The first year we lived in Southern California, I couldn't drive on the freeways. I could not imagine how anyone could get used to it. The Santa Monica Freeway (a.k.a "The Ten"), for instance, boasts up to fourteen lanes of traffic. For a few hours every morning and evening, all fourteen lanes are at a complete standstill. Total gridlock. The only vehicles that move are the motorcycles, which are legally permitted to dart between cars. It can take three hours to go thirty miles if you hit one of the many rush hours of the day.
That actually wasn't what terrified me the most about The Ten. It was the other hours, when thousands of cars barrel along the narrow lanes. And persons from Ohio and similar states should note that there is no such thing as a passing lane in SoCal. Drivers will crunch into any open space to tear past any driver tooling along under 70 m/hr, no matter if they are to the left or right of you.
All of the freeways are dangerous. They are full of bad drivers and random debris. My beloved history prof, Lori Anne Ferrell, used to say that there was always a couch somewhere on The Ten.
I drove on the Santa Monica Freeway precisely once that first year. Ben had to be dropped at LAX late at night, and I begged Lara to come along for the ride. She wasn't up for driving home, a decision she sorely regreted later. As soon as I was forced to merge, I flipped out. I couldn't see very well in the dark thanks to a weak and scratchy pair of eyeglasses, and the cold adrenaline of having to navigate multiple freeway changes reduced me to tears.
My first real freeway success was on The Two-Ten, the Ten's bossy little cousin. An arm of the freeway opened up just north of us a few months after we moved to Claremont. In order to participate in a conference for the Fund for Theological Education held in Pasadena, I faced I-210 on a daily basis for a week. It was a tough process, like breaking in a new pair of shoes. I got blisters from gripping the steering wheel so tightly, but by the end of the conference I'd accrued enough confidence to face The Ten again.
Last week my Ma expressed awe at my ability to manage the roads. And its true: I can now print off a Google map and be on my way on any number of multi-laned freeways. One-Ten North to the One-O-One? Got it. Four-O-Five South to the One-Ten-North? Doesn't make much sense but it works like a charm. Ninety-One to the Six-O-Five to The Ten and I'm back in the relative homeyness of Claremont. I can get from Point A to Point B, and sometimes I can even call my sister in Ohio to have her check Mapquest for a better path to Point C (thanks, Marie!).
But just being able to pass the drivers' test (100%, thankyouverymuch) and get past the abject fear of driving in a city that is not Akron does not make one a true driver. There are people who genuinely enjoy driving. These people go on road trips and look up from their Suduko puzzles to pay reverent attention to closed-course car commercials. They let the engine, the road, the mountains in the distance, the sheer movement of it all mean more than simple transportation.
Most days I'm somewhere in between. The car is a tool that gets me from here to there, and I use this tool in a context that should be safer than it is. The potential for an accident is always lurking in the periphery, and all I can do is pray that it doesn't cross the double yellow lines. But some days when it's raining (that's another thing about SoCal drivers: they are utterly dumbstuck in any situation demanding the use of windshield wipers), or when I have been honked at, or when the extra Starbucks pastries I pick up twice a week for the pancake breakfast are stinking up my car, or when the smog is so thick you wonder how you can even see the light turn green, or when the traffic makes me late for something important, or when my fuel light has been blinking for miles, or when I see a Hummer parked in a compact spot, or when I forget (once again) to track my mileage for tax purposes, or when I have just been in the car too dang long... well, let's just say I want to aim for the garage (which no longer has a working mechanical door-opener) and park the blasted Hyundai for a while.
But then there are those moments when I catch sight of the Hollywood sign unexpectedly (why is it that seeing that sign makes me happy in the most childlike way?), when I descend the westernmost hill of 190th Street where the only thing you can see is ocean, when I am singing along at the top of my lungs to Prince (k-k-k-k-kiss, falsetto), when all the windows are down, when Deacon is panting a happy-dog rhythm, when I know where I'm going and how to get there and there is someone waiting with an embrace at the destination. In those moments I remember why I am behind the wheel.
A few months ago I flew into LAX at sunset. For the first time, I could see the whole wild landscape of this marvelous and corrupted region. I could see how the jigsaw pieces of mountain, valley, desert, ocean, island, and (smoggy) air fit together, all in a space that was somehow enormous and tiny at the same time. The land is gorgeous, I tell you, from the perspective of the air. All forest, no trees. The notorious freeways are serpentine rivers of pavement, all but irrelevant from the sky. Seeing the breadth of this Shangri L.A. does make a difference, somehow, even when I'm back on the ground. Reminds me of where I am: just north of the Palos Verdes Peninsula, pulling into the parking lot at the little dot of a church two blocks from the Pacific. Reminds me of where we are, in relation to it all.