Mind the Road

Interstate 80
Interstate 80

It is tiring, challenging, boring, isolating, and sometimes terrifying to drive from central Alberta to central California. Mostly, though, it’s satisfyingly meditative. I imagine that this is what some people pay for when they go on spiritual retreats. It’s an opportunity to be alone with your thoughts, without conversation.

Each year I choose different things to listen to on my c.d. player, satellite radio, and iPod. In the past I have listened to novels, poetry, self-improvement books, and a wide assortment of music. This year, because I didn’t get my act together in time, I didn’t prepare anything, so I listened to satellite radio a lot.  Most of the time I was tuned to CBC Radio One and Laugh USA, with about a 90/10 split between the two.

While part of my brain was occupied by music, debate, story-telling, or wit, my eyes were on the road, and the road was long. It’s a four-day drive, from sunrise to sunset each day, with dramatic scenery. I always decide on the route by consulting the weather channel, and in winter I generally go south through Montana and Idaho then head west through Nevada and California. Most of the time, there are very few cars on the road. I sometimes think they built Interstates 15 and 80 just for me and a few truckers. Until I get beyond Reno, that is. Then it’s a different world.

It’s hard to explain the shock of having spent two or three days on a lonely road, then slogging up and over the Sierra Nevada mountains through the Donner Pass, to suddenly encounter traffic. There is no gentle transition. It goes from wide open scenery and empty roads one minute to eight lanes of ridiculously close and fast traffic the next.  It’s like they opened the vehicular sluice gates and let out all the cars.

From then on, it’s pretty much white knuckle driving all the way. You’d think driving through freezing rain in Montana or through the Donner Pass in winter would be the most intense part of the journey, but you’d be wrong. California drivers are many and they are not patient. They pass  you on both left and right, and they all go over the speed limit by about fifteen miles an hour. They are in a big hurry to get wherever they are going, which means you have to be in a hurry too, even if you don’t have time to read the road signs. You have to change lanes really quickly and slide into really small spaces at such a pace that even with the windows closed you can feel the wind pulling at your hair.

At the end of a long day of driving, it’s difficult to be mellow about all this. You tense up and hope you don’t hit someone who was in your blind spot,  miss your exit, or misread any signs. The alternative is to get lost in a spaghetti junction of interchanges and go hundreds of miles out of your way.

Fortunately, I had three days of meditative driving before I got to California, so I could appreciate the funny side of it. This beautiful state, famous for redwood trees, wine, entertainment, marijuana, and beach bums, really doesn’t know how to relax.


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