Once a year, the Golden State really does turn golden. OK, maybe twice a year. There are the poppies that bloom in the springtime, carpeting hillsides — hillsides that otherwise wither and die through the long, berating summers — with an orange magnificence that perfectly matches the paint on the Golden Gate Bridge. Those poppies are impressive, yes, and maybe the most golden of all the colors we get out here. Unless you count our state saltwater fish, the garibaldi, which is goldish-orange in color.
But that’s only part of it.
When you think of traditional fall colors, you may think only of the great Northeast: pumpkin patches, covered bridges and Martha Stewart lingering on the periphery like that crazy aunt who escaped from the attic. You may not put “fall colors” and “California” in the same thought. At least I didn’t when they said to “write a fall colors story.”
“All we got is yucca, sage and manzanita out here,” I whined. “And those don’t change colors except in fire season.”
Then I remembered the mighty Sierra Nevada, the mountain range that runs up and down the eastern edge of the state like a 500-mile granite spinal cord. Drive up Highway 395 from LA and you’ll see in the canyons of the Sierras brilliant flashes of orange, yellow and gold torching the hillsides like Norman Rockwell with a flame thrower.
So off I headed, north to the fall.
To get something interesting to drive, I called on my friends in the American Lancia Club, a good number of whom live in and around the Eastern Sierra. Kjell Nelin answered the call. He owns the cleanest, most drivable 1961 Lancia Flaminia I’ve ever seen outside of the Monterey Peninsula. You couldn’t ask for a more appropriate car name for flaming fall colors than a Flaminia. Kjell (pronounced “Shell”) was happy to spend a day exploring the aspens and canyons of his home town around Bishop. And the mechanical layout of the Flaminia was perfect for carving those canyons.
The powertrain is as well-balanced as any Ferrari of the same period, with the 120-hp 2.5-liter V6 mounted in front but behind the front axle. The driveshaft goes back to the rear-mounted transaxle, which sits forward of the rear axle line.
“So the weight distribution is where you want it,” Nelin said.
The disc brakes are also mounted inboard, to reduce unsprung weight. Suspension is a de Dion setup in back with double wishbones in front.
“The Aurelia (the Flaminia’s predecessor) had a sliding-pillar front suspension and this has twin A-arms like a modern car,” said Nelin. “It’s just beautiful, these castings.”
Inside and out, it looks barely used.
“Because this car has such low mileage, it’s never been restored,” Nelin said. “It’s taken on a little patina, it’s had a little bit of paintwork. This car was owned by people who took care of it its entire life.”
Indeed, it’s a beautiful time capsule of a car. And off we went to drive it.
First run would be up Rock Creek Canyon, which runs due west of Highway 395 from the mountain resort of Tom’s Place (good burgers and even better breakfast). Rock Creek Road shoots between Mount Huntington and Wheeler Ridge along the Rock Creek for which it was named. The creek feeds the Aspen and other trees that explode in color once a year for a few weeks.
The Flaminia is a joy to drive. The shifter works with neither protest nor ambiguity, the power feels like more than the listed 120 horses and the ease of piloting the beautiful carrosserie up into the mountains is surprising.
“I like to think of this as the kind of car that an Italian industrialist would buy for his mistress,” Nelin muses. “Not that it’s a girly car, but it’s so easy to drive. It’s just a pleasure. It’s just a wonderfully turning car.”
Unlike some classics which, when you get into them and behind the wheel, offer all the smoothness of a Ryder Rental truck, the Flaminia was as smooth and balanced to drive as it looked like it would be. We scooted up to scenic Rock Creek Lake and the Rock Creek Lakes Resort and turned around.
Just before rejoining 395, we turned left onto Crowley Lake Road, which afforded views of Lake Crowley and its net of LA fishermen in their little aluminum boats catching farm-raised cutthroats and rainbow trout. Maybe the occasional German brown. We crossed Whiskey Creek and Hilton Creek, favorites of those fly fishermen who are good at avoiding snags in the tree line, and rejoined 395 to keep going north. You could no doubt see plenty of fall colors by going up, first Convict Lake Road and then Highway 203 to the giant ski town of Mammoth, turning north off 203 to take the Mammoth Scenic Loop to where it rejoins 395 well north of town. But we plied on ahead to the fabled June Lake Loop, where fall colors are as abundant as spots on a golden trout (the state freshwater fish).
The Loop consists of June, Gull, Silver and Grant lakes, to name the biggest. There are also waterfalls out at the west end. The parking lot at Silver Lake is a particularly scenic spot, if you have a camera and want to park your black Flaminia in front of the screaming yellow leaves.
If we’d had more time, we would have continued north to Highway 120, which leads to Tuolumne Meadows, one of the most scenic spots on Earth. We could have also gone back to 395 north to Lundy Lake and then, farther north, Virginia Lakes, the latter which sit at about 10,000 feet and are surrounded by spectacular orange- and red-rock-colored mountains spilling into the water all around.
But we didn’t have forever. You might. If you’re retired, or if you’ve been thinking about quitting that lousy job of yours and lighting out for the Territory, we suggest flying into LAX and renting a car. Ask the guy behind the desk where 395 is. Maybe he’ll know, maybe he won’t. Google Maps will know. It’s about a five- or six-hours drive to the trees. There are also commercial flights into Mammoth Yosemite Airport. So there is no excuse.
In the meantime, happy fall!