In the Flow
I can't comment on what goes in in the heads of the thousands of drivers who take on the length of California Interstate 5 each day, only what goes on in mine. We are joined by common purpose, and yet seem to have nothing in common other than that we're getting in each others' way.
And we hate the trucks.
How we hate the trucks! The presumptuousness of them, as bad as the much-maligned MUNI buses at home. The trucks act as if they own the road -- particularly the stretch of I-5 running from the junction at Highway 152 (Pacheco Pass) and the Grapevine -- and even though they probably do own it by virtue of their travelling it daily, would it be so wrong for them to act at least as benevolent landlords with us as cooperative tenants?
Do they have to pass each other at 62 miles per hour, forcing us to go from a comfortable 85 (sorry CHP) to 61 in the space of a few hundred feet? Given that they are undoubtedly very aware of the consequences of their actions, can they then allow us acknowledgement of our anger? If we wave our arms and/or make pointed gestures at them, shouldn't they at least glance at us?
They do not. Because they do not care. At all.
To the long-haul trucker, automobile drivers are no more significant than tumbleweeds or a spilled load of tomatoes. We're something they cannot allow to get between them and their pre-determined arrival time. Since none of them have the luxury of a Burt Reynolds-driven Trans Am as an escort, they have to dodge the obstacles on their own.
These are the thoughts that could possibly race around in one's mind as he navigates the 240 miles of I-5 between Santa Nella and Castaic. Perhpas mose pointedly when he realizes that waving your arms after passing the 37th 18-wheeler to pull out and pass at 62 miles per hour is essentially useless and a waste of neuron firings. So is passing said truck before it's completely out of the fast lane, as an indication of your displeasure at their behind-the-wheel decisions. Once again: they don't care.
Does the tiny black woman driving the Toyota Avalon at close to 100 mph care? As she weaves in and out of traffic, invisible from behind, save for the sides of the rims of her enormous sunglasses, is she thinking about her impact on the members of the I-5 community? When she cut off that team of youth soccer players in their rented van, forcing them to brake, did she glance up into her rearview and think, "Oops! Sorry!" I'll never know.
By that time, a more pressing question forms: where do the people who work at the gas station/convenience store/Subway at exit 269 actually live? The complex, alone at the end of its exit, seems miles away from the nearest town. And yet, there at the counter, as I wait for my 6-inch Veggie Delight (extra cheese, lettuce, tomatoes, olives, oil and vinegar on 9-grain bread), a woman who is arriving for work is telling Candy, the Assistant Manager, that she thinks her place was broken into the other night. "The front window was busted. Someone broke in," she said.
From where? Did someone drive 50 miles just to break into her house? And if there's crime out here, where nobody lives, what does that mean for those of us who live in cities, piled on top of each other with easy access to each others' valuables?
No, I'm serious. Where do they live? What's the mathematical formula that determines the probability of getting a job at the gas station/convenience store/Subway in the middle of nowhere if you live equally in the middle of nowhere, or, I guess, the exact same middle of nowhere? Is there a large applicant pool, or do the complex owners just draw a circle on a map and then see how many qualified applicants reside within that circle?
At mile 175, I decide that yes, I am a fine country-western singer. You can hardly hear the difference in the vocals I am adding to the Derailers' third album. They would be well-served by employing me to provide harmonies for their next release. That I can do this while 50 ounces of water reminds me that it would like very much to get out of my body, thank you, makes it all the more impressive.
Am I alone in wondering why Mr. Harris chose to build his valley resort one exit away from the massive slaughterhouse outside Coalinga? I have been driving this road for 23 years and I have never once found Harris Ranch, more accurately, the blob of gas stations across I-5 from Harris Ranch, to not be foul-smelling. Who, once they'd gotten ahold of the weird concept that they're going to go get pampered 75 miles from Fresno, thinks it's okay to emerge from your spa treatment only to encounter a snootful of slaughterhouse?
At 4:07 I pass Magic Mountain, indicating that I have enterered Los Angeles' orbit. On the advice of Roger A. Hunt, I tune to AM 980, where they have "traffic on the ones." This is no Kathy for KCBS in the studio looking online. They've got guys in helicopters checking out the 405, looping down to the 710 and the 605, then looking at the 91 before heading back up to see what's happening on the Hollywood Freeway. I listen intently, relieved to find that I have missed a sigalert in Castaic by 5 minutes.
For reasons still unclear, I feel like I am protecting myself from traffic by listening to 980 "traffic on the ones." I am not. When the flow slows to a crawl outside Glendale, there is nothing I can do, other than shift to survival mode and try to stay sane, pleased to know that the answer to "what's worse than traffic?" is "driving six hours and then arriving at the north end of Los Angeles at 4:07 on a Thursday afternoon."
Meanwhile, the eye in the sky is telling me that the 5 is moving well for this time of day. I look around at other drivers. Los Angeles, I decide, is the future, whereas San Francisco is the past. I see no quaint army of Prius's driven by white women with short hair and plastic-framed glasses. L.A. freeways are full of people trying to get through the day, shooting into gaps when they can, enduring. Brown-skinned, black-skinned, Asian, white, all are unperterbed by the fact that they are travelling at 15 miles per hour on a road designed for 65. They do this every day.
I am not of them, unfortunately, and after 90 minutes I begin to lose my cool. Nothing in the world, save for the Antelope Valley, is more disheartening than the stretch of I-5 between downtown L.A. and the 91 near Disneyland. It's less than 30 miles, but usually takes more than hour to travel, giving you plenty of time to enjoy the City of Industry, Santa Fe Springs and their attendant landscape of low-lying industrial buildings. "If I can just get to the 91," I think, shifting into Orange County mode, "I'll be home free."
At Carmenita Road I think, as I always think when passing Carmenita Road, "This is where Dad worked when we first moved to California." At the sign for Buena Park I think, "We stayed at a Holiday Inn in Buena Park that first week in 1976."
There we were, wide-eyed in the way that only people who've spent their entires lives in the Northeast, coming to Southern California for the first time, can be, a family of five with kids aged 13, 10 and 5, pointing out the palm trees and swimming in the hotel pool in mid-March. It was amazing. This year it will be 31 years ago and I'll be 4 years older than my dad was when we moved.
Roger A. Hunt lives in his old neighborhood. At 6:30 I turn onto his street, remind myself to park in front of the house next to his parents' house, not his parents' house, and take a deep breath of nostalgia. Today the Jawa and Sandra Bullock arrive via Jet Blue. Tomorrow we'll go to Disneyland.