Yesterday was my 8th bloggaversary and I was going to write something about that, tying in writing and riding, lawyering and grandfathering, physics and a bit of organic gardening, along with a dab of pan-roasted coffee and the joys of rye sourdough bread.
Instead, I lay in bed sweating hot rivers.
The day before had begun crisply at 4:00, like it always does, but this time I had a plane to catch for a NorCal deposition, only it wasn’t a plane, it was a rental Toyota Camry, and the depo began at one o’clock, and it was raining sheets, and it had been for days.
I rolled out at 4:30 and the second I hit the 405 I was white-knuckling it, as the wipers on high still only gave me minimal visibility, okay, no fucking visibility, because if a tire or corpse or overturned semi had been in front of me I would have had to chew through it with my face. Any time you leave LA for points north, you want to hit the 405 from the South Bay no later than 4:50. Because, Grapevine.
The Grapevine is your worst driving nightmare. In heavy rain it can also be your graveyard. Depending on how you calculate it, this stretch of road, which controls virtually all inbound-outbound traffic to the LA area, is about 44 miles long, beginning in Castaic and ending at the In-N-Out in Wheeler Ridge, where exhausted drivers collapse in a heap over the steaming grease and rubber buns of California’s best known and worst-tasting fast food.
Would you like trucks with your fries?
The true brutality of the Grapevine isn’t simply the way that the gentle twists and turns take you unawares, as they obviously had taken the Dodge Charger lying upside down as I plodded by at 40. The horror of this highway is the 18-wheelers. Of course from their perspective the horror is the little bugsplat passenger cars like the Dodge Charger.
In any event, if you are going 50 because of blinding rain, sleet, or snow, they are going half that, and there are a thousand of them for every one of you. It is a live video game where the lives don’t “power up” after you slam into the loaded semi.
With a max elevation of over 4,000 feet, the Grapevine often shuts down in winter due to snowfall, leaving everyone planning to get into or out of LA what is known as “stranded” a/k/a “raging blood pressure skyrocketing through your skull.” In my case, the whole point behind getting out of LA at 4:30 is always the same: Hit the Grapevine with minimal traffic, because on the return trip it is always going to be packed.
With visibility ratcheted down to nothing, fingers lizard-clawing the steering wheel, and the Grapevine already filled with trucks and cars who had hit it early for the same reason I did, I got over Tejon Pass and through the bright lights of In-N-Out feeling as if I’d just finished the French Toast Ride, minus the French toast. On the straight, flat run to the Bay Area, with the relentless rain pounding as if ordered up especially by defense counsel, it nevertheless seemed easy compared to the Grapevine.
It was going to be a 783-mile day. Glad I was healthy, in good physical shape, and not afraid of long drives.
Sick, wrecked, and afraid of long drives
Funny how quickly things change. The depo finished and in the interim the parking garage had flooded, leaving my Camry surrounded by a small moat. I started the drive home with my feet wet to the ankles.
In a matter of minutes my head felt heavy and unnaturally warm. The rain picked up. Even if I hit zero traffic it was going to be a 7-hour haul, and the minute I thought that thought, I hit traffic. Traffic in the Bay Area. Who knew?
Two hours in, the hot head had turned into a conflagration-level fever. I still had forever to drive. A 15-minute roadside nap wasn’t going to dispel the problem. Stay at a motel? That would be a two-day stay, because I could tell that what was overtaking me was the beginning of a legit cold-flu-kneecapper. Damned if I drove, damned if I stopped. What’s a feller to do?
Carnage and Culture
A few days prior I had finished reading Carnage and Culture by Victor Davis Hanson. He is a Trump-nut, immigrant hating, ‘Murrica luvvin’, jackanape, so we can get that out of the way right now. He is also a damned good historian, and he writes engaging, provocative, well reasoned history. You can disagree with him all you want, but if you don’t want to look like a complete fool disagreeing with him, you’d better know your history, because he knows his.
One of the parts of the book that popped into my head as I was trying to figure out whether to die on the highway or die in a motel bed was the part where he described the life of a galley slave. Galley slaves rowed war boats. They were chained to a wooden plank. When nature called, they did it right there. When nature called their neighbors, they too, did it right there. When they got sick and vomited, they did it right there. When they bled, they did it right there. In other words, the galley was a moving, rolling, open and active sewer.
The galley slave was beaten with a whip by the row master when he didn’t row hard enough. When the galley engaged the enemy and got boarded, the attackers would swoop in and run a spear or sword through the galley slave’s head or chest. Since he was chained to his plank, covered in open sores, and couldn’t walk anyway, to call him “defenseless” is a bit of an understatement.
So I thought about the galley slave, and about what he would do if someone came to him and said, “Hey, galley slave, we’re going to unchain you from your plank, put you in a heated, comfy passenger compartment that goes 75 miles an hour, and ask you to ‘endure’ five hours of driving on a glass-smooth superhighway. If you get hungry you can stop and eat, if you get thirsty you can stop and get a drink, we can adjust the climate to your personal preference, and of course if your wittle tummy gets too hurty-wurty, we can put you in a cozy hotel bed wif a softy-wofty piwwow.”
What would the galley slave have said? “Nah, I prefer rowing for six months at a stretch, sleeping on a plank in my own shit, getting beaten, starving, and having a sword run through my skull.”
What is happening to us?
In other words, why are we so weak? Why are the smallest inconveniences so debilitating? The Grapevine wasn’t originally traversed by a Toyota Camry. It was traversed on foot by Pedro Fages, with 73 other men and a mule train. They returned to San Diego, exhausted and near death, barely surviving after slaughtering and eating their mules. What was going to take me fourteen hours took them seven months.
I reflected on the galley slaves and Pedro Fages, and weirdly, in my feverish state, connected with them through the ether. “You are a weak and pusillanimous 21st Century leaky prostate ex-bike racer,” they said. “Collect thy gonads in one place, clear thy head, and get thine ass home. And quit thy whining.”
My head cleared, literally, and my fever subsided to almost nothing.
I leaned a little harder on the accelerator and beat through the clogged, wet, truck-strewn Grapevine as if it were my driveway.
I got home and crawled into bed, broken. “Are you okay?” Yasuko asked.
I felt the fever return with a roar. “Galley slaves,” I murmured, “don’t come home to pillows.”