Breaking Free – Driving a Mustang to California and Back, Part 2

Suspension: Sport. Steering: Sport. Exhaust: Track. Windows: Down. Soul: Free.

I was on Highway 9 just outside of Saratoga, CA. The main street had just begun to come alive for the evening rush, but I was only interested in what was above the town. I left the shops and restaurants behind and began to ascend. The quiet two-lane road led me through a long and twisty climb up the Santa Cruz Mountains, through the dense trees with the occasional ray of evening sunlight piercing through. The road veers and undulates endlessly as it climbs through the unique topography of the area, somehow managing to find a way to keep climbing higher. The aggressive and evocative roar of my V8 echoes off the hills and rock faces to the left and fills the open air to my right with a distant howl. A mix of mountain and Pacific air fills the cabin and the cooling temps tell me I’m getting closer to the top. I sneak in as many short bursts of power I can manage but it’s never enough – the car wants me to go faster. All this while my smile grows with the g-forces.

At the top of this hill is Skyline Blvd, a fabulous road that runs along the top of a mountain ridge. On one side is the Silicon Valley. And on the other, the most beautiful view in the world – a sunset over the California coast, a view that I had driven over 2,500 miles to see. It felt amazing. It felt like freedom.

I did it. I fucking did it…”

When I had begun to drive west from my home near Atlanta, GA four days prior, this was exactly the sort of thing I had in mind. There I was with a car that felt perfectly at home on some of my favorite roads on earth. All of the horrible thoughts and emotions that led me to take this drive began to fade as I stood and watched the sunset on the complete opposite side of the country from where I started.

If you have no idea what I’m talking about it’s probably because I’m not very good at commitments. Part 1 of this story, which was only published… uh, 8 months ago, sets it all up. When I left off I had just driven my Mustang GT PP2 from Atlanta, GA to the San Jose area in California over the course of three long and restless days. The final tally was 2,557.9 miles, 37 hours and 43 minutes on the road, and 10 states. It had been a rough year for everyone at that point (October 2020), but the times had already been hard within my family for well over a year. I was in an extremely rough place mentally, so I did the normal thing that normal people do and put an entire country between myself and my perceived problems.

I was hoping this would allow me to feel free and breathe more easily as I hit the reset button on my life. And with practically all of my extended family now within a few hours of where I was, both my mother (who tagged along for the first week in California) and I could surround ourselves with the love we desperately needed from them. But an added bonus is that I was free to drive the best roads in the world in a car that was built for it – at least when I wasn’t signed on for work. The drive I just described was my first of many.

And what drives they were. I had two weeks to spend in the area and I made an effort to hit up Highway 9, Skyline Blvd, La Honda Rd, Pescadero Creek Rd, or – of course – Highway 1 at least once a day. Didn’t matter if it was before or after work, evening or morning, week day or weekend. Each one felt like an adventure even though I knew those routes by heart. For the past decade or so I’d drive these roads in some cheap rental car. But they take on a whole new character in a car like mine.

Why I bothered taking my Mustang here

The Performance Package Level 2 option for the Mustang GT was billed as car optimized for track use and fun roads. MagneRide suspension, 305-section tires on all four corners (which were Continental Extreme Contact Sports at the time), sharp fixed-ratio steering, and Brembo front brakes mean it has a commanding hold on the road. The roads I frequented on this trip varied wildly in terms of complexity, surface quality, and width. Didn’t matter – the car was basically perfect.

We’d be here all day if I actually went through the events of each drive. There were dozens. But my first big drive down PCH sort of demonstrates why I bothered to drive my car there in the first place. On my first Sunday in town, I took advantage of the time zone difference I was still accustomed to and got up early to take CA-17 into Santa Cruz to catch Highway 1.

The sun had just begun to climb above the Pacific to burn up the marine layer as I passed through Santa Cruz. I had made it all the way through Monterey and the traffic was still very light – and the view was spectacular. There were no cars ahead of me as I passed a winding road sign that read “NEXT 74 MILES”. So heaven on earth, basically.

This was never a road that I went crazy on and this day was no exception. It’s the kind of road to just cruise and take in the otherworldly views. And usually there are far too many tourists in rental convertibles and RVs (technically I was a tourist too but at least I wasn’t getting in anyone’s way) clogging PCH. So I’d maybe keep the car in a gear or two lower than normal, but never really open it up. And after the kind of week I had that was just fine with me. Driving a mostly empty Highway 1 at sunrise in my Mustang was all I needed. And it felt surreal.

I took PCH south all the way to Cambria. That’s where the most scenic and fun-to-drive part of the road ends, but not before a section where you can catch air if you’re going fast enough in a rental Ford Focus… or so I’m told. Sadly the tourists had come out in full force by then so I didn’t spend much time in town. It’s a neat little place with good beaches, and it’s so far out of the way that it feels far less busy than most coastal towns do. But I was ready to head back north to see these amazing views again.

And pro tip: fill up before you hit PCH. Gas prices in these small towns along the highway are a reliable source for a good laugh.

Whereas the drive south was the best I had ever had on that road, the way back home most definitely was not. I had plenty of time to think about how much better society would be if Cruise America never went into the RV rental business. But when you’re going a third of the speed limit you have ample opportunity to soak in the views all over again. This road has the sort of views that almost don’t feel real. The mountainous terrain backing right up to the ocean is like something straight out of a painting. This part of the state is so beautiful that it almost feels wrong to have humanity’s imprint on it at all. But I’m not complaining.

Instead of taking CA-17 back to the hotel, I kept going north past Santa Cruz. The stretch of Highway 1 between that and Half Moon Bay isn’t quite as well traveled as the areas around Monterey or Big Sur but it’s almost just as gorgeous. And just north of Half Moon Bay in the town of Pacifica is something that truly embodies the majestic wonders of California like nothing else can.

I’m of course talking about the Taco Bell on the beach in Pacifica.

Often times my friends who have spent their whole life in Georgia don’t really understand why I love California so much. Despite all of its flaws and the fact that everything from an In-N-Out to the USS Iowa battleship museum can cause cancer, there’s so much to love about this state. This Taco Bell on the beach in Pacifica is my ace in the hole in nearly every argument.

Each drive is an escape from reality

Back to the driving bit. With that first big adventure out of the way, every time I could leave the hotel and play around for a while was more or less how I chose to do therapy. Instead of laying on a couch and talking with a professional, I was strapped into a Recaro and using the loud pedal to help release my emotional baggage. Emphasis on “help”, because I can’t pretend that driving like this magically fixed what was wrong with me.

But it took me to a place that I could be alone with my thoughts, which I didn’t even have at my own “home” at the time. I truly felt on my own up there on the mountain or on the coast. I felt like I had peace and quiet to just focus on myself. And while I was in that driver’s seat, I was in control – even if everything around me felt out of control all the time. No matter what was happening with the pandemic, politics, or my own struggles at the time, the left seat in my Mustang was a place where none of that mattered. It was just sublime.

Now some drives were a bit less “calm” and “peaceful” than others. The following weekend I followed my uncle in his Porsche 911 across the Golden Gate and through some wicked single-lane back roads on the north side of the bay. The route was borrowed from the local Porsche club, and what a route it was. It could have been a legit rally stage. My uncle being the only other car enthusiast on that side of the family and a German, that drive was “spirited”. I couldn’t always keep up with him, but it was fun to demonstrate that my exhaust was much louder than his.

Meanwhile, climbing Highway 9 to Skyline Blvd at night is a proper rush as well. Even the 55 mph speed limit on Skyline is enough to get some adrenaline going while navigating corners you can barely see with trees rushing by. On more than one occasion some other drivers would join in at safe and legal speeds. I have no idea who any of those people were, but in that moment we were brothers and sisters united by a love of driving on a spectacular road. Had this happened in Atlanta I’d have been passed on a double yellow and run off the road and shot.

Repeat this process for 2 weeks and that basically sums up my time in the Bay Area. There was much needed family time, way more than I ever used to get from just visiting over a week or two in the summer as a kid. There was plenty of “me” time too on the sort of roads that made taking my Mustang across the country worth the effort. My last day in the area before heading over to Fresno for the other side of my family was picture perfect. I spent the whole morning driving Highway 9 on both sides of the mountain.

This road is a gift – there’s no better way to describe it. I can’t think of a better driving road in existence than this one. And the wide variety of corners, from fast sweepers to sharp hairpins and everything in between, provide the exact sort of driving experience I had in mind when ordering my Mustang with PP2, and it felt perfectly suited for it in every way. I wish I could live off of this road. It would never get old.

Leaving the Bay Area for Fresno

The unrivaled beauty of the Santa Cruz mountains and the Pacific Coast Highway would be just a tiny bit different than what awaited me in Fresno. But at least there I’d have an awesome bunch of family to spend time with instead. My car had provided the entertainment for the last 2 weeks, now it was their turn.

As the drive over Pacheco Pass turned from green and lush to brown and dull, the excitement of seeing that family – or really anything besides what I was currently looking at – built up. If my mom’s side of the family in San Jose is like an upscale restaurant outside of a mall, my dad’s side in Fresno is like a bar in a college town. I love every single one of them, but I was most excited about seeing one in particular.

My grandfather. Until cousins began marrying and expanding the family, he was the only one I could ever talk cars with on that side. He worked on Deuce and a Halfs in the Korean War and then at North American Aviation at the Fresno Air Terminal when they were upgrading the F-86 Sabre. He would tell me stories of some true hot rods he and his friends built back in the day. He had a T-bucket, a Mach 1, a Charger, plenty of other things I’m blanking on, and knew plenty of people with some serious machines. His favorite story to tell was how one of his friends brought over a 427 Cobra and not only let him drive it, but told him to just punch it. My grandfather almost had to buy him another 427 Cobra. He owned a Gillette Tire store in town and turned to maintaining Peterbilts in the latter years of his career.

The man knew muscle cars better than anyone else I knew. And I was bringing one to his house.

The original car guy in the family

Several years ago he suffered a devastating stroke which had a huge impact on the rest of his life. He lost the ability to put most of his thoughts into words. He still had all of his memory and personality intact – all of it – but he couldn’t speak them most of the time. It’s like he just couldn’t find the words he wanted to use. There were some rare moments of clarity, but most often he could only use a handful of words to get his point across in hopes that it made sense to everyone else. One of the words he relied on most was “car”.

That stroke effectively killed my grandfather as I knew him. Visits to Fresno were never the same after that. But that didn’t stop us from talking cars whenever I was in town, whether that was his intention or not.

My first stop in Fresno was at my oldest cousin’s house who would be hosting me. We wasted no time unloading my car and piling in for the short drive to my grandparents house. A few quick revs coming up the driveway was enough to get my grandparents outside before I could even get out of the car. I barely had a chance to hug grandma before grandpa made a beeline for my car. I had shown him pictures of it before but showing it to him in person was something much sweeter – and I never thought I’d get the chance, ever.

My cousin asked if he wanted to go for a ride now or later after we, you know, got to talk and catch up for a bit as one does after not seeing family for over a year.

He wanted to go now. And honestly I did too. I helped him inside and made sure he was situated comfortably in what I’m sure is the most aggressive sports seat he’s ever sat in. I fired it up in track mode and his face lit up a bit. He made the face any car guy would when they hear a motor they know is hot shit. I backed down the driveway and started reaching for a few switches. He didn’t say much as I pointed us the right way out of the cul-de-sac and came to a stop, probably because he knew what was about to happen.

I dumped the clutch from 6k. His head flew back into the seat as smoke poured out from behind us. The revs bounced off redline, which in track mode is shockingly loud – but not loud enough to cover up the sound of my grandfather erupting into the kind of laughter that I never thought I’d hear from him again. The man had been living through hell for more than 5 years after his stroke. But for a brief moment he was happier than I had ever seen him. He was the same Grandpa Henry that I knew as a kid. He was the man I thought was gone forever, but somehow that Mustang got it out of him. My Mustang gave me my grandpa back.

I didn’t want that drive to end. Before I could even start running through the specs he had questions flying at me. What engine, how much horsepower, how many gears, and when the next burnout was. A few quick pulls out on the main road and some handling demonstrations was all I dared to do. He was 88 years old and I’m sure doctors have some guidelines on how much stupid shit a man his age can take. I turned back into the neighborhood against my own wishes, but those 10 minutes we shared together were more than enough to make the entire drive out to California worth it.

If there’s a single memory of this entire saga that I hold closest to my heart, it’s this one. And I think it’s my favorite memory with him period. We both got out of the car with big smiles but I can assure you mine was bigger.

Getting to be a part of the family again

I’ve parked in this driveway many times over the years. Never would have imagined getting to park my own car there.

The way my family in Fresno is situated ended up being perfect for what I was there for. Life revolves around my grandparents and everyone that lives in town is no more than 5 minutes away from each other. Invitations to come hang out at grandma’s are implied and someone is always hosting a huge group for dinner on Friday nights. This was something I only got to experience briefly as my part of the family lived across the country. That made visiting for the summer extra special here, but getting to live in that for the next month was everything. And yes, I made sure everyone got a proper introduction to the blue horse car. Everyone. For some reason I ended up needing new tires before I left for home

The family in San Jose didn’t want to bother me too much with the whole “parents are divorcing and everything sucks” talk, but nothing is off limits in Fresno. It ended up being the closest thing to real therapy that I ever got, even to this day. I got things off my chest, they gave me advice, and they made it feel like everything was going to be okay even if I didn’t always see it that way. But it was what I needed either way. We got those conversations out of the way early on so the rest of my time there wouldn’t be as depressing.

Picking up the pieces

For the most part. I’d still get to spend a good bit of time in the mountains on weekends but it was much different than what I got to enjoy in San Jose. Instead of blasting through amazing roads and enjoying the views, I’d be helping with cleanup. One of my uncles had been maintaining some mountain property near Shaver Lake that had been in his family for generations. It was hit by the Creek Fire. They had only been allowed to go and inspect it a week or so before I got there, and it was devastating.

They had a cabin that dated back to the late 1800s, an apple orchard, and a beautifully serene part of the world they could escape to. Sadly, my first time ever seeing it was when it was almost all burnt. But somehow, that apple orchard at the center of the property was almost entirely untouched. So a couple car loads of family and friends went up one day and turned our attention to what was left of the place. We began cleaning up and picking some apples to try and make something positive out of the situation.

Evidence of the fire can be seen within 50 feet or so of where I was standing when I took this photo.

As I stood in the middle of this orchard, everything I could see all around me looked perfectly normal. It was unreal. I saw tarmac that had deformed from the heat and charred remains of houses and cars on the way in. An old cabin made from thick logs was reduced to ash just 200 feet away. The fire moved so fast that animals were burnt to death mid-sprint, locked in their pose like a statue. A powerful and uncontrollable force of nature had come through and changed the landscape. Nothing should have survived this fire, but somehow this orchard did.

Amidst the devastation that completely surrounded it, the orchard stood tall and became a new kind of sanctuary where they could come and forget about the visible pain that was just feet away. I felt there was a metaphor to be made here.

We’d come back a few more times over the next month. Sometimes it would be a big group and sometimes it would be just my uncle and I. And once we ran from what was probably a bear that we accidentally woke up in some deep brush. Regardless, it was how I’d spend most of my weekends in town. We made the best of it.

Fresno likes street racing

I don’t have a lot of photos from Fresno, so have another shot from PCH.

Since this is a car site I should mention that drives in Fresno were always… interesting. Apparently there’s a large street racing presence there. I’m not talking about the “street racers” that do donuts in intersections and run over spectators, I mean real street racers that line up next to you and count to three with the horn. The first guy to try and race me did so on only my 3rd night in town. It was a Challenger. A few other times they would goose it past me and then wait up, as if I was going to line up and race them. They were also in Challengers. Once I drove by a parking lot and saw someone who had clearly just done donuts try to flag me down. That one was actually a Charger.

In the 4 years I’ve had this car, only two people have ever tried to race me here in Georgia. I spent a month in Fresno with that car and I lost count. A lot of surface streets in Fresno are long, straight, and wide and plenty more are well isolated in farm country. I guess there’s nothing better for people with fast cars to do out there.

I can’t judge though. Unless it was late in the evening, I’d do burnouts in my grandparents driveway every time I left at the explicit request of my grandfather. On a completely unrelated note, I scored a deal on Michelin Pilot Sport 4S tires and got fresh new rubber while I was in town.

Planning the drive home

Pictured: definitely not Fresno

One thing had lingered in my mind since the day I arrived in California. I was going to have to do that drive again. I came with a loose schedule and had no firm date in mind for the return trip. So I kept pushing that back a little. Even though I had no beautiful coastal highways or fun mountain roads to play on, I had more than enough to keep myself occupied in Fresno – family (read that in Vin Diesel’s voice).

I was loving every minute of it. This family is so tight knit and so fun to be around that it’s impossible to be bored in what is surely one of the most boring towns in America. So I extended my stay through Thanksgiving which made it the first time I’ve ever spent that holiday with extended family. Immersing myself in that world was one of the best things I could have ever done and I knew it right away. I didn’t want it to end. Things felt more normal for me than they had all year, even though I was 2,500 miles from Georgia and things weren’t as I knew them back home.

But at some point I needed to go back. Before I did though I had planned a little detour to Los Angeles. An aunt and uncle from my dad’s side live in Thousand Oaks and they had offered a place to stay when I saw them over Thanksgiving. My plan was to head down and spend a long weekend there to work in the day and drive in the evening. It’s no secret that LA has some of the greatest driving roads on earth and I intended to see all of them. I’d even get a chance to hit up a bunch of friends and colleagues that live in the area, like this one guy named Jeff who I hear runs a cool little website. But then…

The third wave happened. Hospitalizations reached a critical level which prompted LA county officials to do the kind of thing California officials do best: confuse the fuck out of everyone. They had issued a directive that quite plainly stated that you’d be arrested if you left your home for non-essential activities… or anything that wasn’t on the list of approved activities. The list of approved activities was 14 pages long and was oddly specific. Unsurprisingly, “simply driving your car in the canyons” wasn’t on that list. It came into effect the day I planned to arrive in town.

Despite everyone seeming to think it was a complete joke and that police have better shit to do than arrest someone who’s not doing one of the 800 approved activities, I was unsure if I should really be out driving these canyon roads every night and going to hang out with people I knew. So I cut my visit down to just 2 nights so I’d get one full day of driving in before leaving for home. Sorry Jeff.

I left my amazing family in Fresno with a bunch of hugs and one last burnout, this time in my cousin’s driveway (the marks can be seen from Google Maps). I hopped on highway 99 and headed south into the LA area for one last bit of exploration in the Mustang before heading home and bringing this whole journey to a close.

Part 3 will be out on Thursday.

I'm the guy that spoiled the site with all the new car stuff. Hooniverse News Editor since 2011, amateur motorsport photographer, sim racer, and mountain road enthusiast.

6 Comments

  1. Excellent story, and a pointed reminder of how different things were just two years ago. I suppose driving for the hell of it is no longer on the list of prohibited activities in Kalifornia, but now we no longer have “cheap” gas to do it with.

    You did a wonderful thing for your grandpa. I wonder if there is a way to rig some sort of remote cutoff switch, so you can put him in the left seat to consume tire tread with some degree of safety if he gets out of control. In an open area like Ray Charles driving the Peugeot, of course. It would be like Dodge’s 100th anniversary commercial, but with a Mustang.

    1. Cheaper than usual gas was definitely appreciated in a 23 mpg car that took premium. My Costco membership paid for itself about 9 times while I was out there.

  2. great story. driving really can be therapeutic. it won’t solve your problems but it can bring you some momentary peace. glad your grandpa loved the mustang so much

    for what it’s worth i spent *lots* of the pandemic era driving around LA backroads, and had lots of company. but in the beginning it was a huge question mark. i had printed out a letter from my employer to confirm i was an “essential worker” (even though i mostly did work that i could do from home).

    1. Thanks a bunch. The early days in LA sound about how it was here in GA too. No one really wanted to risk it at first but things went mostly back to normal on the roads very soon. I’d often find a far away grocery store on a fun route so I’d legitimately be out for an essential trip.

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