I think a lot about homelessness, about what it represents in our society, about our responses to it collectively and individually, about the many encounters — with a man named Charles, instance, and with Eric, and with Perry — with the destitute and down and out I’ve had over the years. And about the meaning of personal gestures.
The New York Times just published excerpts of the prison letters of Nelson Mandela. One, to his son Makgatho, talked about effective responses to poverty:
I have been reminiscing a great deal … Those were the days when you lived a happy life free of problems and fenced from all hardships and insecurity by parental love. You did not work, grub was galore, clothing was plentiful and you slept good. But some of your playmates those days roamed around completely naked and dirty because their parents were too poor to dress them and to keep them clean.
Often you brought them home and gave them food. Sometimes you went away with double the amount of swimming fees to help a needy friend. Perhaps then you acted purely out of a child’s affection for a friend, and not because you had become consciously aware of the extremes of wealth and poverty that characterized our social life. …
It’s a good thing to help a friend whenever you can; but individual acts of hospitality are not the answer. …
This is not a problem that can be handled by individual acts of hospitality. The man who attempted to use his own possessions to help all the needy would be permanently ruined and in due course himself live on alms. Experience shows that this problem can be effectively tackled only by a disciplined body of persons, who are inspired by the same ideas and united in a common cause.
Twelve years ago this month, our lives changed in a way we never saw coming: A dog found Kate in the California outback and adopted her, and us.
By way of explanation: We were down in Paso Robles, at the southern end of the Salinas Valley, for a long Saturday bike ride I was doing. While I was pedaling all over hell and gone with my friend Bruce Berg, Kate went off for the day with Bruce’s wife, Linda Artel, and some of her friends for a visit to the Carrizo Plain.
For the purposes of the present tale, the main thing to know about the Carrizo Plain is that it’s not close to anything. It lies in the lee of the coastal ranges to the west, and you need to cross a mountain range to the east to get to the dry southern end of the Central Valley. From Soda Lake, the alkali mudflat at the heart of the plain, it’s a long, dry trip to anyplace where people live.
So Kate’s group got a surprise as they joined a ranger’s tour on that clear, hot Saturday. Strolling along a plank walk on the edge of the lake, a boy in the group called out, “There’s a dead dog.” A dog’s tail was sticking out from beneath the walkway. When the ranger climbed down to investigate, the tail began wagging — its owner wasn’t dead after all.
In fact, there were two dogs that had sought shelter in the meager shade afforded by the walkway. The one with the wagging tail emerged immediately, covered in gray mud — the boy who had spotted him called him “Dusty.” The other dog refused to come out — maybe too scared or too exhausted to respond to the ranger’s coaxing.
But “Dusty” went with the group back to the ranger’s truck. The ranger tied a rope to the dog’s collar, and Kate, with the group’s encouragement, took charge of him. He drank some water and ate a little turkey from someone’s sandwich. When the group got to its next stop, a trail leading to some Native American petroglyphs, Kate stayed with the dog, whose coat was beginning to show through as the mud and dirt covering him began to fall away. He looked like he was actually black, with a white chest — a border collie, maybe — and Kate was taken with him.
The feeling was mutual. When Kate left “Dusty” with Linda so she could go off and see the petroglyphs herself, the dog stared after her and didn’t relax his attention until she returned.
The ranger had said at some point that he would have to drive the dog to an animal shelter in San Luis Obispo, about 70 road miles away. Kate wrote down her contact information and told him she’d be interested in the dog if no one claimed him.
“You know, you can take this dog now if you want him,” the ranger said, adding it was very unlikely that anyone would come looking for him. That was because the dog probably was not lost but had been abandoned on the desolate plain.
Kate was reluctant at first. She hadn’t talked to me, for one thing, and we were staying in a motel that didn’t allow pets. But Linda and the other people in the group urged her to take the dog and even said they’d keep it for her overnight if necessary. So she agreed to take the dog, who was alert and friendly but still so weak that Kate had to lift him into the back of our van.
When she got back to Paso Robles, she set about taking care of business. She went to one of those big-box pet stores, where she hoped to give the dog a bath. But since it wasn’t clear he’d had his shots, the store wouldn’t allow it. So she bought pet shampoo, a big towel, a bed, food and other supplies and brought the dog back to our motel. A woman at the front desk said not to worry about having the dog in our room as long as he didn’t make a racket. “Try to keep a low profile,” she said. Kate bathed him — it turned out he had white paws — and afterward the dog fell asleep.
Remember that I was out there somewhere on my bike all this time and had no idea any of this was going on. Thinking back, I’m remembering the last leg of the ride, through the hills south and east of Paso Robles, and making my way back to town a little after dark, alone. I got to the finish area in the town square and thought I’d see Kate, who I figured would want to share my triumph. But she was nowhere to be found, and she didn’t answer when I tried to call her cellphone.
I may have been peeved. I went back to the motel, just a block or so away, and wheeled my bike toward our room. The window was open.
“Kate?” I called. There was a pause. Then she said, “Wait a minute — there’s a … a … a being here.” She didn’t want to say “dog” in case someone heard her.
I’m not sure I said, “Being?!?” out loud, but that’s what I was thinking. When I opened the door, I saw what — who — she was talking about.
Kate’s recollection is that my first words were, “So we have a dog now?” All I remember was that the dog was quiet and put up his paw to shake when I approached. And yeah, he was a good-looking hound, too.
That night, Kate said she wanted to give the dog a classic dog name, something short. One syllable.
My first suggestion: “Richard Milhous Nixon?” I wasn’t serious — why would you do that to an innocent pet? — but I actually like the idea of naming a dog “Nixon” for its sheer improbability.
“No,” Kate said.
“How about ‘Scout,'” I said.
And that stuck immediately.
The next morning, Scout had recovered to the extent that when we went to get in the van to drive back north, he jumped in the back by himself. When we stopped at a Starbucks on the way home and Kate went inside, he stood guard at the door until she came back out. She was already, and would always be, his pack leader.
Back in Berkeley, we did what you do with a newly adopted pet found wandering in the backlands. He was skinny and full of worms, ticks and foxtails, and we took him to the humane society for a checkup. The vet pronounced him basically healthy. “He’s a good dog — a really good dog,” the vet said. Maybe a year and a half old.
But he pointed out a couple of things that he thought were odd: the little incisor teeth in his lower jaw were badly worn, as if he’d been chewing something hard, like rocks or maybe a chain. Also, he had a recent-looking incision that showed he had been neutered.
What was the story there? Had he been tied up for a long time somewhere and worn his teeth down chewing on things? Had he been in a shelter where he’d been fixed as part of an adoption process? He hadn’t been microchipped, so there was no history to go on.
We always wondered how he had wound up in the back of beyond. Maybe a week after we brought him home, I called down to the visitors’ center at the Carrizo Plain National Monument to see if anyone had reported a lost dog. As I recorded at the time:
“No,” the woman at the center said, “and let me tell you what happens with these dogs. People come out here and just leave them, no water, no food, nothing. It’s a real bad deal.” Occasionally, she said, herders will shoot the strays to keep them from harassing sheep grazing in the area. Starvation or thirst or coyotes take care of most of the rest, though occasionally the monument’s rangers will catch a dog and take it to the animal shelter in San Luis Obispo.
“This is far enough off the road that you can put the dog out and drive away and they can’t chase you,” the visitors’ center woman said. “People split up and decide they can’t keep their dog, or they don’t want to take it to the shelter — over in Taft you just put the dog down a chute and they usually just put it to sleep. But this is a bad deal. You wonder what people are thinking.”
The mystery only deepened over the ensuing months and years. Scout was sweet-tempered, well-behaved, and very quick to learn. He was already house-broken. He didn’t go nuts and chew things up when we were out of the house. It took me all of a week or so to teach him what I wanted him to do — top priority: stop at corners and not go into the street — when I walked him off leash.
He was opinionated, letting us know where he wanted to go and what turns we ought to make when we were out on walks. He remembered the routes to the stores and cafes around town that were reliable sources of treats and tried to get us to visit them often.
He was bright-eyed and handsome to a fare-thee-well, and strangers often commented on how good looking he (or, as they often thought, she) was. He was patient, attentive, loyal, goofy and funny. He put up with long car trips. He loved to be outside and walk and walk and walk. He was good with kids and other dogs and even the backyard chickens.
He left an impression on the neighborhood and on us — on people who would see him and greet him regularly, and on us as we traveled nearby blocks. “Scout’s choice” meant a walk where we’d follow his turns. “Fancy crossing” was a diagonal crossing at an intersection. “Boring way” was our walking route through the neighborhood on our routine walk before bed; “interesting way” was an alternate route through the little shopping district nearby. “Through the grotto” was a shortened nighttime walk. Past “head grabber” was the route past a nasty rose bush growing low over the sidewalk.
To be fair and balanced, he had a few drawbacks: He was a little slow to learn what skunks were about and took a couple of direct hits in the face. He was a cadge, and especially in his bad-breath old age had a terrible habit of sitting next to us when we ate pizza and panting in expectation of the crusts he was sure would come his way. He was a fiend for any discarded food item, regardless of provenance, age or wrapping, that he sniffed out on the streets, sidewalks, lawns and shrubbery along our walks; I don’t doubt that I occasionally left strangers with the impression his name was “Goddamnitscout.”
Kate has always pointed out that whatever had happened to Scout before he was discovered on the edge of the dry lakebed, he was an optimist by nature, a trusting soul, and smart enough to weigh the odds of survival. When people had happened across his little shelter, a place where he could well have died if help didn’t arrive, he ventured out to greet them, tail wagging.
In short, he was amazing, and an amazing find to make out there in the wild. For years, right up to this week, I wished Scout could tell us what or who brought him there, what his name was before Kate found him.
One thought I had over the years about his apparent abandonment: Maybe he was put out on his own because whoever had him before didn’t think he was fit to be a working dog. He had a border collie’s smarts mixed with some other breed’s reserve and calm. When he was young, he was energetic and fast and loved to run — herding other dogs and leading the neighborhood greyhound, Porter, on intense but inevitably short chases. He didn’t show signs of discomfort. But a neighbor, Alice, who became one of his best friends, observed the first time she saw him walk that it looked like he had hip dysplasia.
That was never a formal diagnosis, but it became apparent as he aged that Scout was big and strong in his front end and rather stiff and weak in his back end. He compensated. We went on long, long walks from our place up into the hills and back, and he never shrank from long flights of stairs or steep trails or any other stupid thing I asked him to undertake.
That changed, though, and in the last couple of years, that trend became much more pronounced. He stopped wanting to go on the longer walks. The weakness in his hindquarters became more evident, and he could no longer raise his tail, let alone wag it. He was done with stairs, except for the descending variety. He slowed way down and sometimes dragged his back legs to the point where you could hear his back claws scratching on the sidewalk. What might have once been a 10- or 15-minute walk took a half-hour, then longer. He began panting loudly even making what seemed to me to be a mild effort. He became incontinent and for the first time started leaving dumps on the floor with enough regularity that we’d have to remind ourselves to watch for them if we got up in the middle of the night. On top of all that, he seemed to have gone nearly totally deaf and his eyesight seemed to be failing.
But he was still himself, sweet and most content, we thought, just hanging out with us. And he was as focused as ever on his pack leader, following Kate around the house, monitoring her comings and goings.
Over the past six months or so, we had started to talk about whether, or when, we might need to do something. By “doing something,” I mean “put him to sleep.”
It was a strange and fraught conversation for both of us.
Strange, for me, because even though I grew up with many dogs — Pooh Bear, Flag, Lizzie, Chip-Chip, Dulcey (short for Dulcinea — our mom being a fan of “Man of La Mancha”), Posey and Angus, among others — putting them to sleep had never really been a consideration. Nature or high-speed traffic intervened to shorten the lives of virtually all of them. For instance: Pooh Bear, our first dog, a beautiful springer spaniel mix, lay down and died at Mom’s feet after her treatment for heartworm.
And fraught, obviously, because here we were, Scout’s people, pondering ending a life that he couldn’t tell us he was enjoying or not. We wanted to do the best we could by this noble, dear creature and do it with the understanding that we were on our own in making it.
One thing Kate and I agreed on was that we didn’t want to see Scout reduced to a state of utter helplessness or to be in a situation that required some sort of emergency response. The week before last, we got a chance to see what “utter helplessness” might look like. For most of a day, Scout was unable to stand up without help and could only walk with some difficulty. So we decided to act.
Vets here in Berkeley — and probably many places — will make house calls for those who have decided to put their pets to sleep. It’s a way of avoiding the stress of bringing a sick or dying pet into the clinic for an inevitably traumatic procedure, and perhaps a way of taking some comfort in the last moments of a companion.
Our appointed time was late last Monday afternoon.
Having worked over the previous weekend, I stayed at home to get things ready. I vacuumed and mopped and cleaned up a little — why exactly I can’t tell you — and I took Scout out for our last walk together.
My grief had crystallized around two thoughts: First, that what we were about to do was final — very final, with no turning back. And second — and most painful for someone who has always experienced a pang of sorrow at endings — that this chapter in our lives, the Scout chapter, the story of being alongside this being, as Kate had called him so long ago, was about to be over.
Beyond that was the fact Scout was such a presence — and a reliably cheerful one — in our lives. Even shuffling along in the way he was reduced to doing in his last few months, he seemed to relish being out with his pack.
The afternoon arrived. Thom came over, and Kate got home about an hour before the vet was scheduled to arrive. We spent the late afternoon sitting with the dog, and Kate read something she had written:
“Twelve years ago, when you joined our family, you had only a collar, and your whole wonderful self. We called you Scout, and you always liked to lead us. We can’t follow you now, but our love and thanks follow you and stay with you. Good dog, Scout. You have always been a good dog.”
The vet and her technician got here a few minutes late — I was glad for even that little extra time. They set up for their procedure: They’d give Scout a strong sedative that would calm him after a few minutes, then an overdose of an anesthetic that would stop his heart.
The dog was a little agitated. He knew something was up — all these people hanging around all of a sudden, and maybe he picked up the scent of the veterinary hospital, too. But we calmed him. The drugs were administered, and he was gone. The vet and technician bundled him onto a litter, carried him out to their station wagon, and departed.
And now? Well, Scout is still here in lots of ways, but most in our expectation that he’ll be waiting for us when we open the front door or eager to go out for his morning walk. That will pass, I guess. Eventually.
“The bay of San Francisco is separated from the sea by low mountain ranges. Looking from the peaks of the Sierra Nevada, the coast mountains present an apparently continuous line, with only a single gap, resembling a mountain pass. This is the entrance to the great bay, and is the only water communication from the coast to the interior country. Approaching from the sea, the coast presents a bold outline. On the south, the bordering mountains come down in a narrow ridge of broken hills, terminating in a precipitous point, against which the sea breaks heavily. On the northern side, the mountain presents a bold promontory, rising in a few miles to a height of two or three thousand feet [Mount Tamalpais, earlier called Table Mountain]. Between these points is the strait — about one mile broad, in the narrowest part, and five miles long from the sea to the bay. Passing through this gate,* the bay opens to the right and left, extending in each direction about 35 miles, having a total length of more than 70 and a coast of about 275 miles. It is divided by straits and projecting points into three separate bays, of which the northern two are called San Pablo and Suisun bays. …”
*Called Chrysopolae (Golden Gate) on the map, on the same principle that the harbor of Byzantium (Constantinople afterwards) was called Chrysoecras (golden horn). The form of the harbor, and its advantages for commerce (and that before it became an entrepôt of eastern commerce,) suggested the name to the Greek founders of Byzantium. The form of the entrance into the bay of San Francisco, and its advantages for commerce (Asiatic inclusive,) suggest the name which is given to this entrance.
Today it rained. Those droplets on the flowering quince up there above are the proof. Our non-fancy rain electronic rain gauge reads .04 of an inch for the day. And since this was the first rain since January 25, that makes .04 of an inch for the month, too.
As California climatologists are quick to point out, longish dry spells are not unusual during California’s wet season. But this long dry spell matches one we had in December, when we got just .12 of an inch. Those two dry months came sandwiched around a pretty average January — 4.77 inches according to our rain gauge. So adding up the last two and a two-thirds months, we’ve gotten less than 5 inches of rain, total.
As in most of the rest of California, December, January and February are the three wettest months of the year. The official Berkeley record shows an average total for those three months, since 1893, of 13.16 inches. The December-January-February average for the 1981-2010 climate “normal” was significantly higher — 15.23 inches. (That’s a pretty wide spread, and it’s probably due to many months of missing data over the last 125 years.)
A year ago — our one really wet winter in the last six, we got 9.85 inches in February alone. Our D-J-F total for 2016-17 was 28.63 inches.
Of course, February isn’t over yet. More chances of rain are forecast over parts of Northern California for the next week. We’ll see how that pans out.
Now that that’s been established, a brief tale about our short street in North Berkeley. We moved to the street several presidential administrations ago — during the tenure of the Republican before the Republican before the Democrat before the Republican before the Democrat before the current “Republican.”
“Nearly three decades ago” would also put you in the right historical neighborhood.
The street was paved within three or four years of our arrival. Not a big deal. The pavement hadn’t seemed terrible. But new, smooth asphalt seemed like a luxury.
That’s the last time the street was paved, and over the past 10 years or so, it became apparent the asphalt was breaking down. There’s lots of gravel on the paved surface. The rocks still embedded in the asphalt seem exceptionally sharp; if you happened to fall while cycling or running down the street, you’d be cut to ribbons. And much of what’s left of the pavement is eroded into little rills and gullies. If you sweep away a patch of gravel and look at it in the right light, it’s kind of beautiful.
Naturally, some of us on the street have told the city of Berkeley we’d be interested in seeing the street repaved. Year after year, the street hasn’t made it onto city’s list of upcoming paving projects. This past spring we sent a brief petition into our councilmember, the mayor and the Public Works Commission asking for the street to get attention. Last week, public works presented its list of streets to be repaved over the next five years, and we weren’t on it.
We’re not sure what, if any, recourse we have, except maybe to make more noise. In the meantime, I sent a letter to the chair of the Public Works Commission. That note (first) and her reply, are below:
I offer the following with the knowledge there are much bigger issues in the world than patches of local asphalt and with a determination not to get my blood pressure up or give anyone else too much grief over something as transient in the cosmic scheme as pavement.
If I’m reading the agenda item from last night’s council meeting correctly, Holly Street has not even made it onto the 2018-2022 street rehabilitation plan. (Question 1: Am I reading that correctly?)
I assume this is at least partly due to Holly being a non-arterial/non-collector street and thus lower priority — though I note that residential streets are getting “priority” in fiscal 2018 and also that plenty of similar residential streets in no worse condition than Holly have been repaved in the recent past or are now scheduled for repaving. Having skimmed the presentations for last night’s council meeting, I also know that funding is an ongoing challenge (for paving and every other kind of infrastructure).
Question 2: Do we have any recourse to the plan adopted last night? I mean, besides complaining to a council member who’s hearing the same kind of thing from all quarters and doesn’t seem to have much power to get our street on the list?
I think I’m at the point where I’ll suggest to neighbors that we start planting stuff in the street — there seem to be plenty of receptive areas in the remaining pavement for wildflower seeds, native grasses, etc. — and let nature really take its course. Maybe the city can adopt us as a street reclamation pilot project.
From PWC chair:
You are correct the Holly Street is not currently in any of the staff plans for repaving. On the plus side, at the end of a very long meeting last night, Council approved only the first two years of the staff proposed plan, so there is room discussion on the 2020-2022 plan years.
Your street is now in the horrific position of being too broken to maintain. Having said that, we made some incremental progress in the implementation of policy on 15% of funding available for discretionary projects. The PWC continues to recommend that once streets fail and require reconstruction, that is a good time to look at alternative technologies. As you have already expressed your neighbors’ support for green infrastructure, Holly St may be a good candidate for a demonstration project.
As the mandate to the PWC directs us to address the Paving Plan’s compliance with policy rather than specific streets, I think we should work with Linda Maio to discuss how to raise specific street concerns and find a fair and equitable way for us as citizens to 1) know the status, quality ranking of streets we are concerned about as individuals, 2) understand our individual priority streets in the context of a citywide perspective of work needed and limited available funds, and 3) develop a transparent forum that provides an avenue for citizen input to the street rehabilitation plan.
The PWC will be working to provide policy recommendations to the Council over the coming few months and I will keep you posted on our progress, looking forward to your input and suggestions. Thank you for your concern, communication, and delightful technical recommendation.
Just for the record (and because I haven’t done a Christmas Eve entry for a few years): The Greater Holly-California-Cedar-Rose luminaria went on last night as it has nearly every Dec. 24 since 1992 (“nearly” because we were rained out in 2008 and we put the lights out on the sidewalks on New Year’s Eve instead).
So counting that first year, last night was our 26th annual observation of a neighborhood celebration that still seems to be growing around the neighborhood. I’d say we had at least 100 people stop by our street table for hot cider and treats that the neighbors had left for the delectation of the masses.
I didn’t take pictures last night — but here’s a slideshow from 2010 that gives the flavor of the event:
It feels like it was just days ago that I was watching a total eclipse. It was summer, we were on the edge of the high plains, and I had a drive back to California ahead of me.
Now it’s the end of October and I’ve left weeks and weeks and weeks go by without summoning the resolve to say anything about personal events and incidents that have intervened.
Partly that’s the product of what feels like an avalanche of catastrophic news. Leaving the frayed state of our national union aside — I wonder if I have heart or mind enough to really wrestle with all that — we have had hurricanes. And hurricanes. And fires. And an honest-to-goodness slaughter of innocents that — remember Stephen Paddock? — took only days to fade from the news.
What would I have said about September and October, if I had said something?
We went to Baltimore, and I got a chance to see good friends and hang out with family and see one of the best views of New York you will ever see.
We got a quarter-inch of rain.
We bought a new car.
We had dinner with friends.
I haven’t seen enough of friends and family.
We missed the worst of the wildfire smoke.
Our weather has finally turned cool and a pretty decent “winter” storm is due in this weekend.
To quote a poet I like, in October, I “lived the same life with the rest, the same old laughing, gnawing, sleeping,
Play’d the part that still looks back on the actor or actress,
The same old role, the role that is what we make it, as great as we like,
Or as small as we like, or both great and small.”
I will get back to the conclusion of the travelogue at some point this weekend. (It’s only been a week since I got back; I still remember most of what went on out there.)
But tonight the subject is the heat — it may have hit 108 here in Berkeley, which would have broken the town’s all-time heat record set 104 years ago (our local weathe record goes back to 1893).
And in San Francisco, where the previous record for September 1 was 90, the official high was 106 degrees. That bettered the all-time record of 103, which had been reached in 1988 and 2000.
But there’s more than heat to the story.
We are under a stagnant dome of high pressure. There’s very little wind at the surface, and for now, our dependable cooling sea breeze, which allowed folks on this side of the East Bay Hills to escape the severe heat wave that visited in June, is utterly absent.
The air is not only still, it’s full of crud. To be more specific, smoke from wildfires far to our north has drifted into our region. The result is a lurid kind of smoggy sunlight during the day and a waxing gibbous moon that has a persistent amber hue to it. There’s enough smoke in the air from fires that you can smell it and detect a smoke haze in the streetlights tonight.
Of course, this isn’t a disaster like the one that’s been visited on Houston. It’s not the kind of condition — persistent heat and reliably foul air — that folks in the San Joaquin Valley deal with all summer. And no, it’s not terribly humid, so it isn’t sticky and I can imagine getting to sleep tonight.
But it is warm out — 77 degrees as we creep tonight — and it is strange and smoky. This day and night have made an impression.
It’s 11 p.m., and the temperature is 71 here in Berkeley.
That late-night warmth in mid-June would not be news in Chicagoland, where I grew up (the current temperature at Midway Airport, recorded at midnight CDT, is 78) or most of the rest of the country outside of the Pacific Northwest.
But here, 71 degrees as we move toward midnight is unusual; and reminiscent, though we don’t have midwestern humidity, of growing up in Chicago’s south suburbs.
Somehow, my parents grew up without air conditioning. We didn’t have it, either, in our house on the edge of Park Forest. It seemed impossible to sleep on really warm, humid nights, though I’m probably forgetting that fans helped.
Our dad would go to bed early; our mom was a night owl and would have some late-night TV on. Johnny Carson, maybe, or “The Late Show” movie. She’d let us stay up if it was too hot to sleep. If the night was oppressive and sticky, she’d have us take a cold shower to cool off.
Thinking back, Mom didn’t get her driver’s license until after our last summer in Park Forest. The next June — 1966, when I was 12 — we moved out to a new house built on an acre lot in the middle of the woods we had lived across the street from. It was like a jungle out there in the summer — green and moist and full of mosquitoes and lots of other wildlife.
Things changed once we moved out there. We had air conditioning. One unit upstairs, one downstairs. Outside, it might be dripping. Inside, it was miraculously cool and dry — a different world. I imagine the electric bills were staggering compared to what they had been at our old place.
Then, too, Mom had her license. Every once in a while, she’d invite us out on a late-evening jaunt — to the grocery store, or just to drive.
So: You’re going to drive down to Los Angeles from the Bay Area on a Friday. To avoid a heavy commute leaving the traffic-strangled San Francisco region — East Bay to be more specific, and Berkeley to be even specific-er — you choose to leave at which hour:
b. 2 p.m.
c. 4:30 p.m., into the teeth of the usual P.M. freeway shitstorm.
If you chose c., you and I think think differently, because I didn’t quite choose to leave at that hour, but leave at that hour I did.
I checked traffic maps before rolling out, and there were long stretches of red and darker red all along the best (actually only) escape routes. No worries, I thought — I will take some side and back roads to make my way over the hills to Interstate 5.
So, I took 580 east through Oakland to Castro Valley, where things were jammed up for the climb over the Dublin Grade to the Tri-Valley area. I could tell from the maps that 580 would be even worse going through Dublin and Livermore and on over Altamont Pass, so I thought I’d use an old cycling route over Palomares Road to Highway 84, which goes through Livermore from Fremont.
Palomares was great, once I found it. Not fast, because it’s a real back road that winds and twists constantly as it climbs the hills and then descends to Highway 84.
Highway 84 was a brilliant idea, though it was bumper to bumper for a long, long way into and through the townlet of Sunol. After that it opened up, and I had just normal non-freeway traffic through Livermore — time now 6:30, or two hours into the trip — and onto Tesla Road and up the last set of Coast Range hills into the Central Valley.
Lots of people use this as an alternate route to the miserable slog on 580 over Altamont, but everyone moved at a spritely pace up the steep, winding road over the top and down into San Joaquin County. In fact, some drivers crossed the line between spriteliness and recklessness. I saw a couple of cars cross the double-yellow line to pass a slower moving vehicle on a nearly blind downhill curve. Well, no one was killed. This time.
Corral Hollow Road, as it’s called on the San Joaquin County end of the road, hooks up with Interstate 580 at a point where it has diverged from I-205 and is usually just screaming along. The speed limit is 70 mph, and if I’m going 75 I feel like kind of a slow poke. But more of that in a minute.
I probably hit 580, which joins Interstate 5 about 10 miles further south, at about 7:20 p.m. It was dusk, and it didn’t make sense to shift over to whatever scenic routes I might devise. The bucolic portion of the drive was over.
If I have myself time — something I never do — I probably would stay off I-5 as much as possible. The side roads going down the San Joaquin Valley are many and, at this time of year, and especially after all the rain this year, beautiful. The countryside is green and welcoming in a way you can hardly imagine if you only see the place in the brown haze of summer or the gray of winter.
The other reason one might stay off of I-5 between the Bay Area and L.A. is that it’s one of the most stressful driving experiences you can find. Speed is part of it. If you’re driving 80 — yes, I know, that’s over the posted speed limit, but still quite common — you really have to be on top of your game.
But it’s not really the sheer speed that gets to you. It’s the varied speeds on the two lanes from the Tracy area down to the bottom of the Grapevine.
I-5 is the major truck route between Northern and Southern California. Trucks have a dramatically lower speed limit — 55 mph, and they seem to stick close to it. That means you have a mix of high-speed four-wheelers mixed in with some very slow moving 18-wheelers. But that’s only the beginning of the issue.
Many of my fellow motorists are driving at 70 or so — some just above, some just below. That’s fine. They may live longer, happier lives than the likes of me. But here’s the thing: They aren’t content to drive their rational 70 mph in the right lane of the two lanes available. No. They would much, much rather cruise at their comfortable, non-threatening pace in the left lane.
Yes, it’s true that there will be slower traffic they need to pass. For instance, the trucks I just mentioned. And then they will need to use the left lane. But the notion of completing the pass in some sort of expedited fashion — taking note of traffic approaching from behind, for instance; not getting into the passing lane before you need to; maybe speeding up a little to complete a pass (a technique I was taught in driver’s ed); and then moving over again (another driver’s ed lesson) — is not one that is widely shared based on the behavior one sees on the highway.
The net effect last night was that whenever the river of left-lane traffic encountered an obstacle — a truck or series of trucks in the right lane, say — the left lane would bunch up and slow down, with lots of nonsensical tapping of the brakes as the flow of traffic went from 75 mph, say, down to 60 or 65. It was kind of like NASCAR in super-slow motion.
The rules of the road, I-5 Edition, seem to be these:
–If you see any traffic ahead in the right lane — even that little speck out there in the horizon — you’ll be catching up in five or 10 minutes. Better get over to pass.
–Life is easier in the left lane. You don’t have to worry about getting over to pass. And why is that guy on my bumper?
–Drive with your brights on — all the time. It helps you see the gestures the driver in front of you is making.
–If the slower jerks in the left lane won’t move over, accelerate — accelerate with extreme prejudice — and pass them on the right. And do it over and over and over again.
And in conclusion let me say: No — I am not on a crusade to change the way the rest of the world behaves, there are serious flaws in the way I do things on the road — speeding, right-hand passes — and I don’t give enough credit to all the people I see who do behave in a rational, courteous way.
To complete the trip narrative, though: I got to L.A. in one piece, arriving at our downtown hotel at midnight after following the Apple Maps directions — which at one point involved exiting northbound 110 at Dodger Stadium and doing a U-turn back onto the southbound ramp — and getting lost briefly on surface streets.
Anyway. Here I am. Today’s travel will be on public transit.