Cars in L.A. don't drive, they wait in line.
I'm in a rented 2014 Toyota Corolla LE. The CVT transmission is holding a sustained 5,000 rpm shooting for a gap as we merge onto the 5 Freeway. Escape from L.A. Escape this horrible traffic. There's a gap between a semi-truck and an indecisive GMC Yukon. The accelerator pedal is pressed into the floor carpet. Most rental cars don't come with floor mats since Enterprise Rent-a-Car is afraid people will steal them. In the "gotta-get-mine" attitude of Los Angeles, I can't blame them.
For buckwacking Pennsylvanian Coal-Crackers like us, the West Coast is an assault. The mountains were formed by an emotional-support child with Play-Doh and road salt. They roll on one another. The mountains fight for my view on each side of the highway. Locals call this "The Grapevine." A Suzuki DR350S dual sport motorcycle would rule these hills.
The hills get taller. The hills get steeper. We are driving north. The 5 rises to meet the hills and the semi-trucks slow. Drivers with nerve move left and accelerate, damning fuel-economy. Higher! Higher! Deliver me from L.A.! Our rented Corolla's radio is tuned to the AM band. An audibly fat divorcee is warbling about Jesus.
The mountains fall. The mountains die. Like a dying relative giving into the inevitable. The future becomes a void. Before our CVT Corolla, lies Purgatory: a desert. I've never seen a desert before. Technically, L.A. is a desert but it's a populated desert with services.
A GMC Safari Van speeds past on the 5 as if the driver is on "strike-two" with his boss. The rear van doors are cracked open. In the distance, a helicopter hovers over an unrelentingly irrigated farm field.
Lots of wind turbines appear north of Sacramento, some are very old. They are bare metal lattice frames like a murderous carnival ride. No sleek white new towers like back east.
We make it to dinner in Lafayette, California. Lots of Teslas here. I can tell this is a Northern California restaurant; there's no dance music playing. The male waiter has a tan body, popping biceps, very handsome. California is in a drought but the fit and huggable waiter is playing fast and loose with the water refills.
We're rising out of the Bay Area of California. The hills are turning into mountains and desktop backgrounds. Passing cars change from German to American. Native American Casinos fly ads to delight Wisconsin tourists.
"New Dinner Specials!" "Ribeye is BACK!" "Cow Creek Restaurant Open 24/7"
--Seven Feathers Casino Resort
Jubitz "World's Classiest Truck Stop"
The CVT of our 2014 Corolla is pegged right in the powerband again as faster BMW's are asserting their dominance on the mountain roads to Portland.
The sky darkens. Nocturnal Owner-Operators begin their night-runs. An Owner-Operator is a truck driver who's cab and trailer is his or her property. See, most 18-wheelers you see are not owned by their drivers. A transport company owns the truck and maybe the trailer too. These trucks and trailers are drab and plain; white, gray maybe blue. They have only basic lighting and aero. No decorations. It's the same business model as traditional yellow taxi cabs.
Yet, sometimes you will see, as we did that night, the fabulous Owner-Operator; a proud human full of pride and property-rights. The absence of any speed governor means the drivers can make time--and how! When the road heads downhill, we move right because Owner-Operators will be in the left lane building speed for the next climb. Their machines are a treat to see! Amber and red LED running lights outline the clean steel trailer. Chrome stacks jut high and frame the cab on either side. Polished wheels never show dirt. No body panels jiggle in the wind. All tires shine, even the spare. If an Owner-Operator suddenly slows, you better slow too because he or she knows something you don't, usually a speed trap.
We left the custom rigs and headed straight for Portland while they swung wide for Seattle. When you approach Portland from the south, you never see it coming. The wooded mountains hide it. Once you crest the rise and descend to the water, only then do you see that sparkling gem of a city.
Approaching Portland, by car from the south after dark, is one of the great American sights. Portland presents itself as triumphantly as Manhattan or Chicago. Bridges glow, lighting up the gentle Willamette river. A sparking electric sign, in the shape of the state of Oregon blinks and twinkles. The sign says "Portland Oregon," and a white silhouette of a reindeer shines from the upper slight-right corner. Portland is a city fully aware of itself.
Portland is full of Volvo 240 DLs wheezing and rattling. Most are beige. All of their drivers are hip. So hip. They drive behind vintage sunglasses and scarfs. The show is correct, the dream of 90's cars is alive in Portland. Toyota Paseos, Tercels, second-generation Chevy Cavaliers, Subaru Outback Sports, Corvette C4's, Ford Escorts, and Eagle Visions.
A fresh 1993 Plymouth Sundance speeds in the far left lane of I-84.
A Mid 70's yellow Bug pulls as hard as it can; full throttle. Valves float like water wings.
We are standing in a dripping parking structure at Portland International Airport (PDX). The Enterprise rental agent is questioning me about a scratch on the front bumper of our rented Corolla. I tell him that it was there when we rented the car. He asks me why it wasn't reported. I told him the agent at Marina Del Rey was in a hurry and only looked around the car once. Readers: that scratch was always there! The rental inspector looked me in the eyes and asked why I didn't report the scratch if it was already there. I told him that I was in a hurry when I rented the car. The agent broke eye- and looked back at my rental contract's pink slip.
"Well, you purchased the damage waver, so it doesn't matter anyway," said the agent.
Honest citizens! Next time you rent a car, point out every little thing wrong with it because the agent on the other end will do his best to screw you.
No sense driving a rental car all the way back to Los Angeles. We learned as much as we could about the 2014 Toyota Corolla LE, and that is this: CVT boxes aren't that bad. We averaged 42.2mpg on this trip. Good enough for us, good enough for your mom.
We snagged a Southwest flight back to L.A. to drive more cars and see canyons at night.
Constant baby crying in front of me. This is payback for the hubris of flying first-class a week ago. The child is in pain; fear. Boeing 737-700: two turbofans taking him straight to hell. What else can an infant think? This loud tube is primordial terror; no way to explain it. The mind is too young, too immature to understand. A baby's ears will hurt in airliners because he doesn't know how to swallow or move his jaw to pop them. His mom is powerless to stop the pain and danger. I can watch the baby between the seats. He is in prison, strapped in his Recaro seat with five-point harness.
In go my headphones. Up goes the volume on Starcadian. Out the window go my eyes.
Desert. Hills. Mountains; black and brown. Mortality isn't measured by moisture. Dry is just different. Desert mountains are merely the absence of life and that is okay. I imagine falling safely down to that desert; that shadowless expanse. A bizzaro Myst. I would be lost like a lone ant on a driveway down there.
The plane banks and I see the Pacific Ocean. The ocean is silver and bleeds into the sky.
Circles of green agriculture roll into view on the ground. The irrigation arms reach out from the centers of the circles, like drought clocks counting-down. Tiny human outposts appear in the smooth valleys in the Sierra mountains. Lego warehouse barracks keep out the wilds. Planned housing communities like circled wagons with red roofs.
The 737-700 banks west over the ocean; blue nothingness again. A lonely pleasure craft makes a temporary white slice. Sapphire water—serene—our planet's biggest puddle.
Wham! Los Angeles arrives violently: A knife-edge beach, blood-gutter L.A. River, and a saw-toothed Marina Del Rey. A grid work of gray and white. A pearl highway, like a spinal cord, dangles from a downtown brain. Cars—nerve impulses, up and down.
Final Approach. Can read signs: "The Home Depot," "Martin Oslem is a Lie," "Office Depot."
Tires on the runway. Hard bang. Reverse thrust. I am pulled forward against the lap belt. The aircraft intercom crackles: "Welcome back to Los Angeles you [expletive deleted]!"
The baby in front is crying again. Good. Welcome to L.A. you little snot. Taste the concrete!
Music: The Kinks "All Day and All of the Night."
Night in LA.
Malibu, down from Mulholland and Stunt Road. 2003 Mazda Protege 5, hot-air intake gulping the rapidly cooling Pacific air. The roads are better here than in Pennsylvania, no tar snakes. I am not driving. Corbin Goodwin, he of , is driving. He knows these roads well. Some don't have guard rails.
Traffic still moves fast, even though it is 10:00pm. I see glorious homes standing on rocky outcroppings above me. A better-than-you Mercedes SUV matches us for speed southbound on The Pacific Coast Highway. An unconcerned ocean is on my right and violent individuality is on my left.
Porsche 911: the Corvette C5 of L.A.
A Wayfarer-wearing Beardman rides a bicycle and vapes.
The Chili Peppers were right. SoCal is the edge of the world in all of western civilization. L.A.: This is as far west as you can go. The PCH rides this edge, the edge of modern culture. All the cars on this road, and us too in a Mazda Protege 5, are riding the parapet of western culture. We are on the sword which stabs the future. Corbin is going full-throttle past a Subaru Legacy Outback filled with trendy youths bouncing up and down and taking Instagram pictures of each other.
These homes. This edge of the west coast—all the dwellers of Malibu and their dusty Escalades know that they've reached the terminus of success. There is no greater pride than to look out from the cliffs and see how far popular culture has advanced the world. But they aren't satisfied. Neither are we. It is the grand arousal that drives us all, that drives Corbin, that drives the accelerator pedal for faster and faster canyon times—to push the houses past The Edge.
It is not just The West, it is the language we use to describe The West. We say "out west" and "back east." Out...the word out. Moving away. Moving beyond. Freedom, from what? Name your cause. Back...a retreat. A parry to the old ways. The obsolete beginnings. The west is always better. But the idea of better is always attainable with effort.
"No!" thinks the Malibu homeowner, "no, I am not done yet. I will build my house long enough to sail over the edge. My house will ride, skyjacked, over the waves. This can't be the end to my success. I will go farther, out out out!"
The Good Doctor talked about The Edge, and here it is: Pacific Coast Highway in Malibu. It took leaving L.A. and returning to find it. Look at the houses if you can. Look at the speeding cars, jousting with each other. Look up Google pictures. This is the the world's finish line.
Mr. Regular is the anonymous voice behind and writes this column that you can find right here every week.