Interstate Highways 405 and 5 between Los Angeles and San Diego
Friday, April 2 2004, 4:50 PM
I commute to work from Los Angeles to San Diego along US Interstate Highways 405 and 5. The drive is 240 miles round-trip and takes two hours each way if traffic is brisk, much, much longer if it isn't. When I tell people this, some let out a low whistle of incredulity, others exclaim, "my God, that's awful!" Their astonishment fades somewhat, though, when I add that I only drive the route twice a week and never during rush-hour. I almost always make it in two hours, so I'm only on the road a total of eight hours a week. As far as weekly averages go, that is pretty high, but not outrageously so, and I cover a lot of total ground during these hours. By contrast, my girlfriend's ratio of time spent driving to distance traveled is notably different. She commutes from Santa Monica to downtown LA everyday, usually taking forty five to sixty minutes to travel a little over 12 miles each way.
Traffic is life. Well, not exactly, of course. But we do exhibit a marked tendency to see in the movement and non-movement of motor vehicles a microcosm of the opportunities and dilemmas faced by modern individuals. Witness, for example, how often writers, artists, and other thinkers play on traffic's perceived social resonance, marshaling it as a metaphor to make larger points about human behavior. Certainly part of traffic's appeal as societal shorthand comes from the manner in which it combines the patterned and expected with the unintended and capricious, the building blocks of much of modern everyday life.
For much of the drive, the terrain along the route changes gently, rising and falling with no real rush. Cresting one of these occasional rises to find multiple lanes filled with cars stretching, speeding, streaming on out ahead, I cannot help but appreciate calculable human behavior. Because my fellow drivers and I can count on the fact that most of us have internalized the rules of the road, we are able to assess the risks of the various driving decisions we make -- speed up, slow down, change lanes, exit -- vastly easing the achievement of the goals we are each individually pursuing. The institutionalized patterns of traffic steer us into a low-intensity form of social cooperation, in turn allowing for a quite astounding level of individual freedom.
But these patterns can be disrupted and the effects of all the individual decisions difficult to calculate or control. Crashes, most obviously, are examples of traffic's capricious side. But for me an even more potent reminder of the unintended consequences of the driving habits of Angelenos comes into view just south of Long Beach. Here on a clear day the southwestern edge of the Santa Ana and Elsinore mountains come into view. At the foot of these mountains, the 405, now merged with the 5, yields to the overwhelming power of topographical facticity and, skirting the edge of the range, turns west towards the ocean. When I begin to make that turn I know that I'm halfway to work. But at Long Beach, the mountains are still a long way off and any anticipation of trip's end premature. Instead at this point what is striking is the brown haze layered on the mountain tops like a gauzy, smoggy meringue. Despite what people say about drivers in the LA area, it would be absurd to think that any of them intend to harm the basin's air when they get in their cars. But there, south of Long Beach, for all to see is the evidence that, despite whatever we may intend as individuals, we have collectively contributed to a new problem.
On some evenings before I'm scheduled to drive the commute, a sense of dread will come over me, and I'll think that I can't do this any more. It's too far, too time-consuming, too hard on the car, too wasteful, too everything. But then the next day the drive will go smoothly, even enjoyably, and the thought of burning-out on the whole thing seems, at most, an idle anxiety. I have yet to tire of the drive in part because it lends itself so well to parceling into a series of smaller, seemingly less daunting drives: Santa Monica to LAX, LAX to Long Beach, Long Beach to Huntington Beach and the drive through Orange County. Soon after come the series of beach towns in San Diego County and on into La Jolla and the University of California, San Diego where I work. It's a route that delivers a constant sense of satisfying accomplishment as one completes one stage after the other. There are no boring, endless stretches of road.
Recently, I read Joan Didion's Play it as it Lays. The book had been on my to-read list for quite some time, although it was languishing mid-way down and thus without much chance of being read anytime soon. But moving to LA and feeling the enormous presence of the movie industry hovering over daily life like, well, the Hollywood sign, I began to seek out reflections on LA and the culture of movies, Didion's very famous one included.
In the opening pages is this passage:
Once she was on the freeway and had maneuvered her way to a fast lane she turned on the radio at high volume and she drove. She drove the San Diego to the Harbor, the Harbor up to the Hollywood, the Hollywood to the Golden State, the Santa Monica, the Santa Ana, the Pasadena, the Ventura. She drove it as a riverman runs a river, every day more attuned to its currents, its deceptions, and just as a riverman feels the pull of the rapids in the lull between sleeping and waking, so Maria lay at night in the still of Beverly Hills and saw the great signs soar overhead at seventy miles an hour, Normandie 1/4 Vermont 3/4 Harbor Fwy I Again and again she returned to an intricate stretch just south of the interchange where successful passage from the Hollywood onto the Harbor required a diagonal move across four lanes of traffic. On the afternoon she finally did it without once braking or once losing the beat on the radio she was exhilarated, and that night she slept dreamlessly.
The passage's invocation of dreaming is where the significance lies. On the one hand, the passage shows its age at this point. Here one can see where it has become a victim of shifting experiences and shifting meanings. Such a drive as Didion charts, a high speed crisscross north and south and east and west through the LA basin and into the San Fernando and San Gabriel Valleys is no longer possible. Traffic is too heavy too much of the time to allow such a freewheeling tour. Instead of influencing the dreams of drivers, such a drive has itself become a dream. But read another way, the passage still crackles with fantastic possibility. There is a dreamy promise here, simultaneously escapist and utopian, that expresses a yearning for mobility and the freedom to range across a vast space without impediment or worry. Flying along these highways, Maria Wyeth, the novel's troubled protagonist is no longer burdened by her hardscrabble past or her nihilistic present. Nor need she worry about the social divisions, the relationships of inequality, the disparities of power that divide and segment the city just beyond the freeways. How nice it would be to live in a society that was so free.
I get on the road in San Diego at seven, just after the evening rush. In fall and winter this means driving home in the dark. The commute is different at night, at once more serene and tense. Tense because the reduced visibility, the glare of headlights, the shorter reaction times needed make it harder to drive. But the darkness also soothes. By day, a drive down this corridor supplies one vision after another of southern California's hyper-dynamic, exceedingly dense version of modern civilization. But at night the visual press recedes; evidence of the region's hustle and bustle retires into darkness or, when present, is marked by the twinkling, flashing assortment of multi-hued lights, signs, and neon as varied as it is aesthetically pleasing.
Lights, in fact, yield the most memorable moments of the return trip. At Carson, south of LAX, the great industrial expanse surrounding the port of Los Angeles, including a sprawling oil refinery right along the 405, comes into view. By day, you can get a fairly clear indication of the dimensions of the complex. But at night the whole area is awash with light and appears limitless. Looking west toward the ocean, these lights seem to stretch on infinitely into the evening haze. With its seemingly endless industrial incandescence the area looms out of the evening, an apparition of an industrial age that is rapidly being transformed. The view of the refinery is equally impressive. Lamps trace the outlines of the many buildings, circle the circumference of the storage tanks, shoot vertically into the night sky along the spines of the towers and smokestacks, and snake along with the many tubes and pipes to present, in the intricacy of the patterns formed, an instance of the petrochemical sublime.
Finally, there is LAX. Planes, their powerful wing-lights marking their position, fly in from the east over the 405. Looking east one catches a glimpse of the approaching planes stacked up one after another in two parallel lines. Against the horizonless night sky and from a distance they appear motionless, like a string of lights hung from the clouds above. It is an unusual sight. We are so used to seeing planes in motion that when they appear as they do to the east of LAX, seemingly just hanging there, the sight delivers a pleasurable little shock. There, suspended above the city's commotion, seen momentarily from a speeding car, are a few, completely unexpected moments of stillness.
John Brady is a member of Bad Subjects