For twelve days over the last two weeks, Betty and I crisscrossed parts of northern California visiting family, old friends, new friends, birthday partying, reading poems, looking at art and working on our movie. Since we moved from the region in 2005, some things have not changed. One of the most obvious is the traffic.
During rush hours commuter cars jostle and crawl like ancient beetles thronged on a lemming-like quest. Horns honk, brakes squeak, plastic lids to coffee bought at Starbucks fly out windows and careen around like flying saucers. There are cell phones jammed up against ear lobes even though it’s against the law to jabber on those things while driving. People shoot you the finger and stick out their tongues and flap their arms like great speckled birds turned angry at intervening species who alter a migratory flight plan. Ouch, it’s California.
And it’s not just California; it’s Detroit and Denver and Phoenix, oh my, it’s definitely Phoenix, it’s D C. Even little old Boise has its moments acting like its big sisters surrounded by the claws of suburbanism, choking the roads at 7 A M and 4 P M.
But California is like a big winter freeze at those hours, every little bump and grind on the freeway causing people to slam on the brakes in fear? Shock? They gawk and brake lights rule the day the way they blare. Bright red eruptions like the hints of death and maiming that lurk beneath the tires and the hedgerows of nerium oleader that choke the roadsides.
In Sonoma County the roads are either battered like last year’s black-necked stilt nest or are under renovation in a decades late acquiescence that there are more cars than roads. All the 15 years Betty and I domiciled in Sonoma County, we railed about the inadequate roads. My northern California friends cooly reminded me that better roads, more roads, brought more people. I felt as if I was a seer lost in the wilderness as I saw the county grow and swell with folk as the roads stayed static. Like air corridors in the Pacific flyway crammed with geese and passerines, the early morning rides of forty miles often took two hours. Ditto at nightfall and of course all that rapid-fire brake light mania. The roads didn’t grow at all but the population did. Everyone looking for the cheaper, securer nest.
Between the Sierra foothills and Sacramento, four lanes wide, rarely does anyone move along in the HOV lane. Car after car after car with only one occupant. If I had to hazard a thirty-mile drive five days a week into the mouth of that monster, I think I’d find someone who wanted to ride with me. Save money, save time. But we are curious creatures , us Yanks, with our desires…no, our demands…to keep our flimsy independence in tow. As if sitting single behind the wheel of the car is the best way to manifest our independence.
But then again, don’t get me wrong, I love to drive, and will do so even in the teeth of evidence that flight or rail makes more sense. Like my fellow road warriors, don’t tell me what to do.
And driving does have its joys. Discovery, discovery, discovery. Mossy oaks on a spiny ridge, redwoods creating a cathedral over the road, a glimpse of the Pacific behind a spray of mustard colored gorse. A wild, four-wheel-drive slide down the cold side, boring through snow banks. A herd of three hundred elk, thundering across a frost-covered sage brush flat. Spires of Saguaro cacti raised to the sun in supplication. Once, back in 1985, Betty and I were on our way from Sacramento to Salt Lake. At one of the big I-80 bends between Lovelock and Winnemucca, a herd of wild horses frolicked in the cold eye of a February noon. Black clouds hovered to the north. The herd threw a high column of dust behind that got caught in a southeaster and trailed out behind. They were colored funky, white and brown and black and kicked up their fetlocks as they ran, ran, ran across the sagebrush plain. As I watched them something inside me got up and somersaulted and for just a moment I understood some things about horse, horse and man, and their long and strangled and joyous relationship. But now I cannot articulate what I understood then.
Now back on the road to anywhere from Sacramento at 4 P M, the light rain creates an added hazard and magnifies the eruptions of the brake lights. They remind me of howitzer reports hammering a monsoon afternoon. (Nothing escapes my memories of war, and so my metaphor veers like mourning dove on the first day of hunting season.) Blare, bash, kazoom, crash. Traffic.