Yep, that’s what a lot of you are going be saying when you see where were going. The truth is, we’ve been to over a dozen countries and most of the states, but when we finally left the freeway and started exploring, Bakersfield turned out to be one of the most fun and interesting places we’ve been.
OK, so if I haven’t lost you by now, please read on while I plead my case…
In the most intense period of Tim’s college days, we had very little time to spare during the school year and even less money to do it with (college tuition is a back-breaker!). We had a weekend between semesters where we could get away. Unfortunately, most of the usual suspects were charging usurious rates for basic rooms…over $300 a night in Pismo Beach at the same hotel we’d previously stayed at for $69 the year before.
I’m a music fan, and I also like good country and western music. I’d always wanted to see Buck Owens’ Crystal Palace but just never got around to Bakersfield to see it while he was alive but I’d found a great deal on a two-room suite there so we planned an overnighter. We had a ton of fun watching Buck’s son Buddy lead the Buckaroos while we dined on some fabulous steak. While we were there, we started to see the city in an ever more favorable light and went back again when we had some more time.
It finally happened. Instead of seeing it as a hot and dusty pit stop on Highway 99 on the way to somewhere more exotic, we fell in love with Bakersfield. Give it a try and you might just start looking at it with new eyes too…
It’s an easy two-hour drive over the Grapevine to Bakersfield when the weather is nice. When it’s not, this can be the drive from Hell. It’s the week after Easter, so along the way we stop in Gorman to view one of nature’s most majestic displays; a mountain covered in brilliantly colored wildflowers. About a half-hour east of here in Antelope Valley is another…miles and miles of fields covered in California Poppies. There is an official state reserve here, along with a much larger area of unofficial blooms.
After taking a little time to literally stop and smell the flowers, we continue on to the down side of the pass into the Central Valley. Thirty minutes later, we make our first stop in Bakersfield, a margarita in the dark and cozy bar of Mexicali on 18th Street.
The friendly bartenders here make one of the best margaritas in the city using
Just a couple of blocks away is the Holy Grail of tacodom, Los Tacos de Huicho. It’s a good place to walk to and eat off the margarita.
Huicho’s has nothing bad on the menu. Their specialty is al pastor, a pile of marinated pork rotating on a spit with onion and pineapple juices blending with the meat’s own juice as it is slowly cooked to perfection. I have eaten this meat everywhere from Guadalajara to Santa Rosa…no one comes close to the delectable perfection of Huicho’s. It’s also one of the world’s best bargains at only 99 cents per taco.
There is also an excellent carne asada, cabeza, tripas (cow milk gut), fish, and shrimp. Besides the tacos, you can get your meat served in burritos, mulas, huaraches, gringas, and sopes. The tacos come plain…just the meat and tortilla. You then take them to the condiment bar and load them up. I like to sprinkle on the onions and cilantro, followed by the spicy red or green salsa, topped off with their creamy and spicy guacamole salsa. That last one is extremely rare north of the border but is pretty common in Tijuana. It’s just heaven.
Tim also wants to tell you that they make some of the best fries he’s ever had too. The only down side is their bar. It’s pretty much a fast food type of place, but they have a full bar in the back that makes some really uninspired mixed drinks. The beer’s good, though. Huicho’s is located just east of the intersection of Union Avenue and 18th Street.
After less than twenty dollars, all three of us are stuffed. It’s time to find our hotel.
There are several good choices here, most reasonable to cheap. The Best Western next to the Crystal Palace is good if you’re going there. It has nice rooms, a friendly staff, and…being right next door to the Palace…is drinker friendly. I saw a two couples by the pool there once preloading with around 30 bottles of booze before they walked over. Hey, whatever floats your boat…as long as you’re walking and not disturbing me (they behaved, actually they were very nice people).
If you do find yourself drinking to excess there, all you need to do is walk across the parking lot to your room. The full breakfast in the on-site coffee shop that’s included in your room rate will help heal that hangover.
Two blocks away on the other side of the freeway is our current favorite, Springhill Suites. Located in a hotel ghetto between Rosedale Highway and the Kern River, it’s a quiet location and all suites. The staff has come to know us and puts us in the same accessible room on the second floor, overlooking the pool and the river beyond. It’s not as nice a view as it sounds…an oil-rig supply company sits between the hotel and the river.
The room is very nice and spacious. It includes a wet bar with microwave, coffee maker and refrigerator. A large bathroom with a transfer seat in the tub. There are also suites with roll-in showers but they are on the first floor and my wife prefers to be upstairs. A hot breakfast is served each morning off of the lobby. Above all, it is quiet, even when the hotel is full of kids’ sports teams. Rooms here go for over $100 but many discounts are available and I always pay around $80 per night…check their website for current offers.
After unpacking and a little rest, we head over to the Crystal Palace. We have 6:00pm reservations for dinner and a show. Along with the dinner, there is a $5 cover charge for the show. A wonderful steak dinner here will set you back $31. It’s a huge amount of food; 20 oz. steak, salad, squaw bread, biscuits, green beans, and your choice of a side. Plenty big enough for two, the split plate charge is just $8. There’s also sandwiches and pizzas from $9 to $12. A soup and dinner-size salad menu runs from $5 to $13. A full bar is also available. Dinner for three, including a couple of drinks for each of us and the show, comes in around $70 plus tip.
The main band is the Buckaroos, Buck’s old backup band. Every other weekend, Buck’s son Buddy Alan Owens flies in from Phoenix to play with his father’s band. Although he’s Buck’s son, Buddy was mostly raised by his step-father, Merle Haggard (another Bakersfield star), who married his mom after her original marriage broke up. It’s a rockin’ good time as the band plays not only Buck Owens material, but Merle’s too…while Buddy provides some personal back stories to go along with them and folks crowd the dance floor down front. He also mixes in quite a bit of classic rock into the mix.
Buck Owens is legend in this town, so the Palace also doubles as his museum. Hundreds of artifacts from his career sit in display cases lining the joint but the place of honor goes to his Buckmobile, a custom 1972 Pontiac with rifles on the hood and silver dollars mounted on the dash that is permanently mounted over the bar. Buck won the car in a poker game from Nudie, the guy who made all the glittering suits Owens wore during his career.
After the Buckaroos finish, Steve Davis and Stampede take over as the house band. They’re also very good but after two or three songs, it’s late for us and we head back to the hotel. If you only have one night here, an evening at the Palace gives you a good, very fun, distilled version of what this city is all about. It’s family-friendly too, so don’t be afraid to take the kids.
In front of the Crystal Palace is the iconic Bakersfield sign that used to welcome travelers into town, stretched over Union Avenue in downtown. It was in bad shape and slated to be demolished when the town’s adopted musical hero, Buck Owens, stepped in to save it. It is now completely restored and crosses Stillwell Avenue next to the steakhouse and night club that Buck built.
Up the river a ways stands more signs. At the Kern County Museum, an effort is being waged to save the iconic neon signs that were a part of this city. You can see some them in the back of the museum grounds, such as the sign that pointed out the annex of the Bakersfield inn…one of the anchor points of the sign Buck Owens saved. Others are awaiting their restoration, like the TEJON letters of the old Tejon Theater marquee. More signs never got the chance…few more iconic signs existed like the block-long Rancho Bakersfield motel sign, long since demolished when the motel became a rehab center (which has since met its own fate on Golden State Avenue).
Along with the signs, acres of old, restored buildings dot the grounds like an old town. A jail, an undertakers office, many houses, an old hotel, a gas station. You could…and probably will…spend many hours exploring them.
Of course, Bakersfield is a huge oil town providing 64% of the oil produced in California. A visit here needs to include the Black Gold exhibit explaining the history and process of the local oil business. A theme-park quality motion simulator ride takes you beneath the ocean floor to find oil deposits. You can operate an antique derrick. Inside, exhibits show how oil does not sit in huge pools under the earth. Rather, it must be pressed out of the rock. No matter how you feel about the oil industry, this thorough look at it is fascinating.
Out front, another rescued icon, the Beale clock tower stands guard.
After the museum, we head north on Chester Avenue to our next stop. Over the Kern River in Oildale is Bakersfield Speedway, a 1/3 mile dirt oval nestled on the edge of town. We get here before 5:30pm and are able to take advantage of their happy hour, $1 dollar Bud and Bud Lite beer. OK, it’s not my favorite…in fact, it’s kind of like drinking water…but for a dollar, it’ll do.
We find a spot in the wheelchair accessible front row at turn four and watch the cars take practice laps. When the powerful, open-wheel modified cars come out, a shower of mud chips hits us every time they come around the corner. It’s time to rethink this and we move up to the top row, which is also accessible by a ramp that is a little steeper than we’d like.
The view and the comfort are much better from up here. A note: the seating here is nothing but concrete benches. Fans bring their own lawn chairs to sit in.
Racing gets started at 6:00 with heat races, starting with the mini-dwarf cars. These are tiny, lawn mower powered jalopy replicas driven by kids as young as 5 years old. They are very competitive and a lot of fun to watch. Next are the hobby stocks, local garage built cars, then the modifieds and finally the super late models, which are the fastest and loudest cars they’ll be racing tonight.
The top two cars from each heat race gets to compete in the next event, the trophy dash. Six cars from each division compete in short races to get a nice trophy and a picture with the trophy queen. The main events start right after the trophy dashes, with long races for the right to be the night’s champion and to claim the prize purse, usually several hundred dollars. The final race we see tonight features a last lap, neck-and-neck battle to the checkered flag. It’s thrilling and a lot of fun.
There's a lot more to come, be sure to come back for Part 2 of our road trip to Bakersfield where it's baseball, wildlife, fine ethnic cuisine, and a look at the nightlife of the city.
Copyright 2010 - Darryl Musick