More than half of Fort Ord in on the coastal side of the hills. The weather is mild almost year round. I have seen temperatures in the high thirties one winter, and sometimes the summer temps will climb into the low eighties. But most of the time, it is a very comfortable place to live. When we left on convoys or other missions, it almost always meant driving east to catch one of the major arteries to go north or south, or one of the state highways that went east. Fort Ord is on the coast, so in order to go west, you need a boat.
There are three major highways that run north and south through California (California is a LONG state, not a lot wider than average, but it is LONG), 101, 99, and I-5. 101 runs between the coastal hills and a long ridge of mountains and rolling hills. I-5 and 99 are located on the east side of those hills in the San Joaquin Valley. The Valley is a hot place in summer and a very warm place the rest of the year. It happens to be some of the most fertile land in North America and provides a huge percentage of the nation's fruit and veggies. But this isn't a geography lesson.
When our missions took us south to places like L.A. or San Diego, we used I-5. When we went south and east, like to Riverside, Yermo, or Irwin, we would use 101 to Paso Robles and then cross over to 99. At Bakersfield we turned east and crossed over Tehachapi pass, and then dropped down into the Mojave Desert. So in the space of a few hours you move from balmy coastal breezes and pleasant temperatures to a blast furnace. Smack in the middle of that furnace is the town of Barstow.
Barstow probably has some things other than Fort Irwin that is boasts about, but I have no idea what they are. Well wait a sec, they do have a huge rail yard there and close to that is one huge McDonald's made out of several train cars. But that's about all I know about Barstow. Except that it is a hot, dusty, unfriendly town that has a tradition of making life hard for GIs.
Fort Irwin is a National Training Center and units come from all over the USA to study desert operations and warfare. Irwin has a complete enemy army there; they have their own uniforms, and they have modified their equipment and vehicles to look like the stuff the visiting units would be likely to see in deserts on the far side of the globe.
Whenever we had a mission to Irwin, we would stay in Barstow because Irwin is a desert warfare training ground and they don't provide much in the way of comfort for visiting truckers. Well, maybe they do nowdays, but in the 80's, not so much. There was a Best Western across the highway from the big McDonald's where we usually tried to stay, they had a large field next to the motel where we could park all the trucks, and they had a pretty good coffee shop attached to the motel.
On one particularly hard trip we didn't get to the motel until almost midnight. We had number of rookies in the platoon and some of them had taken a more scenic route requiring the squad leaders and me to chase down the lost newbies and get them back in the fold. By the time the trucks were parked, the soldiers checked into their rooms, and we had time to think about food, it was after 1:00 am. I thought the coffee shop would be closed. They almost were, but they were happy to fire the grill back up and feed twenty or so hungry GIs.
I have written an piece about how I feel about tacos. I love tacos. But I have a low tolerance for the crud that places like Taco Bell peddle; I love REAL tacos. Southern California is full of both kinds of tacos and it always makes me smile when I see a plate of "real" tacos in a restaurant. And that night I saw a plate of real tacos being placed in front of one of my soldiers. They were wonderful-looking, accompanied by a side of refried beans with shredded cheese sprinkled on top, lots of lettuce and tomatoes, big corn tortillas fried crispy and looking just right. I ordered my plate with enthusiasm.
I sat in a booth with my two squad leaders and another of our NCOs, discussing the day's successes and failures and planning for the next day. The waitress brought out our dinners and all conversation stopped as we eagerly went to work on our food. The beans were delicious, the tomatoes fresh, the lettuce crisp and the tacos made just the way I love 'em. I was still chewing my first bite of taco and ready to take a second when a cockroach crawled up out of my taco. He stood there, as if challenging me for the rights to that beautiful chunk of food. His antennae wiggled and he shifted his feet in tiny steps. He didn't seem the least bit afraid.
"Looks like he's ready to fight you for that taco, boss!" Presswood could barely contain himself. Balais called the waitress over and pointed out the stand-off in progress. She acted mortified and grabbed my plate and ran back to the kitchen. I sat there with such mixed emotions. I was seriously considering eating the rest of my dinner. I mean, great tacos aren't that easy to find...and come on, I'd been eating in Army mess halls and field kitchens and foxholes and just about everywhere you could imagine all my adult life; I am sure I had ingested lots worse than whatever that little fella left behind.
The waitress and the night manager came out in full apologetic mode. They offered me another dinner on the house or whatever I needed. I passed. They promised me a free breakfast the next morning and wouldn't think of charging me for the two bites of beans and one bite of taco I had consumed of my dinner. Which was one thing we did agree on.
I went up to my room and finished my evening meal with some leftover MRE snack cake and crackers and peanut butter...washed down with a warm Dr Pepper. At that point I was too worn out and disappointed to care.
The next morning I got my free breakfast; I got an omelet and when it arrived at the table, both squad leaders, in what was obviously a well-planned move, went to work with their forks, pulling my food apart and searching for any "illegal aliens".
That turned out to be my last mission to Barstow. It was my last trip out Irwin road across the desert, past the rocks painted with messages and unit crests, into the loneliest looking Army post ever. Good