After an ascent of a couple thousand feet, the road levels, relatively speaking, and begins undulating across the high-elevation plateau known as Kennedy Meadows. The land here is rolling grassland interspersed by evergreen stands and the odd hill or ridge. Not long ago, one of California's rampant summer wildfires scorched portions of the landscape, leaving broad swaths of trees standing starkly black and skeletal. In other places, the vegetation is untouched. There are scattered homes and a handful of local businesses, the most conspicuous of which is known as Grumpy Bear's, a great place to stop if it happens to be open when you happen to drive by. You'd be hard-pressed to stand at one building and hit any other with a rock, or a bullet for that matter. People don't move to Kennedy Meadows to have to deal with other people.
After 20 or so miles, the road crosses the south fork of the Kern River and starts up the mountains again. This is the final leg to Sherman Pass, which at about 9,200 vertical feet is normally shrouded in snow some six to eight months out of the year. Today, though, is our lucky day. Despite the Road Closed sign at the bottom of the hill, all roads are open, including our intended outlet, a winding back mountain road to the small mountain village of Kernville, some 70 miles distant.
Until today, I'd never been on this section of road, so to me it is as pristine as this wilderness must have been when crusty explorers like John Muir first set foot into it. The road becomes extremely narrow and winding, and the quality of the pavement in places makes it evident that this area sees a great deal of cold weather. Nonetheless, the RS4 remains planted and tears through the bends with great aplomb, partly due to its Quattro all-wheel traction, partly because of its Dynamic Ride Control, which regulates oil flow between dampers in a diagonal arrangement to offset squat, dive, and roll in hard turns or under aggressive braking and acceleration. Similar systems were banned from championship rallying because they were so devastatingly effective.
Kernville, Calif., population 1,860, is one of handful of small communities situated around the perimeter of Lake Isabella, a man-made reservoir and popular recreation area at the confluence of the north and south forks of the Kern River. Just outside the town limits, we stop at a small establishment known as the Fairview Market, at the edge of the river, for a short rest. A nice lady named Lin behind the Fairview counter confirms that, yes, we are indeed on our intended route, and we continue, proceeding through Kernville to Highway 178, the main thoroughfare that cuts through the river valley and dumps you back out onto Highway 395 via Walker Pass, elevation 5,250.
We bypass 395 to follow the eastbound 178 for roughly 40 miles before reaching our final checkpoint: the Trona Pinnacles, a series of jagged tufa formations that poke out of the desert floor at the edge of Searles Valley. This is where I grew up, and it's where the real desert begins; the border of Death Valley itself, the iconic swath of land that to many personifies hell on earth, is not 50 miles to the north.
The road out to the Pinnacles is in pretty good shape, but it's not paved and takes you at a perpendicular tangent seven miles off the highway. It's slow-going in a car-trucks are better out here-but well worth it when you finally get there. The scenery is spectacular; in the last 50 years, dozens, if not hundreds, of commercials and feature films have been shot against this otherworldly backdrop. Simpson, who apparently has never been to a real desert before, busies himself shooting the cracked hardpan; gently I remind him there's a car to shoot, too.
It is pitch black by the time we finish; stars shimmer brightly in a chaotic sprawl across the desert sky. Saddle weary but still buzzing with excitement, I ease the Audi down the last mile of dusty road back toward the highway, and "civilization" as the city folk call it. At this point, my parents' house is literally right over the hill, only about 15 miles away. I'm sure Mom has something good cooking on the stove, and I know for a fact Dad's got a cold beer waiting in the kegerator. But, sadly, we cannot stop for the night. It's still the middle of the week, and there are photos to be picked, deadlines to be met.
Simpson and I take solace in the fact that we've still about 160 miles between us and the city, and after all, we're still in an RS4. Pedal down.