Derricks, Dinosaurs and James Dean

California Dream Roads

Story & Photos by Gary Koz Mraz

State Routes 33 and 58 are amongst several of California’s dream motorcycle roads. Combined, they represent over 180 miles of motorcycle friendly riding. The southern start point of SR 33 begins in the seaside mission town of Ventura at the Pier. This I know because I wrote the book: “Piers of the West Coast – Travelled on Two Wheels”. (Shameless self-promotion). The Deck at Eric Ericson’s restaurant at the base of Ventura Pier is a great place to grab a bite and ponder the trek ahead.

magnum 010editThis journey will be on a 2015 Victory Magnum. Taking advantage of the big-wheel bagger craze, the Magnum is riding on a 21-inch front wheel boasting the largest rim on any production bagger. Victory thinks the Magnum is oriented more toward urban use, and that the Magnum buyer is the extrovert who wants to be seen and heard around town, as opposed to the long-distance rider who wants to get away from it all. I will put that to the test because this extrovert is definitely getting away from it all.

The salty smell of sea air quickly fades as the 4 lanes of highway 33 (Ojai Fwy) pass horsehead pump jacks perpetually bobbing for oil and then suddenly, it ends. A two lane road begins twisting its way into the dramatic Topa Toa Mountains into Casitas Springs. Once the residence to Johnny Cash; he built his dream home here but only 7 years later, he left for good. It went to Vivian Cash in a divorce. Several miles further is the quaint town of Ojai. If you skipped lunch at the pier, try the Deer Lodge located right on 33. It’s Ojai’s oldest eatery and opened in 1932. They serve up wild game; few establishments in Southern California are brave enough to serve deer to their patrons, or mount a Jackalope head on the wall.

magnum 040editContinuing on 33, be sure to get a photo-op in Wheeler Springs at the narrow shed with an illustrious title – “USA’s Smallest Post Office” – bestowed by Ripley’s Believe It Or Not. This is where Route 33 slices through Los Padres National Forest and it’s here the road gets exciting. It follows Matilija Canyon past the easternmost extremity of the Santa Ynez Mountains, and passes over the Transverse Ranges at Pine Mountain Summit at a little over 5000 ft. The temperature cools, and the scent of Pine fills the air.

The pavement here is excellent and traffic nonexistent. The vistas are spectacular and the diversity of landscape is awesome. There are “big sky” views but lots of twisties and hairpins to keep you focused on the road. Her sultry curves may seduce you to speed but beware, there are some deep canyon drop offs and no guardrails. Weekends bring out a lot of sport bikes so if you can take this ride during the week, you will own the road.

magnum 048Pine Mountain Inn north of Ojai was a biker mecca. Opened circa 1939, it boasted “the purtiest” waitresses, best food, lowest prices and only flush toilets within 14 miles in any direction. It was an old-fashioned western bar and looks just that way today. The stools are old tractor seats, a couple of rattlesnake skins stretched on boards and 200 bottles of beer in the wall create a window that throws a moody light over the bar. Unfortunately, the rustic hangout has been closed since 2005, mostly the result, owner Tom Wolf says, of Ventura County officials rezoning his land without telling him they were about to do so.

After miles of motorcycling nirvana, this road descends into Kern County and becomes the Petroleum Highway. Swerving east then north tracks I-5 although the roadways remain largely invisible to one other. The next town is Maricopa, famous as the site of America’s largest oil spill. The 1910 Lakeview Gusher released 9 million barrels – twice that of Deepwater Horizon a century later. Little remains but a lunar landscape of congealed crude, which you can marvel at on Petroleum Club Road, about a mile east of Route 33. Sadly, most storefronts are boarded up and abandoned and you can buy a house in Maricopa for $38K.

magnum 080editA few miles farther along is the town of Taft and the West Kern Oil Museum. It features an early classroom, Indian artifacts, scores of old tools and a replica of one of 7,000 wooden derricks that once dominated the landscape. My favorite display is the Jurassic skeleton of a saber-toothed tiger. Also, be sure and visit the largest bronze sculpture in California. Sculptor Benjamin Victor – from Taft, created a stunning sculpture depicting the blood, sweat and tears of this historic oil town.

Leaving Taft, the twisties give way to long straightaways peppered with slow sweeping curves. The flat landscape is filled with thousands of oil derricks and bobbing pump jacks. Swirling dust devils dance over this barren terrain. Years of drought have left ranches desolate and deserted. Thousands of acres of farmland lie bone dry with topsoil reduced to sand. Once a flourishing agricultural community, the families have fled and now oil is the only commodity. The sun knelt, the rose dried and forever lost was the promised land.

50 miles past Taft is Blackwell’s Corner in Lost Hills. It was here at this juncture of 33 and 46 that James Dean gassed up his speedy Porsche for the last time. Be sure to gas up yourself and take a good look around inside. It’s chock full of “Deanobilia”. The food is good and jam-packed with locally grown almonds, pistachios, walnuts, jams and jellies. I suggest getting a jar of pecan honey butter and some homemade fudge at the East of Eden Fudge Factory.If you continue east bound on California Hwy 46 for about 25 miles, you will come to the spot Dean wrecked the 550 Spyder on that fateful day of September 30th 1955. “Dream as if you’ll live forever, live as if you’ll die tomorrow.” James Dean.

magnum 092editChanneling James Dean at Blackwell’s Corner along SR33, the last place he was seen alive. It’s here at Blackwell’s Corner I decide to take Bitterwater Valley Road south to catch SR 58. Only a mile away, it’s a paved one-laner that cuts through open central California cow pastures. What a fun 30 miles of solitude and scenery it turned out to be. The SR58; the Blue Star Memorial Highway is another California motorcycle dream ride. The road between McKittrick and Santa Margarita reveals 71 miles of motorcycle bliss. It has all the necessary ingredients and then some for the making of a great motorcycle road: great pavement, little traffic, beautiful landscape and the obligatory corners twisties with sweepers and hairpins, and long straights with a roller coaster section of whoop-tees to boot. The road crosses over the San Andreas fault line and you can tour the fault line by visiting the Carrizo Plans National Monument just to the East of the 58.

The great roads around here just keep coming! If you haven’t had enough, catch Pozo road off 58 just before Santa Margarita to the Pozo Saloon. The historic Pozo Saloon has been a San Luis Obispo County landmark since 1858. It’s a trip back in time to one of the most authentic examples of a Wild West saloon. It is also renowned for their Pozo Martini and concerts by Willie Nelson, The Black Crowes, Lynyrd Skynyrd to Snoop Dogg.

The dream ride never ends here. Four lanes become two, then one-way paved roads through cow pastures become dirt paths to a saloon or old red barn. SR 33 and 58 combine for 180 miles of endless snaking twists and turns, sweepers, dips and whoop-de-doo’s. It’s a fabulous, sometimes challenging, always spectacular motorcycle ride. Sport bike or Magnum Bagger, this is a ride you will savor. I can’t remember when at day’s end, my clutch hand strained to hold a cold beer and my right calf actually cramped from dancing on the brakes; a wonderful misery indeed.

Never pass gas: Taft to Santa Margarita is an 80 mile stretch with NO gas stations.
Don’t rely only on GPS: I encountered confused motorists taken astray by their GPS.
There will be dicey cell service at best, typically none.
Do not ride these roads at night; they are full of wandering wildlife.
Carry water!

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