There is no road more thoroughly alive—more colorful, vigorous, unpretentious, and underappreciated—than the southern stretch of Highway 99 as it bisects the Central Valley from Modesto on down to Bakersfield.
The route marked out in the early 1900s along this corridor was initially paved with a single 15-foot-wide strip of concrete. As the region's farm economy burgeoned, the little road grew to link big cities with small, isolated agricultural towns like Hughson, Le Grand, Tulare, Selma, and Hilmar. In John Steinbeck's Grapes of Wrath, it is on Hwy. 99 that the fictional Joads travel, as did so many real-life Dust Bowl migrants looking for work in the fields. Today, hardly a nectarine, cotton ball, or walnut exits the Central Valley without being ferried up or down 99.
But the road has never ranked high on sightseers' agendas. Most people who drive Hwy. 99 these days do it because they have to—truck drivers delivering goods, people visiting relatives. As Joan Didion wrote in "Notes from a Native Daughter" 36 years ago, "99 would never get a tourist to Big Sur or San Simeon, never get him to the California he came to see."
This may be the key to its charm. Driving along Hwy. 99 today, you'll find a vibrant, unfussy, authentic California, a fitfully lovely landscape of almond orchards, mangy farmyards, rusty train works, peach trees, Depression-era hamburger stands, and Dairy Queens from more recent days. The highway passes some of the state's fastest-growing towns; with their handsome old Main Streets and messy, sprawling outskirts, they offer a rich array of attractions.