Sunday, July 31, 2022

On L.A. Freeways

   She didn’t like driving through L.A. It was said (apocryphally, she was certain, as she’d never experienced it herself) that there were times when traffic was light. Oh, sure. She always found herself crawling as she passed familiar Los Angeles landmarks, no matter what time of day or night it was. But going completely around greater L.A.—via Bakersfield, Barstow, and San Bernardino—was only possible if you didn’t mind feeling that you were never going to get anywhere again for the rest of your life. Which was the same feeling she got when traveling through L.A. 

   So that alternate route wouldn’t help at all. 

   She was familiar with distance traveling, days-long traveling. As a child and a teenager, her father’s job transferred him every couple of years, which meant move after move. Before she went off to college, they’d lived in California (several locations), New Mexico, Arizona, and back to California again, burning through two grade schools, two middle schools, and three high schools, in her case. What she mainly remembered from all those moves, though, were the road trips. 

   Going back to Southern California to visit old friends and relatives meant days and days of driving, over long stretches of lonely Arizona and California desert highways, punctuated by stops at roadside motels. Fortunately, she was able to read in moving cars without getting sick, so that helped pass the time. But even that palled after a while, so there were hours of imagination, growing remembrances of and comparisons with road trips past, and absently watching the landscape go by while daydreaming. The license plate game helped, too, when her younger siblings got restless, or endless repeats of the alphabet game (one of her favorites—because, being the oldest, she always won). 

   Now grown up, she lived and worked as a teacher in Northern California, but some family members still lived in the south of the state. Every so often a trip to see them was necessary or required or desired. The current trip was one of those. Time was tight, as it needed to be shoehorned into a short break between summer school and the new school year. Some teachers were able to take the whole summer off, which would be ideal for her long-distance visiting, but she couldn’t afford to do that. QED, a lightning trip down south was in order—and that meant the L.A. freeways. Once again. 

   No longer a child in the back seat, but now the solo driver in the car, she was a little less able to completely daydream her way through traversing the gigantic urban sprawl, but practice had enabled some adeptness at this. Today’s trip brought some odd things to mind. While drifting along a packed freeway, averaging 0-5 mph, she looked speculatively at the repetitive exits, overpasses, and industrial buildings she was driving by. It occurred to her that if there were no street exit signs or mileage signs, she would have no idea where she was; it all looked the same, across nearly the whole of the city. Maybe it WAS all the same…maybe it wasn’t REAL…maybe she had left her usual reality for a California dreamin’ Twilight Zone. Her imagination clicked on, in high gear. 
   I drive and drive and drive and drive. I see nothing but acres of roadway, flyovers, entrances, exits, and interchanges, as far as the eye can see. And traffic. Traffic. TRAFFIC. More cars than I could ever imagine existing in my entire multiple decades of life. Is this really a road, or am I stuck in a slightly-mobile used car parking lot? If this gets any worse, we’ll be going backwards. 

   She peered into the cars on either side of her. Who were these people? Where were they going? Why were they jammed onto the freeway alongside her? What were they thinking as they stopped and started, stopped and started, etc.? When did they get on the road, and how far were they going? Did they wonder, as she always did, if they would ever get to their destinations? Her imagination sped on, unchecked. 

   These people must spend great chunks of their lives on these roads. In fact—she fantasized--what if they really spent their ENTIRE lives on these roads? The buildings I see off in the distance--what if they're not real constructions, but just false fronts (a la Disney) attached to overhead signs on the next freeway over? False fronts, suggesting a vast, (pseudo-) metropolis, masking the constant flow of traffic from one end to the other and back again. Circling endlessly, as people are born, grow, mature, and die while traveling in their cars... Slabs of apartment building false fronts, scrims of ticky-tacky houses, promising the constant commuters that there is settled, residential life available. Someday. For some people. 

    Just not them. 

   Maybe she would never stop driving. Maybe NONE of them were ever going to stop driving. Maybe they were just going to go creeping down those freeways forever… What she wouldn’t give right now for an open, barren stretch of Arizona highway. So what if it was hundreds of empty miles long? She’d at least be MOVING. 

   Passing countless faux-botanical cell phone towers ("Telecommute WHILE you commute!") augmented by matching faux-botanical foliage to line the freeways and decorate the median strips. Which is needed to replace actual, genuine foliage which withered and perished long ago, from the 10-lane-wide gulf stream of inexhaustible exhaust fumes. 

   Freeway exits to other freeways or to nowhere (essentially the same thing). Fast food places and gas stations along the sides of the freeways are pit stops (literally, recalling some gas station bathrooms). Electronics stores, for periodically upgrading cell phones. Targets, for replacing shoes worn out by constant accelerating and braking; replacing hats and sunglasses lost out the open windows; replacing clothes which have been ruined by disintegrating tacos, nacho cheese dip, chicken nugget grease, and hamburger sauce—or which have simply been outgrown; for stocking the cases of energy drinks needed to keep on driving. 

   She suddenly remembered a favorite Ashleigh Brilliant post card from the past (now, alas, lost). It had a line drawing of a cloverleaf interchange, with the following quote: It's really quite a simple choice: life, death, or Los Angeles. With Los Angeles ranking below death? 

   She glanced out both side windows and checked the rear-view mirror, as traffic ground to a complete halt. 

   Yep, seems legit.


Story by Mary M, Isaacs, copyright 2021. In her book, Hair of the Dog (see sidebar for link). 


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