The Grapevine Grade

We had never heard of the Grapevine Grade. We blithley set off from Escondido, heading straight through all the towns surrounding Los Angeles. Near San Fernando we picked up Route 5 heading north. By the time we reached the town of Castaic the road began to climb. Signs on the side of the road warned of a 5% grade for the next five miles.  Roland stepped on the gas as the station wagon settled into pulling the load behind it. The road was curvy with steep drops on either side. As we climbed the engine labored and then abruptly stopped altogether. Roland put on both brakes and turned to me,

“Jump out and put the blocks under the trailer wheels in case the brakes don’t hold on this steep grade.”

I grabbed the wooden blocks we kept beside the front seat, dashed out of the car and placed them behind the trailer wheels. We were near the side of the road. Roland got out and checked under the hood.

“I think it’s another vapor lock.”

He walked back to the trailer and opened the door. Just inside we had left a large (probably 50 gallon) tank of water. He bailed out a pan full and poured it over the fuel pump. After a few minutes the motor started again. I removed the blocks and climbed back into the car and we proceeded along the windy, steep road.

“I’m thirsty, I want a drink of water,” said Lesley.

“I have fruit juice,” I offered from the thermos. She drank a little.

We had only traveled about three or four miles before the motor quit again. Right away  I jumped out with the blocks for the trailer wheels and Roland fetched more water from the trailer and poured it over the fuel pump. Every time Lesley saw the water go by she wanted water.

“Les, we need the water for the motor. Have a little more juice,”  I coaxed.

On we went, stopping every few miles to restart the struggling motor. After about five miles the highway became a little wider. We noticed a sign that said the altitude was 3000 feet.

Still struggling and stalling every few miles the station wagon soldiered on another 23 miles past Frazier Mountain to the highest point at an altitude of 4,183 feet. Continuing north past Fort Tejon (established in 1854)  we started downhill on a 6% grade; twisting, winding, swerving and clutching the seats while Roland bravely dealt with our trailer brakes and car brakes, always in the correct order, trailer brakes first, then car brakes. Finally the road leveled out. We reached Wheeler Ridge and followed the signs to Bakersfield.

It was with great relief that we found a trailer park in Bakersfield and settled down for the night. Roland hooked us up to electricity, water and sewage. I prepared supper. We fed the children and put them to bed. Finally falling exhausted into bed ourselves.

We had only just fallen into a deep sleep when I heard Les crying in a choking,  gasping way.

I leaped out of bed and rushed to their bedroom. Sandy was sound asleep but Lesley was standing beside her bed crying and choking. I picked her up and held her. She was making horrible rasping sounds as she tried to breathe. Suddenly she stopped breathing altogether. By now Roland was beside me. I threw Lesley into his arms screaming  “Do Something!”  He threw her back to me and rushed out of the trailer. Soon he was back saying he had called the hospital. They were sending a doctor to us. By now Lesley drew a breath now and then with a whistling, rasping sound; not even enough breath to cry.

She was scared and so were we. All we could do was hope the doctor came quickly. We didn’t know what else to do. By the time he finally knocked on the trailer door Les was a little better, breathing now, and had fallen asleep in her bed.

The doctor woke her up and examined her. “A case of croup,”  he said. “The air is dry plus the altitude. If she has another spell take her into the hot shower and let her breathe the steam.”

Lesley never did have another attack of croup but I had many attacks of guilt thinking about all the times she asked for water on that trip and we only offered her juice, saving the water for the car engine.

This experience solidified our future plans. It was in Bakersfield that we made a final decision on where to live and bring up our family. But not until we had breakfast in the morning and knew our precious girls we’re OK.

NOTE:  The road we traveled in 1953 was called The Ridge Route until it came to Fort Tejon, where the Grapevine Grade started. In 1947 this steep and curvy road was studied by surveyors and a new freeway was planned but it wasn’t completed until 1960. Today, this newer and better highway is used by tens of thousands of big-rig trucks carrying goods from Canada to Mexico and anywhere in between.   (See “Grapevine Grade” on google).


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