Saturday, October 31, 2009

Driving



When I got my first car, a blue ‘72 Camaro with a loud shark grill on the front, I was liberated.  I found it via “The Recycler” in Sun Valley.  My dad accompanied me by driving me to the seller’s property in a rustic area that had mature trees and an old house that looked a bit ramshack.  The piercing blue Camaro was parked on some dirt near the house.  I knew as long as it ran, it was going to be mine.  The blue Camaro proved to be in good condition and I paid the $1200.00 for it and drove it home. 

Most kids, upon getting their first cars, would go to their friends’ houses and local hang out to show off their new wheels.  The first thing I did was to drive North on Interstate 5 to the 14 to the 138 East, to the 15 South, then down to the 10 freeway and back to Studio City.  This was about a four-hour loop through the high desert.  I wanted to feel like I could really take myself somewhere and see the things I had only done on family trips when my dad was driving. 

One of the most startling things that I saw on this first excursion was the jagged rocks in the San Andreas fault heading through Canyon Country about 20 miles North of Los Angeles.  I had seen them many times before, but on this occasion they looked more brilliant and real to me.  My sense was that for the first time, all of this was mine to explore, not something that someone else was showing me.  Seeing this scenery, my heart beat fast and I felt unstoppable.  There was nothing else I would rather do than to drive places and discover things and people.

When did I realize that driving meant something extra special to me?  It started very young; about the time that I could loco-mote myself farther than a block or two.  When I was seven or eight years old, we lived in the Hollywood Hills, a place where a kid was pretty much stranded on an island of steep, narrow roads, miles away from even the closest handi-market.  I used to keep myself occupied by taking a used car tire from my parents’ garage and roll it around on the neighborhood streets.

I would listen to the sound of the tire as I encouraged it along the asphalt by skimming it with the palm of my hand making a hollow tonal sound within the tire and a light hum as it rolled.  Then, as cars would drive through the neighborhood, I would hear the contrasting sounds their wheels would make; a much deeper, churning sound that reflected the car’s weight.  I also noticed that when I ran it through a drainage dip in the road, which had some run-off in it, my tire would splash while a real car would temporarily stop the flow by displacing a lot of water.

One of my close friends in the neighborhood named David seemingly got everything he wanted.  His father was a well-known music arranger.  His father worked on records for the Beatles, Barry Manilow, the Carpenters, and a list that just went on and on.  They had a home up a long, private driveway which was huge and to which they were continuously adding on.  David’s family was the first on the block to get a microwave oven, and I remember witnessing bacon cook in just minutes there.  That became David’s specialty.

One of David gifts from his parents was a prototype bicycle that was the epitome of luxury and transport to me.  It had a cushy, wider-than-normal banana seat, a chopper-nose set of handle-bars with a tire that protruded way out in front, an extra thick back tire, about 10 gears that he could switch between with a flick of his thumb.  But the thing that made me most envious, the thing that I had never seen before on a bicycle were shock absorbers on both the front and back wheels.  He also had a bright green safety-flag fastened to the back bar of his seat via a stiff yet flexible plastic rod which stood erect with the pride of a pirate. 

Being good friends as we were, he would occasionally trade bikes with me for maybe 15 minutes, although I had no idea what the value was on his side.  Maybe he just wanted to feel the contrast of slumming it for a bit.  But when we did trade, as I rode through bumps in the road, I would sense the shock absorber system evening out my ride unlike my bike and immediately thought of the counterpart those big, living entities called cars.  My bike was so different in contrast to all of this that it made me crave the complexity and comfort that my own ride was missing.

There was something in this for me in continuously comparing whatever mode of transport I had at the time to cars.  But in the beginning, I didn’t know what I was seeking.

David and I often played, “Emergency,” based on the popular paramedics TV show at the time.  Since both of my parents’ cars were gone and I was kind of a latch-key kid, I would open up the garage, and David and I would station ourselves in there, pretending to be on break in the fire station, when the call would come in.  We’d hear a three-toned alarm come over the speaker system followed by the dispatcher.  David and I would take turns being the alarm and the dispatcher while still trying to act natural.  “Squad 51, squad 51, respond to a man down in a structure fire on maple and 1st street.  Heavy burning with lots of smoke and fire and flames.  Time out, 2:49.”  David and I would jump up from our normal firehouse duties, our sirens would blare from our mouths, and we would be off to the fire on our bikes with water-spritzers in hand, the location of which was usually one of the neighborhood dirt lots.  The excitement for us was in getting to the emergency, the movement, importance and momentum that our transport embodied.

A couple of years later, David’s parents presented him with a go-cart.  This was no ordinary go-cart that you’d rent at your local Cart-O-Rama made from a flat piece of metal with tires, a steering wheel and an engine welded on it.  David was given a huge, blue dune-buggy go cart with mud-grade balloon tires larger than most cars’, a big, black cushioned seat and a thick leather steering wheel.  And there was that damned electric-green safety flag transplanted onto the back of it.

David generously gave me many opportunities to drive the go-cart around the neighborhood which was really my first experience driving.  When I look back now, I realize that his dune buggy was similar to driving a car.  There wasn’t much difference. It had the weight and the reaction of a vehicle, and it was just downright large.  I remember the very first time I stepped on the gas.  I just could not believe that this machine was moving me based on my foot pressing a pedal.  It was glorious.  There was a whole different perspective of the neighborhood to me; a place I could pass through as an observer rather than as a worker.  With the decision to accelerate, I could make my surroundings disappear and be in a totally different area far from my origin.  This aspect of driving still fascinates me to this day.

I think of the Native American Indians way back in the day when they migrated through the landscape over seasons, lifetimes and generations.  And now I can jump into my Jeep starting down by the sea in Manhattan Beach at 10am, and if I please, I could be snowboarding on Mammoth Mountain by 3pm the same day.  I mean, that’s phenomenal if you think about it.  The Native Americans who happened to settle in Lake Tahoe would never have imagined a place like Indio, CA where indeed, there were other Native Americans who couldn’t imagine the inverse.  Being connected to all of these areas simply by pressing a gas pedal still blows my mind.

My other close childhood friend, Kristian, and I spent most of our time forming roads in the dirt with the palms of our hands.  We did this with these toy cars we played with called Corgies and Dinkies which were popular brand names at the time.  We built city streets and highways and byways that were as complex as our little minds could construct.  Our childhood playtime was always about figuring out how to connect areas of the dirt lots we played in with clever roads that would make interesting routes for our cars.  For some reason, our sessions always ended with a huge explosion created by our piling dirt together like a volcano and throwing it all up with our hands resulting in 15 minutes of picking out embedded gravel from our hair and scalps.  There wasn’t always a lot of logic to the flow of our urban planning meetings.  But I believe all of this play helped me to desire and appreciate more the simple comfort, mobility and magic that a car could offer.

I did a lot of traveling when I was young, just after I was adopted.  My parents and I flew to the East Coast many times within the first few years that I joined the family in their effort to show me off to relatives.  These trips involved a lot of shuttling from house to house, from Manhattan to Long Island, and from family events to restaurants.  I was not thrilled with being jolted back and forth so much because I was still getting settled after such a change in my life.  My new parents and I also took annual trips to Sequoia National Park.  These were much more appealing to me because it was just my parents, our chocolate Weimaraner, Willie, and I.  The plan was simple; drive up the San Joaquin Valley for a few hours, and then get to a cabin and play in the snow. There were fewer places and new people involved, and while watching the scenery go by during the trip there and back, I could see how the origin and the destination were connected.  I liked this.

When I was going to middle school, they called it Jr. High here in the Valley, my parents let me get to school on my own.  In the winter, I was always faced with a dilemma; either ride my bike three miles to school on very cold mornings, or wait for my father to get ready for work and have him drive me to school.  The latter choice could make me late for school, and it also forced me to take a bus home in the afternoon, which I was never keen on.  I always wanted to get home as directly as possible, and the school bus’s circuitous route didn’t suite my tolerance level.

So most of my memories of Jr. High were of these very cold mornings, seemingly more than we have nowadays, in which I got on my yellow Raleigh ten speed with a goose down jacket and stormed up Fulton Avenue as fast as I could to reduce my exposure-time to the morning.  While making my way through the flat seemingly cold, hard Valley streets, I noticed people in their warm cars listening to their radios and presumably making it to their destinations with much more efficiency than I.  To me, the condensation coming out of tailpipes could only mean a warm driver’s compartment inside, and I imagined the soft, luxurious ride over the many road bumps with which my bike was unforgiving.

I had an on-going fantasy about having a car one day in the future, running out on cold mornings to start it and then running back inside and letting the interior warm up while I was showering.  Then, upon emerging from my house being ready for the day, I would enter the car’s warm, dry interior, like an insulated womb protecting against the super-chilled blue winter air, and I would be happy.

My arsenal for road-trips has always been pretty simple; a large, general map of the United States, state maps for whichever areas I thought I might pass through as well as a few AAA guidebooks for hotels and diners in case I got completely lost.  My luggage was simply a small carrying bag with a few days clothes.  And with that I would go.  Navigation is only a recent addition in my SUV.



When I was new at the Walt Disney Company and finally making a salary in which I could do things for myself, I bought a sapphire blue 1995 Mustang.  The first chance I got, I drove up Highway 1 through Cambria, Big Sur, Carmel and finally Monterey.  As I drove through Big Sur, heavy tuffs of fog were moving in from the ocean across the road and up the shallow green grade to the East of the highway.  I felt like I was floating through another time, like some lost land that only I had ever witnessed. The contrasting rough, rocky shoreline against the greenery all around made me feel like I was in a dreamscape. I felt very alone, but not at all lonely.

Another trip I took in the Mustang was through Arizona and New Mexico to Silverton, Colorado.  I loved stopping in small diners along the way and talking with people.  Getting a taste of local people’s lives has always been fulfilling to me.  At one point in a little town in Colorado, I was behind a slow pick-up truck with two very cute young women standing in the back of the payload bed.  I noticed two older women were driving the truck and eventually, with my hot colored Mustang, they all noticed me and were smiling and waving. 

They turned off the two-lane highway onto a small, dirt road that eventually became their driveway.  I followed them and when I got to their house, they invited me in to eat lunch and we all got to know each other.  I asked the more attractive of the two women who had been in the flatbed if she’s show me around the town a little.  I drove while she pointed out different things in the five square mile area of this town.  The day ended with us talking while parked on an upward slope of some nearby foothills which gave us a magnificent view of the surrounding towns and ranches as the sun set.



Another person I remember meeting on that same trip was a middle aged, lanky man with a white straw hat who had a scruffy grey beard half grown in.  He sat next to me at the counter of a local diner somewhere in New Mexico.  His work involved removing rattlesnakes from people’s properties.  He had been bitten a few times on his hand and arm. Just a hazard of his business.  When I asked him what he liked to do with his free time, he said he enjoyed traveling and hang-gliding in different locations.

So what is it about driving for me?  I love the visceral feeling of moving through large areas as my vehicle eats up the road, such as driving on Route 40 through Arizona and watching the land slide past me under a big, blue, sunny sky.  I love finding old diners and hotels and imagining what they must have been like in their hey-day, and speculating on what led to their current state of economic and physical erosion.

There’s also a challenge in it for me.  I like to know that I can find my way through new, vast areas and know that I can eventually find my way out and even start to feel a mastery for an area.  More than that, really understand how the roads, the people and the natural flow of the landscape are all connected.   The challenge is also in the goal of coming back with something interesting to tell.  I find it fascinating to see the mini-cultures that exist in different pockets, which are vaguely aware of each other at the most.  I like documenting what I find by writing about the people and stories I come across, and taking photos of the areas I pass through.  The sparse desert life of someone who lives in Yucca Valley, CA is vastly different from the agricultural life of someone who lives in Westmorland, CA near the Salton Sea.  Yet, those locations are not that far apart.  The energy I naturally spend thinking about all of this feels like a mixture of archeology, geology, journalism and sociology.  It seems I should have figured out how to make a living from this quasi-science since I’m already doing a lot of the mental work.

Something I would like to do in the future is to take a big drive across a large portion of the US, like maybe Route 66 in one direction, and then just decide where to go spontaneously after that.  It’s strange that I haven’t already done so, but it’s an adventure yet to be had.

The thing I like so much about driving is that I can explore and meet people on my own terms.  Without any formal structure, I can decide to stay longer, or go when I please. When I get a whim to do this or that, I can just do it without a huge change of plans or scheduling needed.  I like the freedom of driving.