I went on a day trip to the City of Pines, which was around a 700-km drive from my house. I drove going up there and then from the city to Victoria, Tarlac. After that, my dad took over the driving duties. It was day trip with Tita Ising and Tito Sibing with us.
Anyway, this trip was my first time to go to Baguio City with me behind the wheel. As everyone who drives up knows, there are three main routes to Baguio from the lowlands: Kennon Road, which ascends from Rosario, La Union. It was out of my options because it's too dangerous to use that road in the rainy season. The second route is via Naguilian Road, which makes my trip a lot longer because the beginning of the ascent is in Bauang, La Union (further north). The last route, and the one I took, was the Marcos Highway, now known as the Aspiras-Palispis Highway. This 47-km road starts from Agoo, La Union and is touted as the safest route among the three.
As I drove up and then down (on the same day; we were in Baguio City for about five hours) the Marcos Highway, I think I've learned a few things...
- Avoid distractions at all costs. Marcos Highway is peppered with hairpin turns and steep inclines. If this isn't challenging enough, I had to drive up while buses and cargo trucks crawled their way up the highway. It's easy to be distracted by the view; to be frustrated because of the slow vehicles in front; and to be worried because my car didn't have enough power to climb at a slow pace. There's absolutely no way I could take my hands off the steering wheel and my eyes off the road! One wrong move, and it would have been a long drop into the valley.
- (Mental) preparation is key. Driving up any of the roads leading to Baguio requires confidence in driving. In my case, I've been driving up and down Jamboree Road, a shortcut to UPLB that is famous for its steep and narrow roads and the hairpin turns. I've also driven from Lemery to Tagaytay; the road going up is also quite narrow and it gets seriously foggy in the afternoon. And then there's the coastal road between Lobo and Batangas City. All these adventures have mentally prepared me for this epic one. They gave me the confidence that Marcos Highway is tough but I could go to Baguio via this route.
- Always look at the long view. On straight city roads, one would think that there's no need to look as far away as the horizon because the car adjacent to mine or the car approaching me is all that I could see. However, learning to see as far down the bendy road as possible along Marcos Highway has helped me make decisions on whether I'd pass the slow and big vehicle in front of me or I'd stay put and drive behind it til the next opportunity to pass.
- Cutting at corners is dangerous. Yes, this is almost common sense... especially when following large vehicles because the view of the opposite side of the road is seriously diminished. As my dad used to say when I was learning how to drive, "When in doubt, abort mission." This instruction became very useful for me.
- Steep climbs with hairpin turns require cars with strong engines. I drove up with a four passengers and their bags. The added weight from the passengers made my car struggle in some spots, particularly when I was behind trucks that stalled on ascents that ended with hairpins. The vehicles that passed on the opposite lanes were mostly SUVs. Bigger engine, faster car.
- Listening to one's gut is better than listening to the GPS voice. On our way down from Baguio, the disembodied voice of the GPS kept telling me to take U-turns that would lead me to Kennon Road, the path I was specifically avoiding. Good thing my dad was there beside me and we figured out how to get out of the city without much help from the stubborn GPS.
- Assess the situation and decide fast. Driving on a curvy and steep road is not the time to have analysis paralysis! If a truck stalled in front of me, I need to make sure that I have adequate power in the engine to crawl up after a sudden stop. But one thing I'm proud of during this trip is that I was no longer squealing in fright when the truck-suddenly-stalls event happens.
- Ascending is not the time to pinch on the pennies. I learned that using the ECONOMY mode in a car lessens fuel consumption by maintaining a low idling speed. But that doesn't help on ascents and descents. A heavy foot on the accelerator is needed... but not so much on the brake pedal because stepping on it for an extended time might lead to a malfunctioning braking system.
- Driving this road is not a race. Ah, yes. Some people drive up Marcos Highway to see if they can beat the average time it takes to climb it. Some people are willing to risk overtaking on blind curves to get a natural high. I didn't have any of those motivations... maybe because it's my first drive there and I haven't mastered the highway yet or maybe because I was just too intimidated by the prospect of making a wrong move. So, if I wasn't sure about the safety of overtaking at a turn, I often chose to hang back.
- Don't get caught there at night. The road offers great views of La Union, all the way to the West Philippine Sea... during the day. But at night, I bet that this highway is most likely blanketed in pitch black because I couldn't see street lamps. Maybe there are some but they're sparsely placed. Given the zigzags on this road, I don't think I'd like to be driving there at night. Thus, a trip to Baguio, with me driving, means a curfew that is much earlier than Cinderella's: I have to start my descent at around 5pm so that I'd be back in Rosario an hour later... yes, I took a shortcut.
With the TPLEX, SCTEX, and NLEX providing a shorter driving time to the City of Pines, I think I'll find myself going up there again at some point. Driving on Marcos Highway for the first time was a challenge but I think that I'll get used to it in time.
I just don't want to think about the traffic jams and the lack of parking spaces in the heart of the city.