Driving the Pacific Coast Highway

I write this just having returned from Centrifuge training at NAS Lemoore, and it turns out to be a tale worth telling – in fact, it is the first really interesting thing I have done in the past five months. My orders out of Pensacola directed me to report to NAS Lemoore on my way to Miramar, which is a nice little detour north of San Diego to the Fresno area. Centrifuge training has been a requirement since 1998 or so for tactical aircrew, and is designed to accustom new pilots and WSOs (I’m a WSO) to the dynamic “G” forces they will endure while flying high-performance fighter and attack aircraft. These aircraft are designed to turn very quickly through the air in order to either gain an advantage over another aircraft in a dogfight, or run away from an attacking enemy. These aircraft turn so quickly, in fact, that their crew are subjected to several times the force of gravity (a multiple of the force of gravity is called a “G,” so that one G is the force of gravity; two Gs are twice the force of gravity, etc.). Since the human body is designed to operate perfectly under the influence of only one G, the effect of excessive Gs is to cause blood to pool in the lower extremities (away from the head) causing in extreme cases a total loss of consciousness. Obviously, a loss of consciousness on the part of the aircrew renders their jet ineffective in a fight, and may cause the jet to crash for lack of human control. To combat the effect of Gs, naval aviators are exposed to these G forces in a giant centrifuge, where they learn to flex certain muscles and control their breathing in order to stay conscious during this type of flying. The F/A-18 – my future jet – can be flown up to 7.5 Gs.

I left San Diego on the 6th of December. Lemoore is located roughly a third of the way up the length of California, forty miles south of Fresno. With careful attention to timing so as to avoid the worst traffic in the Los Angeles area, I drove the “straight” route up I-5. That freeway is huge – at least eight lanes wide from San Diego to well north of LA. It hugs the coast for a while, affording sporadic views of the Pacific, but turns inland in LA and slows down. I fought traffic for a while before reaching the Santa Monica mountains north of the city, which are beautiful, barren, and high: the freeway climbs to over 4000 feet of elevation between rugged ridges before dropping suddenly off into the San Joachin valley, between the coastal mountains and the Sierra Nevada. When I say “drop suddenly,” I mean it. Around a bend in the road I suddenly saw the valley floor far below me, spread out to the horizon and covered with a pall of smog.

The San Joachin valley is much like Eastern Washington. It is an irrigated desert and filled with huge crop fields and huge stockyards. Coming up on the latter you notice a foul stench several miles before you actually get to the compound. Lemoore itself smells the same way, including the tap water, which is…unpleasant. The freeways are so straight here that there is an actual vanishing point in front of the car – the road literally proceeds for hundreds of miles without changing direction at all. The towns themselves are small and provincial; apparently one has to go to Fresno (which has a university) in order to find a bar that stays open past midnight. Last night I went to a party in Lemoore where the chief entertainment was a bonfire made from throwing together all the beer case boxes and pizza boxes left over, dousing it with two gallons of gasoline, then lighting it. In relating this, I don’t mean to reflect poorly on the partygoers. As far as I’m concerned, they are make the best of their situation. But there is literally nothing else to do in Lemoore.

The centrifuge itself was painful. There were seven other aviators in my class. We completed our run through the centrifuge one at a time, and got to see videos of each other struggling against the increased G forces on our bodies. I blacked out twice, though I didn’t lose consciousness. It is strange to experience your field of vision draw inward to a mere point of focus, and then have everything turn slowly black…and even stranger to find that, after straining to flex the large lower body muscles, your vision comes rushing back. All that flexing, however, has its price. I am still very sore, and the effect of blood pooling in my lower extremities has left little red welts across my waist and legs. This is normal. The Centrifuge run was fun in the sense that a certain camaraderie developed amongst the members of the class – we laughed at each other a fair amount, especially watching the funny faces we made fighting to keep from passing out. It was a short day; we were out by noon. I took the rest of the day off.

The drive back was certainly the most memorable part of the trip. Having heard much about the beauty of the California coast, I proposed to drive from Lemoore to the coast via California Highway 41, then down the Pacific Coast Highway. I will say at the outset that it is the most beautiful drive I have ever done. Highway 41 cuts southwest across the valley floor and through the coastal mountains, which start as a series of barren rolling hills that gradually become more fertile as one gets closer to the coast. About halfway to the ocean occasional vineyards appear straddling ridges off to the left and the right, the terrain gets more rugged, and trees begin to appear. Amazingly, many were still wearing autumn colors, so I was paid back richly for all I missed in Pensacola. At higher elevations there are numerous sharp curves and switchbacks that required me to slow the car significantly. Every so often the road would crest a hill and the land would fall in humps and mountains and ranches and rivers as far as the eye could see. Storm clouds scudded thickly and quickly across the sky, laying their shadows fitfully on the ground. Several times I drove through localized rainstorms, and there was often a view of a rainbow. I paused at a rest stop shortly before reaching the coast, and when I got out of the car I was struck by a delicious, cold, wild scent. After that I drove with the windows open.

I reached the coast at a small town called Morrow Bay. Though I turned south on California Highway 1, which runs down the coast, I had to wait fifteen or twenty minutes for a sight of the Pacific. I passed many small surf towns characterized largely by an absence of chain restaurants, near-uniformly white buildings, and waving palm trees. The ocean was always to my left, its breakers throwing up visible foam in the sunlight. The road would intermittently detour through wet fields, from which the fragrance of cilantro and would seep into my car. This continued for many miles, broken only by the larger town of Santa Barbara, which appeared first as sporadic houses clinging to the hills over the sea and grew into a large beachside city. Afterwards, the highway wound through mountains again before rejoining the coast at Point Mugu.

The terrain was steeper now, and there were more houses. There were also surfers dotting the water off the beaches. The evidence of unbelievable wealth appeared…I saw my first Ferrarri south of Point Mugu, my first Aston Martin north of Santa Monica, my first Bugatti in Santa Monica itself, and I would later pass a Lamborghini and a Lotus dealership while driving into Los Angeles itself. There were probably more beautiful cars than I remember, but I was distracted by the scenery. The sun was setting now amid the storm clouds, lighting up the water and diffusing in the spray of the surf. At times the road would climb very high, affording a panoramic view of the coast and the water, then it would dive down to beach level. I don’t need to explain how expensive and impressive the houses were. What amazed me was the apparent lack of crowding. Even in Santa Monica itself there were pleasant clumps of buildings that enhanced the scenery instead of obscuring it. And the diversity of trees and flowers was beyond my appreciation. Palm trees were the most recognizable, but there were others equally impressive – strange bright kinds of firs, beautiful tall trees with white bark, and an astonishing array of colored shrubs. The sun finally set as I drove under the Santa Monica pier and entered the huge metropolis surrounding Los Angeles.

There I paid for my beautiful drive. I found the Pacific Coast Highway, which had intended to follow until it rejoined I-5 north of San Diego, disintegrated into a series of boulevards chopped up by traffic lights. I finally gave up that plan and found a way to the interstate – after the wide wild roads I had driven earlier, the city seemed crushing and frustrating. As if to emphasize the change, the rain began to fall in earnest, and continued all the way back to San Diego.

I am still recovering in awe from that drive. I have little more to say, except that I check in to my unit at Miramar tomorrow, and there isn’t room to be nervous at all – not after today. It feels like all the relaxation I needed to get ready for the next phase in my training–learning to fly the Hornet–was provided by that single trip. I’m going to love living here.

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