our lights cast aside the curtain of darkness ever so briefly, and the lights of oncoming vehicles first appeared on the horizon as tunnels between the day world and that of the night. In Mojave, in our search for supper we joined the denizens of the night.
The nighttime world of the highway, like its daytime counterpart, has been transformed into a long string of mediocrity. The harsh white light of fast food franchises and soulless cookie cutter signage of chain motels have left the individuality of the mom and pop motel, the local diner, and independent truck stop in dark shadows.
Succumbing to hunger, and the need to make time, I parked my disdain for the fast food franchise at the door, and joined the people of the shadows who had stepped into the light. In the corner, the chatter of a happy Hispanic family broken by the laughter of the children seemed oddly out of place against the solemnity of weary road warriors, equally weary youngsters made old before their time with years spent in the fast lane, and a couple of grey haired old men who warily viewed their fellow diners as though they were looking for an easy victim or from fear of being the easy victim.
Outside, like a wisp of fog moving through the shadows, a raggedy man moved amongst the trash cans in search of dinner. And on the highway that beckoned, an endless stream of bright lights became dimly glowing embers of red as they passed into the night.
And so the hours passed as we rolled into the night. In the distance, like a lighthouse casting its feeble glow across black waters, a station, a house, or a business shuttered for the night served as the only beacons to mark our progress.
We arrived in Salinas in the very early hours of the morning, found a motel, and awaited the mornings light in a land of dreams. All to soon it was time for a shower, shave, breakfast, and a return to the road. With business completed by 1:00, we began the long journey home.
The signs designate the road between Salinas and Paso Robles as U.S. Highway 101 but long before the advent of the U.S. highway system, or the automobile, or the state of California, this was the El Camino Real. The sense of history hangs as thick as the dust and pollutants that tinge the air brown all along this highway that rolls through a timeless land of pastoral beauty with orchards, vineyards, and farms framed by majestic hills crowned with gnarled oaks.
However, like an overlay of Picasso on a Rembrandt, the world of modern American suburbia, and vasts forests of oil well pumps, intrudes on the serenity of the landscapes that embrace the highway here. Auto malls press in on vast fields with fresh furrows, and farm houses from another era stand silent and empty as parking lots and restaurants ebb ever closer like a rising tide that will soon wash over them leaving less than a memory.
Hints of what once still abound. Here is a winery and there a fruit stand, there is the Jack Ranch Cafe and the modern incarnation of the historic Blackwell Corners store with its wide array of locally produced jams, jellies, sauces, and bags of nuts.
Mercifully, the cloak of darkness had begun its descent as we made our way into Tehachapi in search of fuel and food, and when we again took to the road, the night had erased the sense of time or place. Shortly after the glow of the tail lights left the wide spot in the road that is Boron in the dark once again, a battle for dominance of the desert night commenced.
There in front of us the harsh lights of Barstow held the night at bay, and on the eastern horizon, there was the bright glow that hinted soon the desert would be awash in the yellow light of a full moon. Of the two, it was the glow of the moon that quickened the spirit for there are few things in this world more beautiful than the vast, harsh landscapes of the desert softened and transformed by this gentle light.
In Ludlow, even the tattered and tarnished remnants of better times seemed less forlorn in the glow of the full moon. This, coupled with the faint pulse of life made manifest in the lights of the Ludlow Motel, and the service station, presented an illusion this was a sleeping town, not a dying one.
Even though the hour was late, and the weariness of the long trip was settling into our bones, we made the decision that a road trip, even a frenzied one, could not be considered complete without the briefest of forays into the lost world of pregeneric America that lives on along Route 66. So, with that thought in mind, we left the interstate highway in Needles, California, and made a pit stop at Panda Garden.
With my nostalgia for the night reawakened, I suppose it is again time to watch They Drive By Night.