I refused to drive The Canyon before we moved to Cook Peak. Its 20 miles of windy road churned my stomach, especially late at night. The road is narrow. People drive too fast. They cut corners, tailgate, pass unsafely, and flash their high beams and middle finger. My worst fear, crashing head-on and plunging hundreds of feet to my death, made the road a terrifying experience as a passenger. The idea of driving the artery myself was out of the question.
A week before moving to the Kern River Valley, David suggested a Sunday drive. Our destination was an apparent surprise, but I knew. We drove toward the east side of Bakersfield, past Mesa Marin Raceway, down the long hill, and through the orange groves in our shiny green mini-van. We were going to drive by Cook Peak for the last time. During escrow, we made the journey often. We imagined our van parked in their gravel driveway. We re-landscaped their front yard and debated a horse or two in their pasture. Soon, Cook Peak would be ours.
David pulled off onto the side of the road by the old Merle Haggard place and turned off the ignition.
“What are you doing?” I asked.
“Do you trust me?” he said.
I did. We’d been married for decades. With two daughters and a perfectly manicured Schnauzer, I had proved my resolve. We were going on an adventure that would change our trajectory, even though friends thought we’d lost our minds. We were trading our safe cul-de-sac life in the city for country living. I wanted it as much as he did. We all did. Of course, I trusted him.
“Don’t say anything. I just want you to listen,” David said.
My hands began to tremble.
“Today, you’re going to drive the canyon.”
“No, I don’t think so,” I said. I wanted to go home.
“I’m serious, Ann. You can’t live in the Kern River Valley if you can’t drive in or out of it. I know you can do it. Take your time. Don’t worry about the other drivers. We have all day.”
I sat straight and drove slow, pulling off at every turn-out. I even pulled out when there wasn’t a turnout and caused a ruckus. In the narrowest sections, I gripped the steering wheel, squinted my eyes and aimed for the middle of my lane like a boat in a canal. One wrong move and I’d lose a side mirror, clip an oncoming car, or scrape my paint job on a rock face. A drive that should have taken 20 minutes took me well over an hour, but I did it. And on that particular day, I began my love affair with a dangerous road.
When my daughters learned to drive, I taught them The Canyon. We practiced at night when headlights were easy to spot, and traffic was light. Their driver’s education final required chauffeuring their instructor to the Starbucks on the east side of Bakersfield. Passing that test was a rite of passage. It was freedom. It meant they could go to Bakersfield College and commute with confidence. It did not take long for them to boast driving The Canyon in less than 20 minutes and cause me to worry.
Delays in The Canyon are common, accidents, fatalities, construction, a gas tanker explosion, mudslides, earthquakes, a plane crash, drownings, search and rescue practice, falling cows, and all the summer slowpokes with a mile of cars trailing behind them. For closures that can last for days, we detour south through Havilah, over Lion’s Trail. That road terrifies me! The most unsettling delays are the ones late at night, stopped behind a string of cars for hours, waiting for the coroner to arrive.
I’ve driven The Canyon for 15 years, now. I know the road by heart and feel its rhythm in my bones. I think of it like an hour’s worth of therapy after enduring Bakersfield traffic, especially on a midsummer’s night with Paul McCartney. We sing together, sashaying through moon shadows and in and out of curves. And when my hour is over, and I pass under the green bridge on the outskirts of town; I roll down my windows and fill my lungs with mountain air. I’m home where I belong.