I’ve traveled from Los Angeles up the 14 Freeway and onto Highway 395 on my way to Lake Tahoe. There’s a place past Red Rock State Park where the 14 merges into 395 with a sign points east to the town of Ridgecrest and the naval air weapons base.
We were watching four children for a friend, plus our two grandchildren, and decided to travel four hours to Keough Hot Springs in Bishop to give the kids a memorable time on a Saturday.
The gang included two girls and one boy aged 12 to 14 and two boys and one girl aged 5 to 2.
We figured the drive up would be more fun if we only drove part way and spent the night. We had stayed in Lone Pine but figured it was too close to Bishop so we checked motels and found Springhill Suites in Ridgecrest where we could use points.
And so we did. We packed the six kids, plus our oldest daughter, in each of two cars and headed out the 210 freeway to the 5 and 14 freeways.
What I like most about driving up the 14 is the freeing feeling I get, like I’m flying out of the urban sprawl and heading into another world. Maybe that’s the feeling I want more than an exotic place or one that’s expensive.
But what is exotic? Does it simply mean a different place where your imagination is free to roam?
For me, this small town had a touch of the exotic. That sounds strange, especially because shopping malls were laid out
I was looking forward to the jaunt because I knew nothing about Ridgecrest and was always puzzled by the sign noting it was a naval base. This was one of the driest places on earth and certainly one of the driest regions in California.
Los Angeles and Pasadena have Beverly Hills, Mulholland Drive, hiking trails above the Rose Bowl and world class museums and galleries. But it doesn’t have the unusual formations of Vasquez Rocks along the 14 or the layers of rock and the hues of Red Rock Canyon State Park.
Nor does it have the airplane graveyard and edginess of Mojave, the aerospace gateway, in my mind, to the odd world of the High Desert and the Eastern Sierras.
There’s a certain “edge of the world” feeling to the brown, rocky hills and the mountains.
And that’s what I like, a place where I want to feel challenged and survive. I get that feeling when I hike in the mountain trails above Pasadena and I’ve had it when I’ve kayaked in the bays up the California coast. It was a feeling I had as a kid when I’d go cross-country skiing in the woods behind my home in western Pennsylvania.
To me, that’s exotic.
The kids want fun and something different. We pulled into the Springhill Suites in the late afternoon when they changed and headed to the outdoor pool. The temperature was dropping in the November evening.
I headed to get pizzas in the nearby Little Ceasars and buy swim shorts for the 4 year old.
The kids swam and jumped back and forth to the hot tub despite wind picking up and swirling desert grit across the patio. They were loving it — and isn’t that the other point of a getaway? You’re not always relaxing or unwinding from the tensions in life but you’re having moments that are memorable.
We had two separate suites with our daughter taking the youngest ones while my wife and I had the older ones. They watched movies, bounced around in the room and eventually fell asleep.
In the morning, we grabbed a picture near the entrance to China Lake and then headed on to Bishop and Keough Hot Springs, just under two hours away.
Simple. Yet different and positively memorable.
Towns that seem out-of-the-way are definitely worth exploring whenever possible.
One trick, for adults anyway, in having a memorable close-by getaway is having an appreciation for the area. This can be in any part of the country.
Ridgecrest certainly deserves respect. The Naval Weapons Station, China Lake opened in 1943 and covers an area in this part of the Mojave Desert that’s larger than the state of Rhode Island.
A local museum, the China Lake Museum Foundation, “preserves the history” of the weapons research, testing and development. During this age of Covid, log on to see if the museum is open or closed.
While at Big Five, buying a small pair of swim trunks, I asked the young clerk who looked like he was in high school what most people did. He remarked that the base was the reason for the town’s existence and said there wasn’t much beyond that.
I could see that Ridgecrest could be a place a person who grew up there would want to move away from. And I don’t mean that in a condescending way, either. It’s just a reality. It’s no different than the small town where I grew up in western Pennsylvania.
Stopping to visit was a treat, even if all we did was go to a normal looking shopping mall, buy cheap pizza and swim in the hotel’s pool. It was an experience that was close to home, yet it was a world away. And that made the place valuable and interesting.