To tour two-lane California Highway 33 from top to bottom -- a 300-mile drive that begins south of Stockton, passes through the San Joaquin Valley’s west side, crosses steep coastal mountains and ends in Ventura – is to tour what might be called the real California. More photos >>> (Michael Robinson Chavez / Los Angeles Times)

California is laced with fabled roadways: Highway 1, the Golden State, El Camino Real, Route 66 and many others. Some follow the footpaths of padres, the trails of wagon trains. And some are monuments to the Freeway Age and California's bearhug embrace of Car Culture.

State Highway 33 will not be confused with any of these asphalt icons. Nobody's likely to write a song about Highway 33, although in one stretch it does cut through Buck Owens country. Nor will a literary anthology be built around it, as was done not long ago with the Central Valley's Highway 99.

Still, to travel this two-lane from top to bottom -- a 300-mile drive that begins just below the San Francisco Bay delta, passes through the San Joaquin Valley's west side, crosses steep coastal mountains and ends at Ventura, where Highway 33 disappears into the 101 -- is to tour what might be called the real California.

Through a bug-splattered windshield, it's all there to see:

Improbably far-flung subdivisions, their outward march stalled only by the mortgage mess; rolling croplands crisscrossed by irrigation canals; a young patriot's grave, the four flags at his tombstone fluttering in a hot valley wind; a hulking new federal prison, rising from cantaloupe fields; West Hills oil rigs, pumping furiously in a new boom; panoramic views of unspoiled high country; and, finally, the Pacific at sunset, 5,000 feet below.

Comparatively few people drive Highway 33; even fewer make the run from end to end. Highway 1, dancing along the coast, offers better scenery, and Interstate 5, a more-or-less parallel route, greater speed and efficiency. No, this is a workaday road, a highway for short-haul truckers and agricultural sales reps, for convoys of harvesters, vans shuttling prisoners and even the occasional lone tractor.

It is a good road for someone seeking to reacquaint himself with a vexing old friend: California. Sometimes, the best way to make sense of this state is simply to get out into it, to take a look around and refresh the eyes. And, here and there, to make some stops along the way.

In Patterson, a tidy farm town set against the dry, rolling foothills that form the western edge of the San Joaquin Valley, land broker Shane P. Donlon stood before a color-coded map in his roadside office and pointed to a particular swath of property. Nearly 1,000 acres, it extended west from the town almost to Interstate 5.

"The last time you were here," he said, referring to a similar drive-by conversation about 10 years ago, "this was all farmland."

And now it's covered with houses, nearly 4,000 of them, built on streets with names like Placer Creek and Buckskin Way and Heartland and sold to long-haul Bay Area commuters heading west through the crowded Altamont Pass each day, defying what once was presumed to be a geographical barrier to sprawl.

Of course, the mortgage crisis and $4.50 gas have blindsided these newcomers, and now there are foreclosure signs, it seems, on almost every block. So it has always gone in California, where the historic pattern of growth is to lurch forward in boom, stagger backward in bust, then repeat.

In turn, there are tensions for those who lived in Patterson before the century-old farm town was sucked into the Bay Area orbit. At a downtown diner, an old guy the waitress called Charley was complaining to another local, a heavily tattooed younger man wearing shorts: "They build those big houses and bring their juvenile-delinquent kids with them. They bring their dope with them . . ."

On the counter sat a copy of the Patterson Irrigator. In a letter to the editor, a resident complained about the recent Patterson High graduation. Newer elements in town, it seemed, had blasted air horns throughout the ceremony.

"I was also appalled," the aggrieved correspondent went on, "by the remarks of the principal when he pointed out that graduates had come from many different places. . . . As San Jose and Oakland were named, the whoops and hollers from the audience grew progressively louder, and gang signs were flashed by several people in the audience around where I was sitting."

She concluded: "Some changes need to be made."

Back on the highway and across the valley floor, through apricot country, almond country, cantaloupe country. Crops are a way to measure both place and season here, as Ernest J. Finney observed in his novel "California Time": "The valley had no calendar. Time in California wasn't measured out in months; it was by crops. Spring meant strawberries, then the apricots, cherries, peaches, and it was summer. . . . Fall, still blazing hot, was cotton, persimmons, pomegranates . . ."

Near Santa Nella, at the San Joaquin Valley National Cemetery, the flat tombstone that marks the grave of Joshua Daniel Pickard stands out. It is one of the few festooned with flags and flowers in this remote, starkly beautiful cemetery.

Many of the gravestones are unadorned, the markers barely visible in the grass. A cemetery official explained: Flowers by policy are cleared from the grave sites every other Wednesday, and it's difficult for families and friends of the dead to make it out regularly to replace them. It's a long drive from most California cities.

Pickard, though, grew up in nearby Merced, and his grave receives a lot of visitors. He was 20 years old when he was killed by sniper fire in 2006, one week before Christmas. He also happens to be one of only two Iraq war dead buried here. Although veterans are eligible to be buried in national cemeteries like this one, most of the 500 or so Californians killed in the war so far are interred in private graveyards close to their hometowns.