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My yearly pilgrimage to California
It always happens.
Before a road trip, I’m excited.
The open road! The curves! The speed! The sights! The changing landscapes: Rolling hills, towering woods, dusty desert plains. The side quests along the way: Sketchy antique shops, random gas stations with $7 gas (Thanks Obama!), haunted motels that you zoom by in the hopes its spirits don’t hitch a ride.
It just feels more real than traveling by plane.
On an airplane we dissociate from the world. You numb your senses with two tiny whisky bottles and melatonin as you wrap your stylish neck pillow1 around you so that you can endure the 5 hour journey while your legs are pressed to the seat in front like toes on heels. In the act of trying to “just get through” flying, we rarely consider the marvelous reality that our sack of bones is moving at 500 mph through the sky! Imagine if Aristotle hopped on a plane–he would absolutely lose his Macedonian marbles.
But always, always, an hour into my road trip I whisper to myself: “I shouldn’t have done this.”
The memories of my hazards from previous journeys always fail to show up and tell me “no, please don’t do this again!” I forget the time that I decided to cross Oregon in one shot because of my very irrational quirk of not wanting anyone to pump my gas, or the time I drove in neutral through Berkeley because I had a leaky radiator and an overheated engine.
I’m doing this to myself. Again.
This time I was wiser and decided against speed running through Oregon like I would get a prize for it, and instead spent the night at my friend’s place in Bend, Oregon.
However, the longer I drove the more it became clear that I was veering into different lands altogether. At one of my bathroom stops, I saw a man and woman carrying their pistols holstered to their chest like they were sheriffs in sweats and leggings.
“Toto, we are not in Seattle anymore.”
I spent the night in Bend, which for some god forsaken reason had chosen to be the wettest, coldest, and smelliest version of itself. The stench in the air was one of soggy sweaters, soiled pants, and broken dreams. It smelt fermented and rancid. “Oh, it’s just the wildfires,” my friend informed me. Well, I thought fires smelled smoky–not like my 8th grade gym class clothes. But sure, Bend is pretty and next to a river, and scenic and all that.
The next day my final destination was San Francisco. An 8 hour drive. Not the worst, but I would have to break it down into 2-3 hour shifts to not go crazy. For a hot second earlier this year, I contemplated the idea of becoming a commercial truck driver. I thought that since I liked road trips, this would be the equivalent of a sleepy retail job where I would read all day (just audiobooks) and I would become the smartest person ever. At this point in the trip, I felt otherwise.
Something happened to the California driver. They’ve always been aggressive by nature. Impatient. Incessant. Impervious. But over the last few years they’ve gone from annoying wasps to killer hornets. And the rain, rather than dimming their inner Ricky Bobby, seems to bring it out in spades. Speaking of dimming, they love their high beams. I felt like I was living The Weeknd’s “Blinding Lights” on the road.
At times it felt like the 1998 F1 Belgian Gran Prix. I found myself in a sea of Toyota Camrys and Ford 150s racing past me. They got ahead of me just enough so that I fell into their blind spot. Then, they merged onto my lane, blinkers optional.2 The car behind rushes to leave no room between us–it breathes down my neck. Out of frustration, I tap my break to let them know I want them to keep a distance. It’s the equivalent of me sticking my ass out in front of a dude so that they feel really uncomfortable about their masculinity.
I make it to San Francisco and spend the night in the Presidio, which may be the sleepiest neighborhood I’ve even been in. It was so quiet that I could hear my heart beat. There was a roundabout next to the friends’ house I was staying at. It was littered with Fisher-Price play things, along with balls of all sizes and colors. The lawn of the roundabout was a communal living room. It was idyllic.
The next day, I steered towards southern California. When traveling from Northern California to Southern California you have three choices: The scenic route (Pacific Coast Highway), the semi-scenic route (101), and the “I don’t care about aesthetics” route (I-5). I did care about aesthetics, but I cared more about avoiding LA traffic on my way to Redlands, California.
The I-5 in California is a funny thing. In this two lane road, I was sandwiched between cargo trucks like I was taking a picture with Shaq and Yao Ming. The intermittent yellow lines that divide the road serve as a game of dare. Do you dare to move into the opposite lane to see if you can leapfrog the car in front of you? I was perfectly fine going 65mph, but for many cars big and small, the thrill of conquest motivated them to leapfrog me, even if they probably scared themselves shitless a couple times when they misjudged the speed of the Walmart truck barreling towards them.
My final stop was LA. Drivers in LA helped me understand why cocaine is a mainstay in these lands. If California drivers are aggressive, people in LA drive like Keanu Reeves in the movie Speed. The six lane highways give you six opportunities to drive like a jackass. I saw in a two hour span no less than five cars merging across four lanes non stop like they were in Mario Kart so as to not miss their exit. There is not a single neuron in my brain that will ever comprehend such red shell recklessness.
I did this to myself. And I’ll probably do this to myself again.
Yes, I’m mildly traumatized from my driving journey this time around. Perhaps because I’m getting older and the thought “I don’t want to die before I’ve really fallen in love” has more gravity than years past. I’m more cautious now because I feel like I’m at the beginning of my second life. But I won’t stop these roadtrips. I’m far too romantic and consumed by curiosity.
I love the idea of driving through towns, of taking tangents away from the main roads. I love seeing the pockets of the United States I don’t see in the news. I love those interactions that clearly reveal that my reality is only a sliver of perception in the universe of all our experiences.
And I’m curious while I drive. I see a big hill: Who’s been up there? Is there a trail? It looks like it’s just a big mole hill, where does the wildlife sleep? I see a lake: What’s beneath it? How deep is it? Do lakes all have Loch Ness monster like creatures too self-aware of their controversial nature to pursue fame?
All these questions while I zoom by at 65mph.
I know I’ll do this again. And I will grumble. And I will absolutely love it.
Special thanks to:, , , and for your help with this essay!
Photo of the Week
Me while driving. It speaks for itself.
Until next time!
No such thing as a stylish neck pillow.
My anthropological study has concluded that over 80% of drivers that merged into my lane without signaling were men with beards. *touches beard.* Damn.