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US 395, Part 2: Kern County and Ridgecrest/BR 395

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The Kern county portion of US 395 is pretty short -- not as short as, say, Sierra county's strip (in Part 15), but only on the order of around 37 miles (realigned). Kern was not part of the original 27 California counties; on California's declaration of statehood on 9 September 1850, it was originally part of then-Mariposa county. Further juggling of county lines caused Kern county to be formed from a portion cut from Tulare county and Los Angeles county in 1855, first called Buena Vista county, but then changed to Kern in 1866 after the Kern River. The Kern River, in turn, derived its name from topographer Edward Kern, who helped to plot officer John C. Fremont's 1845 expedition. A much more extensive view of western Kern county is found starting with Old Highway 399 Part 5, which traverses this major old highway up to its county seat in Bakersfield.

[John C. Fremont] Fremont will be a recurring character in our discussion, so it's worth talking about him now for reference when we get to his additional exploits. Born John Charles Frémont in Savannah, Georgia in 1813, the future grand explorer had a rough early adulthood to the point where he was even kicked out of Charleston College for truancy. His non-compliance, however, was in stark contrast to his supremely analytical mind (and the college, recognizing his aptitude, eventually did confer him a degree in mathematics); it was in this capacity that he became a professor of mathematics in the US Navy in 1835. Fremont's great knowledge of topography and cartography made him a natural candidate for the federal topographical engineering brigade, and he was commissioned a second lieutenant in 1838. At this point, however, the big thinker decided to take on a bigger project -- the thorough exploration of the American Western frontier. In 1842, Fremont took twenty-eight men on his first of several expeditions to the West and explored the Rocky Mountains in detail, ascending the high Wind River peak that now bears his name. His next 1843 party discovered the Great Salt Lake (paving the way for the Mormon colonization of Utah), and then progressed into the Pacific Northwest along the tributaries of the Columbia River. His return trip, however, was a tremendously difficult struggle through the Sierra Nevadas (part of which is remembered in Part 9), and only by sheer perseverance did Fremont and his men finally reach civilization of sorts at John Sutter's fort in central California. A third exploratory party in 1845 ended in an ugly skirmish with suddenly unaccomodating Mexican forces, which we discuss in Part 9 as well.

The increasingly tense diplomatic relationship with Mexico led to an abrupt end to Fremont's free range wandering when a priority courier intercepted him in 1846 with orders to defend the American territories in the West against encroachment from Mexico (to the south) and Great Britain (to the north). Fremont immediately headed south into northern California, where he liberated the settlers there and was commissioned a lieutenant-colonel to finish the job; in fact, Fremont was the Army officer who had the honour of accepting Mexican General Andres Pico's surrender at the Cahuenga Pass in (what is now) Los Angeles on 13 January 1847. Meeting Commodore John Stoat at Stoat's successful capture of Monterey, Fremont joined him and was appointed military commandant and civil governor by Commodore Robert Stockton arriving from Washington. This set up a stark internal battle between Fremont and General Stephen Kearney (Old Highway 395 Part 3), who arrived with his Army of the West from the south and asserted that he had the authority to establish the local civil government despite Stockton's charter. Fremont's refusal to step down culminated in his court-martial that same year in which he was found guilty of mutiny; sentenced to dismissal from the service, the penalty was commuted by President James Polk and Fremont was allowed to resign in dignity.

A civilian again, Fremont started his explorations anew but an 1848 exploration into Sacramento was even more disastrous than the one in 1843. Briefly serving in the US Senate for California 1850-1, he made his final exploration in the Rockies in 1853. Nominated as the Republican presidential candidate in 1856 (losing to Buchanan), Fremont returned to the military when the Civil War broke out as a major-general. His heavy-handed administration of the Western Department in St. Louis (including imposing martial law and the arrest of known secessionists) caused his removal and transfer to the Mountain Department in the southern Appalachians. There he fought General Stonewall Jackson, but was unable to capture him, and finally in protest refused to serve further when his corps was assigned to the command of a lower-ranking officer, Maj. Gen. John Pope (whom Fremont had once commanded). Upon the end of the Civil War, Fremont eventually progressed to the governorship of Arizona from 1878-81, the last major office he would hold. Retiring from public life, he died in 1890. Here is a detailed biography.

Ridgecrest, the largest city along this route, is curious in that it contains a Business 395 that has no relationship whatsoever to a former routing of US 395. According to my maps going back to 1938, near the beginning of US 395's appearance in California, there has never been an alignment of US 395 even vaguely corresponding to where BR 395 runs now. It is unclear when this was first signed, but it seems to have been around the 1970s; we'll spend some time on it because despite not being part of historic US 395, there are some rather significant oddities about its maintenance and signage worth digging into. Ridgecrest (population 24,927 [2000]), first incorporated in 1963 out of what was then called Crumville (! -- a small local homestead), is notable for being the support city for the China Lake Naval Air Weapons Station, a major testing site for the US Navy and its contractors from which -- among other achievements -- the Sidewinder missile and other tactical weapons emerged. It is the US Navy's single largest land holding as of this date. The Navy has maintained a constant and reliable presence in the Ridgecrest area since 1941, when the Naval Ordnance Test Station was first established in nearby Inyokern.

[Comparison views of US 395, Brown Rd alignment.] US 395 in Kern county has been mostly unmolested by time except at its northern end. In addition to a reconfigured grade-separated interchange with CA 178 and BR 395, US 395 was also reconfigured to bypass Inyokern to its north, and the old settlements of Brown and Leliter to their south. The Brown and Leliter bypass was the earliest such reconfiguration, done in the late 1950s, and shifted the junction of old US 6 and US 395 several miles south of the northern county border, shown at left before and after (previously, the junction had been just west of Brown). This was followed up by the grade-separated bypass of Inyokern (modern-day Brown Rd) in 1966, and then the CA 178 interchange in 1974. As for the old US 6/US 395 merge point, this intersection -- now the modern CA 14/US 395 separation -- went through several changes until its most recent incarnation as fully grade-separated in 1993, a change that I remember as a kid when driving through here before that time for points north. This heralds the significant shifts and realignments within Inyo county, which we will talk about in the next Part.

US 6 has a lot of tales to tell, but we'll save that for Part 5 and its remnant in California today. North of Brown Rd, US 395 is officially old US 6 and the Grand Army of the Republic Highway. Old US 6 between Mojave and Bishop is also the Midland Trail; the Theodore Roosevelt Midland Trail, as it was officially named, was US 6's first incarnation and formed by local boosters to connect up to the Lincoln Highway to the north. We talk about the Lincoln Highway in some detail when we get to Carson City in Part 11. All of US 6 from US 99 in the Newhall Pass-Los Angeles region up to Bishop was originally signed as CA 7 in 1934 as part of the initial signage of state highways, and continued as CA 7 from Bishop to the Nevada border via Mono Lake and Bridgeport, which is now also US 395.

Back to Johannesburg. It is a somewhat more active community with more noticible local business than Red Mountain had and has in general fared better than its bigger mining neighbours (Red Mountain to the south and Randsburg to the north). As you might guess, both Johannesburg and Randsburg are names that continue the South African theme.

Unlike Red Mountain to the south, Johannesburg was a town that brooked no hanky-panky. Established as a planned community with services to the railroad for the nearby mines, the town bustled during the mine boom days but made sure that unsavoury types were shown the door. Regular rail service in those times ensured excellent connectivity to civilization, and the region was even wired for telephone and Western Union.

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Of the three mining towns, Randsburg was the most significant and as such is the area's main attraction today (including, bizarrely, for its opera house, established during its company town days and still in operation). While some silver was found in the San Bernardino county region, Randsburg was almost exclusively a gold town and generated significant enough output to merit being served by its own rail line from Kramer Jct between 1897 and 1933.

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Overlooking Randsburg from the turnoff road. Although some modern prospectors continue to scout the region for additional gold deposits, both Johannesburg's and Randsburg's mining days long ago faded during the late 1940s after the railroad was torn out. Today the two communities have reinvented themselves as mining town tourist traps and offer traveler amenities for those coming to investigate this unusual piece of California history.

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[Proposed realignment of US 395.] Back on the road into the hills. There is right-of-way for straightening of this route directly into the hill "pass" to the right, and this appears on the 2003 official state highways map (see right).

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Turn-off for Garlock, another local ghost town, named after founder Eugene Garlock who built it as yet another processing mill for the silver ore mines. Established in 1895, it fitfully hung on until around 1903 when the last of its residents abandoned their holdings; not even the railroad coming through in 1909 could resurrect it. A historic landmark designation remains for the ruins of the mill and its nearby cabins and habitations.

This is also our first signage for CA 14, running along the old routing of US 6, which we will discuss more in Part 5.

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Distance signage.

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The other cutoff to Trona, but this is not used much since southbound traffic from the Owens Valley usually takes CA 178 from Ridgecrest, and northbound traffic would have turned east long before at the last cutoff.

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PM 11.

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Curving towards the small ranges south of the Owens Valley (Part 3).

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Advance signage for BR 395 and the turn-off for Ridgecrest.

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Signage for China Lake NAWS. We'll drive by that in a little bit.

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Approaching our split, in which we will break into three forks: the former routing of US 395 through Inyokern, Leliter and Brown (left, as Brown Road); the business routing through Ridgecrest (right, as China Lake Boulevard); and the modern Super 2, as US 395 (straight on).

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Separation. Let's turn left and start ...

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Fork 1: Old US 395 in Inyokern

The old alignment of US 395 today is signed as Brown Rd, and runs to the west of the modern Super 2 alignment.

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A non-descript county road, it largely runs parallel to the railroad through fairly empty scrub terrain.

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Kern county roads do not use the standard MUTCD pentagons. Instead, they have their own postmiles and designators; this is road 653Y, PM 1.

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NB Brown Rd.

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One of the old railroad bridge culverts. The tracks appear to have been abandoned and are probably part of the old Southern Pacific Lone Pine branch, which is no longer in use.

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Continuing north to Inyokern.

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Inyokern, "the sunshine capital of America" (and when the sun is out and blazing, that is a fact -- one of the sunniest regions in North America, it receives an "overage" [sic] of 355 sunny days a year due to rain-shadow effect from the mountains).

A portmanteau of Inyo and Kern counties, Inyo being in the next part, it has a population of 984 [2000]. Originally a supply depot during the construction of the Los Angeles Aqueduct -- again more about that in Part 3 -- it was unromantically known simply as 'Siding 16' until the first post office was established and the settlement christened Magnolia in 1913. It is not clear exactly when or why the name changed.

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Post office and "downtown" just before CA 178; CA 178 is not well-signed from Brown Rd itself. One of California's original numbered highways and still crossing the Walker Pass (5,250' and named for explorer Joseph Walker [Part 9]) to connect the Central Valley and the Owens Valley, it originally stretched all the way to the California coast until it was cut down by CA 58 after the California Great Renumbering. (also the inheritor of US 466 as we discussed in Part 1). Today, it officially runs between Bakersfield and the Nevada state line, although the portion east of Ridgecrest to Death Valley runs via a presently unconstructed/unadopted routing. In Bakersfield, like CA 58, CA 178 is a significant local freeway and arterial.

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Looking down CA 178 towards Ridgecrest. This is signed "TO US 395" and is the cutoff for southbound traffic (more on that in a second).

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However, if we look the other way down CA 178 towards Bakersfield (west), the old highway is signed "US 395 Bishop" (again, more on that in a second). Note that CA 178 is also signed for CA 14 (old US 6) and points south to Los Angeles.

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Leaving Inyokern NB on Brown Rd. Modern US 395 is visible in the distance.

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Signage for Inyokern on the SB side.

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An old culvert, complete with white wooden fence, dated 1944.

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Crossing under modern US 395 and signage for the onramp, which is hard to see from the NB side. This is the explanation for the "US 395 Bishop" signage.

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After crossing under US 395, we notice that our county road designation had changed to 629Z. Based on the mileage (1.64), this probably occurred at CA 178.

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The sign visible in the last picture is the ramp signage, and now we get a better look at the onramp and US 395 overpass. Southbound US 395 traffic must go down to CA 178, and this is the explanation for the "TO US 395" signage. Makes sense now?

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NB Brown Rd.

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Turn-off for Leliter. Leliter is listed by some authorities as a ghost town but is still lightly populated, mostly by farms and agriculture. A staging area for the construction of the aqueducts feeding Los Angeles from the Owens Valley (more on that in the next Part), the population largely faded after construction completed. The town was probably named for one of the construction principals.

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Dust control signage. Dust is a big problem out here with the low rainfall and high winds.

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NB Brown Rd.

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PM 7.08.

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Looking out over the fields.

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Turning west towards mainline US 395.

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Which way's Brown Rd? It's thataway! No, it's thataway!

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Junction US 395 expressway just south of the Inyo county line. We will come back to this alignment presently.

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Fork 2: BR 395 (CA 178) and Ridgecrest

Back to the original turn-off, where we curve right this time along modern Business Route 395 into downtown Ridgecrest.

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This segment is signed China Lake Blvd, here at the turnoff.

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Distance signage looking back as we leave the mainline highway.

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The southernmost portion of BR 395 is actually not state highway, and never was. Instead, it seems to have started life as a partially county-maintained route and was signed as Business alignment (officially with AASHTO approval) sometime in the 1970s. It can therefore be slightly, but not completely, forgiven that the wrong shield -- and a weird wrong shield at that -- is the first one we meet.

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This county road is designated 665Y, here at PM 0.20.

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South of Ridgecrest, BR 395 is a heavily traveled but isolated road, with few habitations.

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Turning east along China Lake Blvd into the city.

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Traffic and small outbuildings and properties start to grow in number as the city becomes visible.

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NB BR 395/KernCo 665Y/China Lake Blvd.

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City limits, and another weird looking wrong shield.

Ridgecrest is a surprisingly well-provisioned town for being out in the middle of nowhere. The reason, of course, is the significant military presence. Never ever underestimate the Pentagon's ability to throw money at things.

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At least this one, facing southwesterly back towards mainline US 395, is a correct-looking state route shield, even if it's still wrong. However, it is now been replaced with another ghastly one.

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Southern outskirts.

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College Heights Blvd, named for the local community college.

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Entering town.

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The southern commercial district and older downtown.

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Junction CA 178, where the county-maintained portion ends. As of this writing, this is the first actual US shield along the route. CA 178 leaves to the right due east to Trona and then its discontinuity into Death Valley. We continue straight on.

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Notice that the US shields are erected by Caltrans. Why couldn't Kern county post proper ones?

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WEST CA 178 shield north of the junction. Except for one shining exception, BR 395 and CA 178 are never signed together on the same post. This is probably due to the very late signage of BR 395 compared to CA 178.

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BR 395 is, of course, legislatively CA 178 where the two are co-signed. Our first postmile is 102.5.

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Leaving downtown Ridgecrest into the less populated northern portion. The fascinating Maturango Museum is here as well, with lots of local history relics.

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BR 395 shield, also Caltrans issue.

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Advance signage for the China Lake Naval Air Weapons Station.

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This is also the turnoff back towards US 395 and Inyokern, ...

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... along CA 178 ...

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... and the business route. Notice the Visitors Center sign: there isn't one. In these post 9/11 days, there is no longer a public tourist center. In fact, simply taking pictures around this turn got me visits from both Ridgecrest PD and base security, who checked my ID and let me on my way and were invariably all very professional and polite, and unfortunately such security measures are to be expected in these nervous times.

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China Lake NAWS signage as we turn left (west) onto Inyokern Road.

China Lake gets its name for the "coolies" who came to the region seeking work on the transcontinental railroad. After the railroad was complete, many stayed and worked in the mines instead. Few stayed after the mines closed as well, but the name stuck. Likely there are a few descendants of the original "China Lakers" still in the region.

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Guide signage looking back at the intersection. Originally this old button copy sign was at the corner; notice the stripped portion which was for the (now closed) Visitor's Center, and only CA 178 to Trona appeared (in 2007).

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About a year later the sign was completely replaced with this one, completely removing the obsolete reference to the Center, and two control cities for CA 178 presumably to soak up the sign real estate (Trona and Death Valley). This is amusing, because CA 178 technically doesn't legislatively reach Death Valley from this side.

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PM 100.5 as we start west on Inyokern Rd.

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The only co-signage of BR 395 and CA 178 (notice that BR 395 gets top billing) as of this writing.

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Distance signage leaving Ridgecrest, with an inexplicable "MI" notation for the milecount and a strangely configured layout.

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Begin divided highway/expressway. Except for the actual interchange with US 395, this is four lane expressway all the way out of town.

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Caltrans has started using these flashers along the high speed section for turns they believe to be risky.

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PM 96 and some of the small residences on this side of the city.

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Overlooking the more desolate western reaches of the naval station.

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End divided highway and downgrade to one-lane-per-direction as we approach the US 395 interchange.

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Notice that northbound US 395 has both Reno and Bishop for control cities (we don't reach Reno until Part 13), the furthest south that Reno is signed as a control.

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Pull-thru for the actual interchange. Clodt Road is a short local stub that has nothing to do with the former alignment (which was obliterated by the grade separation).

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Inyokern limits.

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PM 93.5, the last CA 178 postmile on this alignment. We'll drive by it just a bit to look at the rest of the interchange.

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On the offramp from the NB US 395 side, is this mileage sign with distance to the NAWS and Trona. Notice the signage for CA 14; this used to be signed from US 395 itself, but is no longer for some inexplicable reason, as there is no access to CA 14 from the NB alignment (as we will see).

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A stately button copy sign pointing for SB US 395.

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Beyond that, CA 178 trundles on to the Walker Pass and Lake Isabella before plunging down toward Bakersfield as a freeway.

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The first shield facing back isn't for CA 178, it's BR 395.

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And just beyond that the first distance sign. Notice that the NAWS Visitor Center was stripped off this sign also.

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US 395 "on-ramp." Note the lack of "FREEWAY ENTRANCE" signs -- there is only one place in California where this appears along US 395 and we won't see it until Part 15.

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Fork 3: Mainline US 395

For the final fork, we travel mainline US 395. There is no evidence in any of my maps going back to the initial signage of US 395 in California that US 395 ever itself passed through Ridgecrest, so this is the only other routing it has ever had. This distance sign appears immediately after the Ridgecrest BR 395 turnoff.

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Another Caltrans freeway right-of-way marker, but it seems more proper to use it on this Super 2 than the last time we saw one of these. They are increasingly uncommon in the present day, however, and are best considered a signage relic. Oregon has their own equivalent, one of which we will see in Part 20.

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This portion seems to have been relatively unchanged, but there are some realigned postmiles along the SB route which point to some possible straightening of the route in the 1960s.

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Advance signage for CA 178.

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CA 178 interchange, this time from US 395 itself. Here our two forks merge.

The old sign here used to show the through route to CA 14 south, but that seems to have been forgotten on the replacement.

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Distance signage as Business US 395 merges with us north.

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Inyokern bypass. Inyokern must be accessed from CA 178 on the NB alignment, but on the SB side there is a small grade-separated interchange. This is part of the 1966 reconfiguration of the original late 1950s Brown Rd bypass, Brown Rd being old US 395 through Brown and Leiter as we discussed in the introductory blurb.

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This is the old sign that used to stand at the Inyokern exit, which now just says Brown Rd. I like the old sign better. Note the realignment postmiles.

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Approaching the CA 14 (old US 6) interchange. This was not its original intersection, of course. Note the realignment postmiles here also.

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Intersection from southbound US 395. Prior to the present-day 1993 grade-separated interchange, both routes met at an ill-configured "Y" at-grade junction which I remember as a child.

Off to the right, just barely visible, is the end of a road paralleling US 395. This is modern-day Sterling Road and was the original US 6 alignment. A dirt track proceeds south of it which can be seen stretching down to the separation point.

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Another view, further south at the actual separation.

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END CA 14 sign at the merge, with a strange font for the numbers.

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Past CA 14, US 395 adopts an expressway configuration. This will, except for periods of one-lane-per-direction, persist well into Mono county and has tremendously helped traffic throughput on this increasingly busy route. This is at PM 30 (realigned).

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Watch them winds.

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I could watch this stupid flashing sign all day, man. A clever way to draw attention to the frequent winter closures north and to warn people who might be using said closed passes, the flasher -- in sequence -- flashes OPEN or CLOSED for each pass, over and over, to passing motorists. You can watch a Windows Media Player clip of it here; download it, unzip and play. (Mac users: use VideoLAN Player; the anaemic MacWiMP won't play this.)

At night, the sign isn't lit, but the flasher still is, giving you a ghostly pattern of "OPEN" and "CLOSED" in the darkness. You can watch another clip of that here. Sorry about the poor quality; these were shot with the camera function on my Palm Zire 72. These arresting signs are apparently popular with motorist and Caltrans alike, because I have recently spotted another one identical to this on NB CA 14 a few miles before US 395.

Odd that they would print the Sonora Pass and the Monitor Pass, but not the much better known Tioga Pass. This is undoubtedly because this pass is best known by its destination, not its given name; we will see CA 120, CA 108 and CA 89 in Parts 7, 9 and 9 again, respectively.

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A little ways past the flasher is modern Brown Rd, where our very first fork finally joins us.

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All three forks together now cross the Inyo county line, using a unique wooden sign instead of the usual green one. Here and in the next photograph is little Pearsonville, today essentially a gas station and some houses.

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Pearsonville was named for Lucy and Ted Pearson and their wrecking yard they established in 1959, in which they slowly developed what they referred to as the "Hubcap Capital of the World" from a 12'x12' shack to the present settlement. Their children had what was probably the longest commute in California to school in those days, almost 58 miles each way to Olancha and Lone Pine to the north (Part 3). Their shop is the building in the background and is still there today.

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Sterling Road continues parallel to us (now old US 6 and old US 395) for a distance up to US 395's further division at the southern end of the Owens Valley.

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As it precisely parallels the highway, we will simply point it out for reference, but there are still old postmiles (including this one in Kern county at 33.06).

Continue to Part 3

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