The thought of a college student behind the wheel is probably not a contemplation that brings images of peace and security to your mind. Perhaps it comes with visions of mangled road guards and huge hospital bills—or at least exhorbitant speeds followed by exhorbitant speeding tickets.
But as a young person who enjoys a calm and leisurely drive, let me introduce you to a few college students who experience more than road rage and speed highs behind the wheel.
Morgan Wade loves driving, maps, and history. So I knew he’d have some good stories about local drives. “There’s a back road that I love,” he says, “one of the most beautiful drives that I remember.” He’s referring to Ida Clayton Road (which turns into Western Mine Road), taking off from Highway 128 north of Calistoga, winding around the Western side of Mt. St. Helena, and coming out on 29 south of Middletown. There isn’t much “civilization” for Morgan to encounter as he tootles along the road, except the sign for a Trout Farm – in fact, Morgan says, the road seems to give him a little idea of how California was before it was settled.
It’s a lazy Friday afternoon, and the sunshine is spreading in warm sheets over the green valley. A green Tercel heads out of Calistoga on Alexander Valley Road, and Landon Bennett rolls down his window and soaks in the joy of his favorite local drive. “It’s just you and the road and the hills,” he says. The road serves the purpose of taking Landon home, but he says he’d drive it even if it didn’t. “Plus,” he adds, “at the end of that is a gigante Salvation Army!” The road is what Landon calls “super scenic;” and he specifies, “You have to drive it in the daytime, when it’s sunny… with the windows down.”
Cassaundra Lutz drives a gas guzzler (a.k.a. SUV), so driving gets expensive in short order. But Cassaundra is fond of being on the road, and one route she enjoys is Highway 12 between Napa and Sonoma. She says it’s fun to drive because “it’s a rural highway, like the ones where I’m from in Washington—most of it is only two lanes.” Cassaundra always associates this stretch of highway with jazz, because the first time she ever drove it, mellow jazz tunes filled the space of her vehicle. And she loves the winery on the hill where the road splits—“It’s beautiful at night.”
Windy roads that strike fear (or rather, nausea) into the stomachs of passengers, mean happiness for motorcyclists like Andy Hill. Among his favorite rides is a 15-mile route called Skaggs Springs Road, reached by taking the Dry Creek exit off 101 just north of Healdsburg. “It has corner after corner!” he says. Andy sometimes rides by himself, but sometimes he does “two-up” with his girlfriend—“I don’t ride quite as fast with her on the back,” he admits—and sometimes he travels with other biker friends, taking road trips as long as a seven-hour jaunt to the coast.
The high, ragged sky with depths of grey makes the Napa Valley more rugged today, shards of rough stone lining grey-green hills. Everybody’s stories about favorite roads are making me anxious to explore. I love the route from PUC down to Lake Hennessey on Howell Mountain Road and Conn Valley Road; so today, when I come to where the lower end of old Howell Mountain Road meets Silverado Trail, I take the turn and head into the green hills on a part of the road I’ve never driven.
I drive all the way to the lake, which is silver grey with stripes of green on the edges, cold, dotted with occasional stark birds’ heads. When I pull off by the side of the road, the wind tells distant hard stories through the fingers of the pines and runs the lake water against the reeds.
Driving up again toward the college, I top a ridge and the wide, rugged view opens out below me. A vast swath of golden sun bursts through the grey thickness and spills music over the hillsides. For a moment there is nothing but the goldenness and me, until I drive around the curve and the dark folds of the hills knead the light into their depths.