I drove back from San Francisco not long ago to the rural San Joaquin Valley. It is only 200 miles. But in fact, it can feel like Odysseus trying to get back home to Ithaca from Troy.
Walking to the car in San Francisco was an early morning obstacle course dotted with the occasional human feces and lots of trash. The streets looked like Troy after its sacking. Verbal and physical altercations among the homeless offered background. The sidewalks were sort of like the flotsam and jetsam in the caves of the Cyclopes, with who knows what the ingredients really were. Outbreaks of hepatitis and typhus are now common among the refuse of California’s major cities.
The rules of the road in downtown San Francisco can seem pre-civilizational: the more law-abiding driver is considered timid and someone to be taken advantage of—while the more reckless earns respect and right of way. Pedestrians have achieved the weird deterrent effect of so pouring out onto the street in such numbers that drivers not walkers seemed the more terrified.
The 101 freeway southbound was entirely blocked by traffic—sort of like the ancient doldrums where ships don’t move. About 20 percent of the cars in the carpool lane seemed to be cheating—and were determined not to let in any more of like kind. The problem with talking on the phone and texting while driving is not just cars, but also semi-trucks, whose drivers go over the white line and weave as they please on the theory that no one argues with 20 tons of freight.
The trip can take over three hours in theory and often longer than six hours in practice. The rub is not just traffic. Road repair and expansion shuts down lanes (ironically replete with large signs bragging that the construction is proof of your tax dollars at work), often without little warning or guidance. Service stations along the way are usually overcrowded. Some of their restrooms also are premodern. I once stopped in one that had no toilet seat, one handle remaining on the water fixtures, no toilet paper, but plenty of unmentionables on the floor. In California, you sometimes request a key to enjoy the privilege of using such hospitality.
Last week I stopped at a quick stop and held the door open for a customer behind me, whose thanks was, “What the f— you looking at?” And I had deliberately not studied his roadmap of tattoos.
It is easy to catalogue the detritus alongside our green state’s highways—you see everything from shredded tires to car seats, plastic bags of trash, and abandoned cars. When I go cross country from I-5 to the 99 on two-lane roads, cross-traffic at stop signs will 10 percent of the time run the stop sign, and 20 percent make only a rolling stop. The Highway Patrol seems to pull over more and more upscale and new cars. Are those the most likely speeders, or it is a waste of time to write up tickets to those who do not have the visible means of paying fines, given California’s recent generous ticket amnesties?
How to Make it to Ithaca
For the California driver in the age of the post-apocalypse, the rules of the road and getting home are obvious.
1) Assume that a state with among the highest income, sales and gas taxes has commensurately among the nation’s worst roads. Therefore, do not become depressed by blood alleys, potholes, bullet-holed and graffiti stained road signs, or roads unchanged from a half-century ago when the population was less than half of what it is today. You are an adventurer on the frontier, not a complacent commuter or traveler. Approach the next few hours as a challenge rather than a nightmare. Envision a California road trip like Odysseus did his on voyage on the Aegean.
2) It is wiser not to use the restrooms on any California cross-country drive. Excrement can be many places other than in the toilet. Also, fill up before starting. Don’t count on finding gas stations that are not overcrowded or have all their pumps working—even the ones with national affiliations that look as inviting from the off-ramp as Circe’s smile.
My favorite is one where all the tiny glass windows at the pumps where the electronic instructions guide you are either broken or scratched out. My second favorite one was where the pump had no hose and no sign saying it had no hose. In California, you often fill up by holding the pump handle down nonstop, given the automatic levers are broken or missing. A state law requires emergency free air and water services for all gas station customers; perhaps because it’s mandatory, the air and water dispensers usually do not work.
3) Assume “Mad Max” conditions at any time. Contraptions can pose as vehicles in the most regulated vehicle state in the nation (there is a reason why the California DMV is dysfunctional). Cars can still tow each other, 1950s-style, with sagging rope. Expect a piece of lumber or a mattress to go Frisbee on every other trip. Anticipate that a quarter of the drivers have bad brakes, worse tires, and ignore or cannot read signs and posted warnings. The person who passes you at 90 miles per hour likely does not have a license, or registration, or insurance—or, perhaps, any of the three.
Remember that you will encounter pre-civilizational Laestrygonians at any moment who can cut you off, ram you from the rear, sideswipe you, slam on the brakes without warning, or as Lotus-eaters simply fall asleep or doze off in a drunken stupor. Recall that you are driving in a state of 40 million with roads designed for 20 million.
When passing or being passed, please do not look at the passed car—at least if it is one of the few without blacked out windows. If you do, the driver will speed up or cut you off. If you are sideswiped or hit in an intersection, expect that there is a 25 percent chance the offender will leave the scene of the accident (about half of all collisions in Los Angeles are hit-and-run).
4) Another percentage of the drivers seems incensed at the decline of their once Golden State, and they drive in a fit of controlled road rage. Yet an accidental cut-off, parking too close to their bumpers at a gas station, or expecting to be let in on a merging on-ramp—any of these scenarios trigger an Old West stand-off.
The story of California is not just that large percentages of Californians ignore the law, but rather that those who are law-abiding seem in a spasm of fury that they alone do honor the law, and they can be just as touchy in an accidental encounter. Consider them like Odysseus’s own crew: good people who are crazed by the long way home, and whose behavior cannot any longer be predicted. In their defense, they are not paranoid: remember that none of Odysseus’s crew made it to Ithaca.
5) Unfortunately, if you must stop and get out of the car, do not talk, smile, or chat with strangers. Consider them Sirens, Circes, and Calypsos who are not what they first seem. Watch especially the smiling guy (if you are unwise to stop to fill up) who approaches you with a melodious, “Hey, bro, how about a five?” Thousands of felons have been released from California jails and prisons. Millions over the last decades have arrived illegally from foreign countries. You know as much about them as Odysseus did the residents he encountered in North Africa or Sicily. So there is some likelihood of encountering a felon or criminal or someone who has no idea of U.S. customs and protocols at some point on your odyssey homeward.
6) Do not drive a “nice” car. Thieves may case it wherever you park. It will also draw the attention of a revenue hungry Highway Patrol on the road. Even when stationary, a Lexus or Mercedes provokes the state’s envious. Or it simply will be far too expensive to register or repair or insure because of those reasons and more. Remember, it is hard not to be dented if you drive a lot cross country. A seven-year old or more Toyota or Honda is the make to get you home.
7) Do not trust a GPS navigation system on California roads. The highways are so frequently under construction, or poorly maintained or inadequately mapped, that any computerized directions will eventually mislead at best and send you in circles at worst. California’s GPS is your Aeolus’s bag of the winds—but after they are all released and blow in all directions. In California, if you drive north or south, you can get home with delays; but if east or west, all bets are off.
8) Do not drive if possible in the fog or snow. Pull over if raining heavily. Californians demand year-round warm, clear, and dry weather. They have no expertise in adverse conditions—and no desire to learn. They drive in ice and fog at speeds as if they have radar—which they don’t. Hydroplaning is never considered. When signs say “chains required” it translates into oncoming twentysomethings in two-wheel light cars without chains or mud tires, spinning into your lane. My favorites are those who speed to 60 miles per hour in dense tule fog, honk or blink at you to speed up, pass, and then nearly stall in front of you in sudden whiteout fright.
9) Avoid driving after 10 p.m., the start of zombie time. Drivers appear then who are often inept, texting, or young. Even the more sober use the night hours to speed and make rolling stops. Still assume a quarter of the drivers are intoxicated or high: the intoxicated weave over the white line; the stoned radically change speeds without warning as they go in and out of awareness. Roads are so poorly maintained that even state construction sites often lack proper nocturnal warnings and you can be easily sucked into an open trench of a manmade Charybdis, or collide with cement and rebar—the sorts of liabilities that would get any private builder quickly sued.
California roads are dark at night, given that about a quarter of all freeway and intersection lights do not work, due either to poor maintenance or to copper wire thieves who have dethreaded them. At night please do not pull over, unless you wish to be in Scylla’s reach, and thus prey of some sort to a few people who will have a sudden interest in you.
10) Under no circumstances honk, flip off, or roll down the window at a wild and reckless California driver. Usually he is wild and reckless because he knows that California courts, from past experience, consider him a bad deal: he has no cash for fines, but incurs lots of costs to fine, jail, and lockup. The result is that he thinks he has nothing to lose and you the random passerby everything. And he reckons that the police agree. He is confident that his Laestrygonian California is the future, yours of the polis its past. And he may be right.
If you make it to Ithaca, expect, like Odysseus, that even then you are not quite home yet, given there are always surprises to come from your absence . . .
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