Drive Capsule: Retracing a Century-Old Southern California Journey Today

Seeking out Southern California’s past in our long-term QX50.

Aaron GoldWriterBrandon LimPhotographer

"Southern California is easily the motorist's paradise over all other places on this mundane sphere. ... The matchless climate and the ever-increasing mileage of fine roads, with the endless array of places worth visiting, insure the maximum of service and pleasure to the fortunate owner of a car, regardless of its name-plate or pedigree. "—Thomas Murphy, On Sunset Highways (1915).

Set against the backdrop of a nascent California, the century-old tome On Sunset Highways glorifies the magic of car travel in the days when it was more novelty than necessity. While leafing through it, I became fascinated by Murphy's fascination with my adopted hometown of Los Angeles and set out to retrace one of his journeys to see how much of the Golden State he depicted back in 1915 still survives. Standing in for the brass-era car he drove would be our Four Seasons long-term Infiniti QX50.

Murphy wrote of "leaving the city by the Broadway Tunnel and pursuing the broad curves of Pasadena Avenue to Orange Grove." The tunnel is long gone, as is most of Fort Moore Hill it burrowed through—it was leveled in 1949 to make way for the Hollywood Freeway. Fort Moore Hill could fill an article of its own, having served as a garrison, graveyard, trendy neighborhood, and schoolyard. It was also rumored to conceal both buried treasure and a colony built by ancient lizard people (no, really). Today it's home to the freshly restored Fort Moore Pioneer Memorial, featuring an 80-foot waterfall reactivated in 2019 after 42 years of drought.

Pasadena Avenue—now Figueroa Street—winds through Highland Park, an old neighborhood full of wood-framed houses that would have been unremarkable in Murphy's time. It's a forgotten corner of Los Angeles, short on glitz but with a comfortable, lived-in feel. I'm catching my first glimpse of Murphy's California, and the past doesn't seem quite so far away.

The QX50 and I roll over the 1912 Colorado Street Bridge, an achingly beautiful concrete arch affair that curves gracefully above the Arroyo Seco. As I drive past Pasadena's magnificent City Hall, I wonder how Murphy could have missed this California Mediterranean masterpiece in his book—and then I realize that it wasn't built until 1927. To Murphy, this famous landmark is still a decade in the future.

I follow Murphy's route to Foothill Boulevard. "Here," he wrote, "we came into the first open country. ... To the left rose the rugged bulk of Mount Wilson, and peak after peak stretched away before us to the white summit of Old Baldy. ... Blue-gray cumulus clouds rolled above the mountains, occasionally obscuring Old Baldy's white pate and showing many entrancing phases of light and color." Today these once-open lands have given way to sweet suburbia, and Mount Baldy is obscured not by clouds but by a Denny's with a giant faux windmill on top. Foothill Boulevard is part of old Route 66, and on most days its roadside kitsch is a source of bemusement. Today it is only an annoyance, an opaque shield between the present and the land of long-ago I've come to find.

"Out of Azusa for miles and miles the orange and lemon groves crowded up to the roadside, their golden globes glowing through the green shade of the leaves," Murphy wrote. "The air was heavy with the perfume of the blossoms." In the decades after Murphy's trip, the air would become heavy with smog, which would back up against the mountains and make these foothill communities nearly unlivable. California's draconian clean air laws put this to rights, but the citrus groves have moved upstate, and only a few spare trees remain.

The QX50's turbocharged engine is unaffected by the 6,000-foot altitude, but I have to marvel at the mechanical skill and intestinal fortitude it took to drive this high in Murphy's day. At 6,500 feet, even the pines start to give up—but Murphy didn't.

The motorist, Murphy wrote, "may pursue the even tenor of his way over the smooth, dustless, asphalted surface at whatever speed he may consider prudent, though the limit of thirty-five miles now allowed in the open country ... leaves little excuse for excessive speeding." As I wend my way east to Azusa, I'm wishing I could do a little excessive speeding, for there is little to look at on Baseline Road save houses and garden centers. I flip on the QX50's ProPilot Assist, which provides automatic braking (with or without the adaptive cruise activated) and lane centering. It's a good time to try it because Baseline Road has a traffic light every 10 feet, all seemingly in a constant state of turning red. Sensible motorists are whizzing along the nearby Foothill Freeway and enjoying an unencumbered view of the mountains. I begin to wonder if the past is really worth chasing.

After two excruciatingly boring hours, I come to San Bernardino, "a lively town of nearly twenty thousand people," as Murphy described it. "The town is well-built, with numerous handsome public buildings." Today's San Bernardino (population 217,000) bears the scars of 1950s urban renewal and 1970s urban decay, its downtown lined with block after block of bleak-looking concrete boxes. The Carousel Mall ("Many Stores to Serve You!") stands empty and abandoned, but the parking lot of the courthouse across the street is jam-packed.

My drive is becoming downright depressing, so I decide to try Murphy's side trip to Lake Arrowhead, elevation 4,000 feet and a hell of a drive in Murphy's day. "A well-engineered road leads up its slopes," he wrote. "The grades are fairly heavy ... there are many 'hairpin' curves and the road often runs along precipitous declivities. ... We had many magnificent views of the wide plain beneath. ... Frequently there was scarce a shrub between the road and a sheer precipice—a downward glance gave some of our passengers a squeamish feeling. ... The day was warm and the engine sizzled a good deal, but, fortunately, there are means of replenishing the water at frequent intervals."

This windmill-adorned Denny's obscures what was once a magnificent view of open land and Mount Baldy, at 10,046 feet the highest point in Los Angeles County.

Today, State Route 18 is a four-lane highway, and the biggest danger facing the modern motorist is a Prius hogging the left lane. Still, the sharp curves and spectacular views make it a joy all its own. Although the QX50 isn't exactly a hot rod, it knows its way around a curvy road. I select Sport mode, which tightens up the steering and gets the CVT to do a passable imitation of a geared transmission, then open up the QX50's massive panoramic sunroof and its throttle. I can't say the Infiniti is a thrill ride, but I'm able to make very rapid progress away from the gloom of the valley below.

Past Crestline, the road narrows and winds through towering rocks, huge pines, and clouds that blow straight up the mountainside and over the road. Murphy must have enjoyed this same scenery, though I can't imagine he could ever imagine my mile-a-minute pace. But when I arrive in Lake Arrowhead, instead of the lakefront pines that greeted Murphy and his party, I find the view blocked by houses and a shopping plaza. The best view of the lake is a narrow sliver between a McDonald's and a real estate office.

I hop back into the Infiniti and follow Murphy's path along Arrowhead Road, which now, as in Murphy's time, is aptly known as the Rim of the World Highway. The scenery is spectacular. The QX50's turbocharged engine is unaffected by the 6,000-foot altitude, but I have to marvel at the mechanical skill and intestinal fortitude it took to drive this high in Murphy's day. At 6,500 feet, even the pines start to give up—but Murphy didn't.

I round a curve, and suddenly Big Bear Lake appears in front of me. It's a startling sight, this massive body of water nearly 7,000 feet above sea level. The lake was created when a dam was built in 1884 to trap snowmelt for irrigation. "In contemplating its rugged natural surroundings and the splendid groves of pines that line its shores," Murphy wrote, "we quite forget that it is man-made; it seems almost as much a child of the ages as Klamath or Tahoe." The QX and I putter slowly around the lake, and although the town of Big Bear has grown a bit since his time, I find that Murphy and I are finally on the same page.

I drop down Route 18 back to civilization, marveling that Arrowhead and Big Bear can be so close to the city yet a world away. I'm headed for Riverside, which Murphy describes as "one of the Meccas of California which every tourist must visit." I credit this description to his flowery prose, as every Angeleno knows, even without visiting, that Riverside is a dump. But then I arrive and marvel at the classic museum buildings and churches that stand elbow to elbow with a magnificent midcentury modern library (soon to become the Cheech Marin Center for Chicano Art, Culture, and Industry), all surrounded by lovely wood-frame homes. Mecca, indeed.

Mission Inn: "One visit will not suffice," he said. "It will be long ere he has explored the interior of the great rambling building to his satisfaction, from the curious collection of bells on the roof to the dim mysteries of its cloistered chapel." I've learned to allow for a little exaggeration, but this time Murphy is guilty of understatement. The Mission Inn is still in business, and it's twice as magnificent as Murphy made it out to be.

The hotel, originally known as the Glenwood Cottage, welcomed its first guest in 1876. Frank Miller took it over from his father in 1880, and at the turn of the century he transformed it into a grand hotel. He continued to expand it for the next three decades, filling out an entire city block with a fabulous mishmash of styles—Spanish, Mediterranean, even Asian—and filling it with fabulous art and hundreds of mission bells. The St. Francis Chapel, added in 1931, is built around a massive gold-leaf-covered reredos that Miller bought sight unseen from Mexico, and it features Tiffany stained-glass windows signed by Louis Tiffany himself.

I check in for the night and enjoy a fabulous rib-eye at the on-site steakhouse (when they offer the chocolate soufflé, which takes half an hour to prepare, say yes) then retire to my room in the 1903 Mission Wing. (Murphy stayed in the "new" Spanish wing, built in 1914.) The guest rooms retain their period architecture but feature modern amenities. The hotel offers a free guided tour, and I didn't want to miss an inch. Murphy was right—one visit to this treasure-trove isn't enough.

Well fed and rested, it's time for me to return to my own time. What was once a long day's drive during Murphy's era will take me just over an hour on the freeway. I turn on ProPilot, set the adaptive cruise to 70, turn up the Bose stereo, and tune out the world. The next time I travel, I'm going back to the past.

The Mission Inn Hotel & Spa
Duane's Prime Steaks and Seafood
3649 Mission Inn Ave. Riverside, CA
92501
Tel: 951-784-0300
MissionInn.com

Our 2019 Infiniti QX50 Essential AWD
ON SALE Now
BASE PRICE $46,145/$59,585 
(base/as tested)
ENGINE 2.0-liter VC-turbo 
DOHC 16-valve I-4/268 hp 
@ 5,800 rpm, 280 lb-ft 
@ 1,600-4,800 rpm
TRANSMISSION Continuously variable
LAYOUT 4-door, 5-passenger, 
front-engine, AWD SUV
EPA MILEAGE 24/30 mpg (city/hwy)
L x W x H 184.7 x 74.9 x 66.0 in
WHEELBASE 110.2 in
WEIGHT 3,857 lb
0-60 MPH 6.5 sec (est)
TOP SPEED 130 mph (est)
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