KJ (owlmoose) wrote,

notes from a road trip

Last week, I drove down to LA and back. It was a short trip, just three days -- I drove down on Monday, spent all of Tuesday down south, and returned on Wednesday. I was visiting A, who was in town on business, but I must admit that I went partly because it was a good excuse to take a long solo drive. I really like making the 400-mile trek to Los Angeles by myself at least once every year or so. I'm not generally a solitary person; in general, I would rather be with other people than by myself. But every so often, I find something appealing about having a block of time to myself, listening to music or books on tape, watching scenery fly by, spending some quality time with my car. The week before, I tried explaining this to my dinner crew, who didn't get why I didn't find company or fly; only R understood, but then he's made multiple cross-country drives by himself, and he really enjoys them. I don't know if I would go that far, but I think it's fair to say I never mind making a single day's drive alone.

Of course, I also don't mind making them with other people; group road trips are fun, too, although in a different way. One of my pipe dreams is to take a somewhat-leisurely drive across the country (I've driven the distance once, but it was after my first semester of college and my classmate and I were both desperate to get home, so we made the trip in 60 hours), maybe following one of the major intercontinental interstates end-to-end. I think I've been on all of I-80 at one time or another, but never all in one trip, and I've not spent much time driving I-90 or I-10. Those two highways go through the major regions of the country of which I've seen very little -- the northern Rocky Mountain and Plains states, New England, the Southwest. Sadly, T doesn't seem to have much interest in the idea, so I don't know that it will ever happen.

Anyway. Los Angeles. There are two ways to get there from here: 101 and I-5. Sometimes I take 101 one direction or the other, even though it can take two hours longer or more, because it's a prettier drive. But since so many of my LA road trips in recent years have actually been to Santa Barbara (only reachable by 101), and I had time commitments of sorts on both ends, I decided to take I-5 both ways this time. I always remember 5 as being a flat road through a vast expanse of nothingness, so the fact that the first two thirds of the trip south is actually spent largely in rolling hills comes as a surprise every time. The hills were the lovely golden brown color that marks the California summer. I've heard it said that the Spanish colonists brought the grass that turns brown in the summer, that before the settlers came California's hills stayed green even without rain. I don't know whether I believe it, but it's an interesting thought, that a feature I identify so strongly with my local landscape is actually an interloper from another continent. But parts of I-5 really are flat, especially the last hundred miles or so. The road goes in a straight line as far as the eye can see, with orchards and vegetable fields lining the sides. This is the high-wind zone, where dust devils swirl at the side of the road and even my low Honda Civic rocks with the gusts. Then the Grapevine appears as if from nowhere, and within moments the car is climbing a steep grade. Coming north from LA, you drive through hills and gradually realize that you're driving through mountains, but the transition on the northern end is much more abrupt. I find the change even more striking on the drive home -- one minute, you're hurtling down the side of a mountain, and the next you're driving through a desert.

The scenery never changes on I-5. Maybe the hills change color and the fruit trees lose their leaves as the seasons pass, but the major features of the landscape are always the same. Even the billboards are unchanging -- hawking hotels, chain restaurants, and tourist spots like Pea Soup Andersons, extolling the virtues of irrigation for agriculture, requesting that we "Choose Life" (I swear that same pro-lifer sign has been up for 10 years). There's a tattered and faded "It's the Cheese" advertisement parked on a trailer near an overpass that's also many years old. Even traffic patterns stay much the same from trip to trip, unless it's a holiday weekend and the road is clogged with cars. (Stuck in stop-and-go traffic for 250 miles is the one time that I don't like roadtripping alone.) Since this trip was strictly a weekday affair, traffic was quite light, but the cars still tend to travel in packs. On a trip like this, I'll spend most of my time traveling in a pod of cars going 85-90 miles per hour, slowing down when we get behind a semi or an RV passing another. We'll drop back and wait for the passer to finish and get back to their place in the right lane, then zip on past. There are only two pattern disrupters: cops and slow-moving vehicles camped in the left lane. A cop will rarely take you by surprise on I-5 -- usually you catch up with a pod that was going faster but slowed down when the CHP vehicle entered their field of view. Cars going too slow for the fast lane are more of a bother, because they usually don't know it. On the trip down, my pod caught up to a rental truck that quickly realized it was out of its depth on the left and tried to move over. But so many cars were blasting past on the right, it didn't have a chance. Eventually, I moved into to the right lane, matched speed with the truck, and gave it room to change lanes. The other driver realized what I was trying to do, and order was restored on the freeway.

This was my first road trip with my iPod. I spent part of the trip listening to Sarah Vowell read The Partly Cloudy Patriot, a collection of her essays on American history and politics. They were good essays and an excellent presentation. Special guest stars included Conan O'Brian as Abraham Lincoln and (my favorite) Stephen Colbert as Al Gore. The rest of the time I listened my playlist of driving music. It worked out well, although the playlist needs some editing (why on earth did I think Suzanne Vega would be good driving music?). Overall, I think the iPod is a great addition to any road-tripper's car.
Tags: travel

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