We’re down in Los Angeles for a few days. The quickest way of getting here, obviously, is to fly. It’s a one-hour flight. But we generally drive, and that’s mostly because we like seeing the country along the way.
The main route between the Bay Area and L.A. is Interstate 5. And while a lot of the territory between metropolises is interesting and picturesque, and all of it is worth seeing and contemplating, that particular highway is a real drag. The volume of traffic can be intense, for one thing. For another, many, many, many, many drivers tend to camp out in what is known unironically in much of California as “the fast lane.” That’s especially true if a driver sees a truck somewhere up ahead — “up ahead” meaning “within sight.” The appearance of truck traffic, which in California has a 55 mph maximum speed limit, causes many drivers to get over into the left (a.k.a. “passing”) lane minutes before they will actually overtake the truck. Once past a truck, many drivers will sight another truck up ahead and figure they might as well just stay over there in that left lane until they pass that one, too. The result is long strings of vehicles lined up in the left lane, even when the right lane is empty. Not only are the lines of “fast lane” traffic long, they usually feature dramatic slowdowns and speed-ups as more cautious drivers brake to maintain some sort of minimum distance between them and the vehicle they’re following; sometimes the slowdowns occur because faster traffic has come up in the right lane and merges into the long line of left-lane traffic; sometimes the trucks get into the act when a slightly faster-moving truck moves to the left to pass a slow-poke semi.
That’s pretty much the way I-5 works most of the 275 or 300 miles or so down the west side of the San Joaquin Valley, and it’s kind of a drag. Yesterday, with less than half of that part of the drive done, I commented to Kate that I wished there was an alternative. Of course there are alternatives if you’re willing to take a much less direct (more time-consuming) route. But having voiced the thought of taking another way, we acted on it. I got off I-5 at Highway 41, the main route between Fresno and Paso Robles and the coast, took it west to Highway 33, then headed south through the Kern County oilfields, and across the Coast Ranges to Ojai and Ventura. I rode the same route on my bicycle years ago, and the memory of the trip across the mountains is vivid. The road did not disappoint yesterday, either.
We finished by taking 101 from Ventura into L.A., arriving early in the evening and well after the most excruciating hours of Friday afternoon traffic. We may have spent an extra couple of hours on the way than we would have if we had stayed on I-5, in part because we could stop as often as we wanted along the way and there was nothing pushing us (me) to go fast. We got where we were going, not necessarily soul-refreshed, but maybe a little less beat up from the tension of a long 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.
Needing to have something in my hands to read the other day, I spotted a book of Thom’s (I think): “Oil!” by Upton Sinclair. It’s a Penguin edition with Daniel Day-Lewis’s picture on the front, because “There Will Be Blood” is “loosely based” on the novel.
I’ve barely read anything by Sinclair; I have dim memories of “The Jungle,” which I got for Christmas in eighth or ninth grade. The prose didn’t do much for me then. This book opens with an account of a car trip somewhere in Southern California–somewhere from the lower end of the Central Valley over the mountains to the Los Angeles area, probably. It’s immediate and colorful and actually reminds me a little of Tom Wolfe’s fiction: self-consciously thorough about contemporary details and observing the scene with an arched eyebrow. Here’s a passage from the opening chapter, titled “The Ride.”
Fifty miles, said the speedometer; that was Dad’s rule for open country, and he never varied it, except in wet weather. Grades made no difference; the fraction of an ounce more pressure with his right foot, and the car raced on–up, up, up–until it topped the ridge, and was sailing down into the next little valley, exactly in the centre of the magic grey ribbon of concrete. The car would start to gather speed, and Dad would lift the pressure of his foot a trifle, and let the resistance of the engine check the speed. Fifty miles was enough, said Dad; he was a man of order.
Far ahead, over the tops of several waves of ground, another car was coming. A small black speck, it went down out of sight, and came up bigger; the next time it was bigger yet; the next time–it was on the slope above you, rushing at you, faster and faster, a mighty projectile hurled out of a six-foot cannon. Now came a moment to test the nerve of the motorist. The magic ribbon of concrete had no stretching powers. The ground at the sides had been prepared for emergencies, but you could not always be sure how well it had been prepared, and if you went off at fifty miles an hour you would get disagreeable waverings of the wheels; you might find the neatly trimmed concrete raised several inches above the earth at the side of it, forcing you to run along on the earth until you could find a place to swing in again; there might be soft sand, which would swerve you this way and that, or wet clay which would skid you, and put a sudden end to your journey.
So the laws of good driving forbade you to go off the magic ribbon except in extreme emergencies. You were ethically entitled to several inches of margin at the right-hand edge; and the man approaching you was entitled to an equal number of inches; which left a remainder of inches between the two projectiles as they shot by. It sounds risky as one tells it, but the heavens are run on the basis of similar calculations, and while collisions do happen, they leave time enough in between for universes to be formed, and successful careers by men of affairs.
“Whoosh!” went the other projectile, hurtling past; a loud, swift “Whoosh!” with no tapering off at the end. You had a glimpse of another man with horn-rimmed spectacles like yourself, with a similar grip of two hands upon a steering wheel, and a similar cataleptic fixation of the eyes. You never looked back; for at fifty miles an hour, your business is with the things that lie before you, and the past is past. …
One thousand miles on the highway (to Eugene and back last week) gives one lots of time to ponder the following: “Why the (your favorite expletive beginning with “f” here) don’t these slow drivers in the left lane get the (favorite expletive again) over?”
No matter how fast you’re going — the posted speed limit or 15 miles an hour over it — if you look in the rear view mirror and see someone bearing down on you from behind, that tells you they’re going faster than you are and you need to get or stay out of the way. The fact you’re driving whatever speed doesn’t entitle you to the left lane. The sane, courteous and cautious course is to get over to the right at your first opportunity. Let the faster traffic by; presumably that’s what all those “Slower Traffic Keep Right” signs are about.
And also: When you’re going 66 and you decide to daringly overtake that car in front of you that’s going 65, watch what’s happening in the left lane before you pull out to do it. If faster traffic is coming up, either stand on it to make the pass and get it over with so you don’t hold up your sweet-tempered brethren, or wait until the lane clears and you can take your own sweet time (and 12 miles or so) to get past your barely slower neighbor.