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Seeing Claremont, other worlds far and not so far

by John Pixley

 

It’s like getting the last of the ketchup out of the bottle or squeezing the last of the toothpaste from the tube. There’s always just a bit more. 

That’s what it’s like for the last hour or two heading south on Highway 395 to its end where it meets the 15 freeway near the Cajon Pass. As it meanders and winds its way through the desert with its new—or newly-discovered—scrappy nowhere boomtowns like Hesperia and Victorville right along with all-but-forgotten outposts like Johannesburg, it seems like the 15 will never come. 

When the 15 freeway does come, it is a wondrous roller coaster (traffic permitting, of course) zipping to the 210 and to Claremont after a long, strange and wonderful trip. 

 “This isn’t Highway 5,” my friend said as we headed down the 395 a few weeks ago after stopping for lunch at a park on the east shore of Lake Tahoe. No, it wasn’t, I reminded him, pointing out again that this drive is very different. 

For one thing, this is a highway in name only—or in the old sense of the name. Yes, there are a few spots where the 395 is an actual freeway, like the new and still improving bypass through Carson City, Nevada. For the most part, though, it is a two- or three- or four-lane road making its way along the stunning Sierra range. The road travels through scenic valleys, following picturesque rivers and creeks and passing Topaz and Mono lakes, just waiting for pictures to be taken, before winding its way through a desolate, aching landscape stretching for miles. The signs for Death Valley are almost a threat. 

And there are the towns miles down the highway from each other—what towns there are—like Bridgeport, Independence and Lone Pine, with their stately courthouses and eye-catching casinos. Even the biggest, like Bishop where we spent the night, are not much more than several blocks wide, with the highway serving as the main drag. In every town, the speed limit goes down, down, down, often to 25 mph, which feels considerably slower than 55 or 65 mph. In some of the towns, there are even stoplights. 

No, this isn’t a highway like Highway 5.

Not only is this a different place—it’s definitely small-town America with spectacular scenery to boot—but it’s definitely a different time. The hotels advertise “air-cooled” rooms and one senses that wi-fi, though available, is newfangled, probably along with cell phones. I told my friend that it is like the 1950s. There aren’t many radio stations here, and many are Christian. No doubt gay marriage and maybe even a black president is something different here, to say the least.

The trip down, or up, Highway 395 is a real trip. It is a trip to another world and another time. I try to take this drive every year or two. It’s such an adventure, and it’s only several hours away by car.

This is one of the joys of traveling. Arguably, the best thing about traveling is seeing things that are different. We get to see that things, that life, can be quite different. And often this difference is not on the other side of the world but only a few hours’ drive away. 

It was eye-opening last February when I went to New Jersey—when the river a few blocks away was frozen and the local cemetery boasted snow-draped, 300-year-old graves and my wheelchair barely made it over the icy sidewalks. It literally woke me up and made me see how different my life could be, how much harder my life could be. Likewise, I suspect that my life would be quite different, and maybe quite difficult, if I lived in the Owens Valley or in Lone Pine or Independence or even Bishop, the “big city” there. 

It’s important to see that life is so different relatively nearby. It is probably no surprise that there is another world and another life on the other side of the country, much less on the other side of the world. But it is important to see that this different life is not so far away. Not only is it right there on the other side of the mountain range; it is just down the freeway, just up the highway and sometimes just down the street. 

We often have to drive for a day or two or we have to fly across the country or across the world to see the difference. And often seeing this different life—these different lives and different worlds—makes us see things differently.

When I went to New Jersey last year, it opened my eyes. I saw not only how different my life might have been, I saw how different my life could be. I saw how different I could make my life. When I returned home, I did just that. I made some changes in my house, in my body and my looks, in my work, and I made my life different. I made changes I needed to make my life better. 

Traveling can make us see what we have at home. I am often reminded of what I love about Claremont when I get out of town. But it’s not because I see places that are unlike Claremont.

For example, I often go to the Bay Area, where my family lives and I have friends. I love the energy in the region, the way so many of the people are passionate and expressive. There is a very palpable sense that a lot of people care about their community, enough so to be an activist or to at least get out and do something. I admire this. 

But the Bay Area is so crowded. There are so many people it seems they live on top of each other, with houses and apartments jammed together and stacked up on the hills. And with all these people doing so many things, I tend to get exhausted after a few days there. 

This shows me what we have here. It reminds me that we have the best of both worlds. We are spoiled in Claremont. We have the community involvement, and the passion and activism that Claremonters are known for. But there is a definite small-town feel with a less frenetic and at times much slower pace that is particularly unique to this area, which is also well-known and admired.

I also see this small-town community activism in a place like Grass Valley, which I visited on the recent trip. It is evident that people there are quite energetic in making the town not only very pleasant but also socially responsible and environmentally sustainable. I am left wondering, though, why Claremont doesn’t have a co-op market like the one where my friend is a member and which appears to be a common fixture in Northern California towns. 

I couldn’t help seeing the there’s also a co-op in tiny Lone Pine, too, right on Highway 395. And there are cool, colorful murals painted on its walls. 

 

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