Some people call it “the road to nowhere,” but that’s not quite right. Begun in 1910 to connect various county seats of inland California, Route 33 was once the only paved road to anywhere for most of the people who lived along its diverse length. Today, that task is served by Interstate 5, the infamous “Grapevine” that was completed 55 years ago. Which makes Route 33 something both more and less important: a road less traveled, accessible to anyone with a sense of adventure and a yen for a decidedly different drive.
Photographer Peter Dawson and I pick it up just west of Ojai, a once-sleepy town that is in the process of reinventing itself as a destination for escapees from L.A. New boutiques line the main street, competing for space with trend-focused eateries. This is very much the current imagination of California: exclusive, health-focused, effortlessly prosperous. A few miles north, Route 33 begins its serpentine embrace of the Transverse Ranges. Ascending to 5,160 feet, the road presents a stunning new vista at every turn.
We pass the nation’s smallest post office, in Wheeler Springs, on the way to Pine Mountain. It’s the size of a small garden shed, but it’s very real. Also very real is the challenge of driving the 100-plus curves, many of which are entirely blind and off-camber, that scale Pine Mountain. Although the asphalt surface is both recent and very smooth, there are massive whoop-de-dos in the middle of many corners that can both surprise and unbalance progress.
“The MX-5 Miata is the perfect partner for a drive like this—and it doesn’t disappoint. It’s the balance of the car that impresses most”
Our 2016 Mazda MX-5 Miata ND is in its element, effortlessly maintaining speeds that are thrilling while still holding enough lateral grip in reserve to deal with unexpected road debris. The MX-5 Miata is the perfect partner for a drive like this—and it doesn’t disappoint. There’s enough power to send you up the mountain at speed, and enough grip to let you keep most of that velocity around even the slowest switchbacks.
It’s the balance that impresses most: this is a car in which you flow through corners instead of alternately stomping gas and brake in a tiresome effort to maintain pace. The brakes appear to be immune to fade no matter how hard you tax them. But the true surprise comes in the long sections where the road stretches straight to the horizon. In Grand Touring trim, the MX-5 Miata is comfortable, quiet, and offers brilliant sound quality from the Bluetooth-enabled stereo.
As you pass 33’s highest point, you’d be forgiven for missing the rock-shrouded entrance to the Pine Mountain Ridge Road. Twisting past secluded campsites for another seven miles and 2,000 vertical feet, this seven-foot-wide asphalt trail offers unparalleled views of the valleys below—but there’s also not so much as a wooden rail to prevent you from taking an inadvertent half-mile-plunge. You’re responsible for your own safety, period. It’s one of our first clues that we are traveling in time as much as we are in space.
Californians have long been accustomed to a carpet-bombing of warning signs for everything from airplane jetways to restaurant bathrooms, but along the entire length of the summit road there is just one. It warns of a local natural gas pipeline. Or that’s what we think it said, anyway; it’s been long since shotgun-blasted into dimpled obscurity.
Route 33 is no less thrilling on the way down the mountain, but once at the valley floor it settles quickly into an arrow-straight predictability. There are very few buildings along this section, which stretches more than 30 miles. No gas stations, no mini-marts. Just a few small shops, weather-beaten and dust-choked. And although we are traveling the road in the early afternoon, not a single one of those shops is open. Most are boarded shut. Our phones complain that there’s no signal. If something goes wrong out here, we’ll be very much on our own.
The town of Maricopa features the first gas pump we’ve seen since Ojai, but here, too, the atmosphere is one of a ghost town. There’s a hopeful sign at the entrance—“Maricopa, Gateway To The Sea”—but the Seventies-styled steakhouse next to the sign has been closed for what looks like decades. Not until Taft, ten miles further north, do we see people out on the street and hear the buzz of traffic. It’s a traditional oil town, greeting visitors with a detailed replica of a 1914-era derrick. If it looks familiar, that’s because its blueprint was used to construct the derrick featured in the film There Will Be Blood.
“Our phones complain that there’s no signal. if something goes wrong out here, we’ll be very much on our own”
There’s a distinct smell of oil in the air as Route 33 becomes Kern Street. A host of obscure restaurants continues to flourish in the small city center—Frosty Freeze, Jacob’s 24 Hour Burgers—protected, like the marsupials of Australia, by a desert distance that discourages corporate predators from trespassing on their turf.
The sun is low in the sky as we leave Taft and traverse a 50-mile dreamscape of endless oil rigs. They seem to come in an endless variety of shapes, sizes, and condition, but nearly all of them are in motion, mechanical Tyrannosaurs dipping their heads rhythmically to extract the liquified essence of their prehistoric doppelgängers. Folding plastic signs litter the roadside: RIG 31. HEAVY CROSSING TRAFFIC. LIGHTS ON FOR SAFETY. $400 BONUS FOR SAFE OPERATION.
At the 121-mile mark of our journey, we arrive at Blackwell’s Corner. Known worldwide as the last stop James Dean made before his death at the corner of Route 46 and Route 41, the corner is marked by two massive murals of the actor: one with his face, the other showing him as he appeared during filming for Rebel Without a Cause. Although the pumps are on at Blackwell’s Corner, the convenience store itself is closed.
Fifty miles later, we arrive at the agricultural town of Coalinga. It’s the last stop on 33 North, but the traffic is all coming from, and going to, Route 5 just 13 miles distant. So we follow the road to its logical, and physical, conclusion. There is a fog-like haze in the air above the two-lane overpass that marks the termination of Route 33: dust raised by agricultural operations, coating us and our MX-5 Miata with a thick rural fragrance. It’s the end of the road, so we accelerate down the on-ramp to Interstate 5 South and a return to Los Angeles.
Yet just a few miles down the impersonal freeway, Dawson and I look at each other and make a silent decision. We’re already tired of the crowded lanes, the endless procession of trucks to the right and the frantic, swerving action of the cars jockeying for position on the left. It’s simply too much for eyes and minds that have been slowly but surely tuned to hear the song of the wide-open desert two-lane, the thrilling climb through the mountains, the quiet trip to the summit. At the exit for Route 41, we cut over through the darkness and rejoin 33 South at Blackwell’s Corner. Top down, the fresh air keeping us awake and alert, a meteor shower overhead. They say it’s a road to nowhere. They’re wrong. It’s a road to the past, a road to solitude, a road to a California that’s been forgotten everywhere else, but that is still very much alive right here on Route 33.