Discovery Road - Exploring Highway 58 and Detours
Story and photos by Lara Hartley
all images are "click to enlarge," and all images copyright Lara Hartley
“Mom, what’s that over there?”
“Dad, what’s THAT?” “
MommyDaddy, are we there yet?”
Common enough questions from the kids as you wander along Highway 58, which runs from Barstow to Santa Margarita near the coast in San Luis Obispo County. Unlike its famous cousin -- Highway 395 -- State Highway 58 gets very little press. But for the adventurous, 58 has its own quirky charms. Route 58: A Cross-Section of California, (Center for Land Use Interpretation), offers a glimpse at historical sites and hidden gems along this 210-mile highway.
When the kiddies ask “what’s that,” pointing to a metal dinosaur, you can tell them.
It’s Barstow’s A-1 wrecking yard, located on Old Highway 58 near the Sunset Drive-in. The yard is now closed to the public, but some of the rusting sculptures Greg Parker made before his death are visible through the chain-link fence. The new owners hope to donate the art works made from salvaged auto parts to a museum.
Using the book as a starting point, I took off on my own journey of discovery, exploring Highway 58 and various points off the main road.
The highway, which joins with Interstate 15, is also home to motels with signs dating back to around the 1940s and 1950s. Some of the lodgings are open and others are closed, just waiting for someone to turn them back into viable places to stay. There aren’t many of these motels left. They have been pushed out of business by the national chains.
Leaving Barstow and its Route 66 charm, Highway 58 takes off west to Kramer Junction and Mojave before heading north through the Tehachapi Mountains.
One mile south of the highway and two miles west of Harper Lake Road, a dirt road veers off to the graffiti-covered Hawes Auxiliary Field Tower Site, which I call the “Stonehenge of the Mojave” for its distinctive profile on the horizon.
At Kramer Junction (Highways 58 and 395), the largest solar energy generating station in the world, operated by Florida (Florida? In California?) Light and Power Co., can be seen from both roads. It is closed to the public but it is possible to see the giant mirrors from outside the perimeter fence.
Stretch your legs while looking through the large antique store northeast of the corner of Highways 58 and 395. Friendly owners and unique treasures make this a great stop. It seems they really do have a little bit of everything inside the store and outside there are old signs, vehicles and gas pumps from the “good ol’ days.”
Do you need a big stone frog? How about a plaster albatross? Or a ceramic patio heater for those cool spring evenings. Check out the myriad of ceramic figures and terra cotta planters in the Kramer Antiques and Pottery store on the corner.
Watch out for the big tractor-trailers coming and going at this junction, it can be a treacherous stretch of highway.
After passing through Kramer Junction, you’ll notice some strange, large structures on the ridge, visible to the south of Boron. This is a space simulation facility run by Phillips Lab with several rocket-engine test stands that create quite a noisy sight when in operation. Leuhman Ridge is known locally as “Rocket Hill.”
The U.S. Borax Mine, on the north side of the road, operates California’s largest open pit mine. It is open for tours with a great visitors center. www.borax.com/borax6.html
Off in the desert are the remains of an jet-engine test site which have a vaguely Aztec-ruins look to them. The book says it’s four miles from the highway to the photogenic ruins on the misnamed "Gebhart" Road. But it is actually less than three -- on Gephart Road -- according to the highway signs. Otherwise the directions are fine. A definite feeling of “desolation in the middle of nowhere” pervades the senses even though the main road is so close. There could be asbestos on the ground, so keep that in mind when visiting.
An acquaintance from Edward's Air Force Base told me: “Back in the late fifties and early sixties there was a lot of secret research going on to find a suitable high altitude fuel. Part of this was through NACA (NASA) and part was through the Air Force. The secret Air Force project (Suntan) was actually funded by the CIA. They were looking for something to replace the U-2. Garrett proposed an engine based on liquid hydrogen. That site is where they tested the engine and performed cryogenic testing of components in a liquid hydrogen environment.”
That sounded pretty fascinating to me. Web research turned up many documents about this secret project.
The Web site (www.fas.org/irp/mystery/history.htm) stated: “By mid-1957 the Air Force had allocated nearly $500 million (at 1992 prices) for the program, and ultimately spent as much as $1.2 billion on the program. But as work progressed, it became apparent that the aircraft would not be able to meet revised Air Force range requirements of over 3,300 miles, and the program was canceled in February 1959. The existence of the program was not revealed, however, until 1973.
It was only after the Suntan project failed that Lockheed turned to what became the SR-71. Although Suntan was a failure as a military reconnaissance airplane, the work done on its hydrogen propulsion system laid the groundwork for subsequent application of this technology for space rocket propulsion efforts.”
For more reading on the Suntan project, see http://history.nasa.gov/SP-4404/ch8-1.htm
Highway 58 bypasses Mojave now, but it is worth leaving the main road behind for a few minutes to explore another historic desert town with vintage motels, mining districts and eateries.
One of those steps-into-the-past that are fast disappearing from the American landscape. You won’t find a Starbucks here, but you can eat at Denny’s. At 55-years-old, Denny’s is an American institution. Click here to continue reading this story, and to see more photos.
*Route 58: A Cross-Section of California (a free pdf from the folks at the Center for Land Use Interpretation is available for download here) offers a glimpse at historical sites and hidden gems along this 210-mile highway.
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