Nearing Bakersfield, the landscape has evidence of California’s other gold rush: rusting rigs alongside the route burrow into Southern California’s vast oil fields. Black gold was discovered here in the late 1800s, and Kern County, the southernmost along Hwy 99, still pumps more than some OPEC countries.
This is the setting of Upton Sinclair’s Oil!, which was adapted into the 2007 Academy Award–winning film, There Will Be Blood. In the 1930s the oil attracted a stream of ‘Okies’ – farmers who migrated out of the dusty Great Plains – to work the derricks. The children of these tough-as-nails roughnecks put the 'western' in country western by creating the ‘Bakersfield Sound’ in the mid-1950s, with heroes Buck Owens and Merle Haggard waving a defiant middle finger at the silky Nashville establishment.
Bakersfield is making moves to fancy-up like some of its valley neighbors, but downtown holds some real surprises in its upbeat mix of restored buildings and new restaurants, theaters and clubs.