Sunday, May 29, 2011

The Trip North: Day 1

First of a 3-part short essay about driving. Partially because it's fun to write about driving, and partially because I cannot possibly tell everyone all about my drive to Oregon one person at a time; there simply aren't enough hours in the day.

The Trip North: Day One

I fought the truck the whole way across the desert. Or perhaps the truck and I fought together against the wind. The wind had a grudge against the human world. It howled down off the mountains and picked up speed across the flat open desert. It kicked dust devils into the air: big, sustained dust devils, crouched permanently, it seemed, in the dry fields of hapless farmers. It hit the interstate broadside. Each gust felt like a physical blow. The semi trucks swerved almost off the road. I swerved too. After a couple of hours, my left arm and shoulder ached from continually dragging the truck back into the road against the wind.

I had packed the previous night. I had stayed up much later than I had intended, putting my Tetris skills to good use in cramming as many of my household goods as possible into the back of the truck. Several hours after my intended bedtime, I realized that the massive pile of things that had filled my living room did not completely fill the truck. This sent me on a mad dash through the house, seeking items that would fit the empty spaces without requiring me to spend more time sorting. My little-used sewing machine therefore made the trip. My old stuffed animals, which would be company in the long weeks ahead. An extra pillow or so. That sort of thing.

So on the drive that Tuesday morning, I fought not only the wind but my own fatigue, and my extraordinary packing skills. The truck is small. It is made for day trips, four-wheeling on obscure mountain roads with a picnic in the back and maybe a dog (if one has such a thing). In a pinch, two people can camp out of it reasonably comfortably. But it was never made for going fast on the interstate and it was never made for hauling half a house. It has four cylinders. It has over 100,000 miles. It has large tires, great for off-roading, but that just add friction on open highway.

The truck, already overloaded, expressed its discomfort. It groaned through the lower gears whenever I accelerated. It shimmied and shook. It would not take hills in any gear higher than third. It began engaging in odd behavior whenever I turned it off, shuddering to an undignified stand-still when the ignition key was turned off, then refusing to notice for several terrifying seconds when the ignition key was turned back on.

I began to be very careful about where I stopped. I began chattering inanely to the truck, telling it how good it was, encouraging it. “Just a little more, you can do it! You and me, baby, we can do this thing!” And then, when the starter kind of whined but didn’t immediately engage, “COME ON, DON’T DO THIS!!!! PLEASE…Oh, there we go. OK.”

Late in the afternoon, I reached the huge wind farms around Palm Springs. The wind I had been battling all morning here was harnessed, the wild energy put to productive use. I felt there should have been wind farms all the way across the desert. Perhaps there will be, eventually. I had passed several large trucks carrying monstrous generator housings and pieces of turbine blade.

When I was young, I thought windmills were these large, squat, house-like wooden buildings with broad flat blades, like you see in pictures of Denmark. Or, they were spindly framework structures topped by a cluster of rusting metal spokes, creaking slowly on abandoned Dust Bowl farms. The Palm Springs wind farm, passed through on a family trip to Disneyland, taught me differently. Windmills are massive yet lean, tall poles topped with two or three shining white aerodynamically-perfect blades that slice the air. Something so large should not move so smoothly, silently. On that long-ago trip, I stared at the windmills, imagining walking under them and watching the enormous knife blades whip past overhead. They fascinated me. They terrified me. I could not stop staring.

Today, I was still staring, which was a problem because the interstate had gotten curvier and hillier, and the wind less predictable. I kept my eyes on the road with effort. Still, I noted that you could tell the age of the windmills. One row was short, another tall. One row’s turbines were mounted on framework structures similar to my old-style Dust Bowl windmills; the next were on massive steel pillars. The tallest, straightest, most enormous were also the newest, their white paint glowing in the sun that crept in under sudden cloud cover.

Where had that come from?

I was not prepared for rain, not on this road, with this wind, with the traffic picking up as we drew closer to Los Angeles and the populated western part of California. I realized, of course, that I must get used to rain, moving as we were to the Pacific Northwest; I realized also that one of the reasons for taking the truck and not the car was that it was much better equipped to handle inclement weather. But still, I was nervous. Los Angeles made me nervous. Rain made me nervous. The fact that I was alone, and miles from home or help, terrified me all of a sudden. I was sure that if I were ever to smear myself all over the highway in a crash of massive proportions, losing everything I had and incurring unpayable medical bills that would make my student loans look like a joke, assuming I survived at all, it would be on this trip.

As soon as that thought crossed my mind, I rejected it. I would not crash. I was a good, careful driver; I paid attention (here I once again reminded myself not to stare at windmills); I kept reasonable distances between myself and other vehicles (here I slowed down slightly to stop the slow creep I had noticed between me and the car in front); I knew how to handle myself in the rain. Slow, smooth changes. More space around the truck. So what if it made the cars behind me mad; I was in the right-hand lane, I was overloaded and slow anyway, they could just deal with it.

The rain, mercifully, was brief, a minor desert squall. It was the first of many as I continued west, and I eventually lost my fear of them.

I crossed Los Angeles with relative ease. The traffic grew a little heavy for a while as Interstate 10 entered the valley. It was hear that I almost ran into someone changing lanes, the one and only time this would happen on the trip. It was something I worried about, since I couldn’t see out the back of the truck. For the most part, relying on my mirrors, signaling well in advance, and moving very slowly had worked for me. People traveling long stretches do not hang out in each others’ blind spots. But this guy, zipping along in a little red Miata-type contraption, hovered off to the left and a little behind, honked at me when I tried to change lanes, and sped past, flipping me off. I was shaken, but more annoyed than anything else.

I took the bypass through Pasadena and north of L.A. itself, and there was almost no traffic. I emerged on the far side, aiming for Santa Clarita, where I planned to stop for the night. There were hotels there, I knew; it was near Magic Mountain; there had to be someplace fairly inexpensive.

I passed a Holiday Inn Express, a La Quinta Inn, and several other motels of that nature, all of which I knew to be well outside my price range. I began to panic. I pulled off the freeway at the exit that said “Magic Mountain,” figuring, like Disneyland, the big theme park would be surrounded by a cluster of hotels, and some of them had to be aimed at families of limited means. I was wrong. I went down the road, becoming thoroughly lost, and finding no lodging of any kind. Worse, the rain was back. I had to stop and get my bearings. Ideally, I would stop somewhere with internet access, where I could go online, find a map, and figure out where to go from here.

I found a Starbucks. It was around 7 pm by then, and I was shaking with fatigue, cold, and hunger. I ordered a small mocha and collapsed into a couch, dragging out my computer and plugging it in. Never has it taken so long to start up. Never has it taken so long to get on the internet. In fact, it was absolutely refusing to connect to the Starbucks wifi. I almost cried. I restarted the system and pulled out my iPod, which found the Starbucks wifi right away, connected with no problem, and proceeded to load pages more slowly than I have ever seen it move. Apparently Starbucks’ wifi is not very good wifi.

I found a hotel, finally; called to confirm they had rooms available and at what price; and to get directions. This was a challenge, as I had no idea where I was at that moment. The hotelier gave me directions from a large main road I was pretty sure I could find my way back to and quoted me a price that was only a little more than I had planned to spend. The truck turned on immediately and smoothly with the turn of the key, just as though it had not spent the last five hundred miles giving me fits wondering whether I was going to be stranded in the middle of nowhere. Perhaps it had needed a rest too.

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