“Line up all the cars,” my nephew instructs, as only a four-year-old can. I dutifully place each metallic replica on the colorful plastic racetrack, bumpers touching. Spencer separates them each by a millimeter.
“Good,” he says, sitting back on his haunches. He loves cars, and he loves things to be ordered. My brother walks by, eating pasta.
“Too many cars on the road,” he observes. “How are they going to get anywhere?” We ignore him. The track is a loop, anyway. The cars are on it, and they’re exactly where they’re supposed to be.
Now that I live in the most populous state in the country, in a nation where there is nearly one car for every man, woman and child*, I’m beginning to understand Spencer’s transportation fascination. It’s funny, really — I’ve always dreaded driving. I always thought it was just me, resenting the fact that I have to line up my little car in a loop with all the other little cars. Now I’m thinking it has more to do with the loop itself.
Somehow — and I lack the engineer-speak to explain why — driving to Costco and back in any city in Oregon can turn into an operation that requires a hard drink and a lie-down immediately upon making it home. We have a brand new intersection on the southern portion of the I5 corridor that is nothing short of labyrinthine, where crossing the four lanes of traffic to get to the onramp on the left side feels like petting a tiger in the wrong direction.
It took me a little while to notice that California is different. There’s a pleasure to driving around here — when traffic is reasonable.
I took a car, a train and an airplane to come visit Spencer. I left home early enough to avoid rush hour on the way to the airport, and the car slid easily from freeway to freeway, onramps and offramps budding and folding like vines, delivering me safely and almost effortlessly to my destination. The GPS screen graciously faded to grey all those irrelevant highway swirls, the clover leaves and figure-eights that would feel terrifying if there weren’t already hundreds of cars pinned to them at 50 mph, not giving them a second thought.
Maybe the infrastructure is better here because California was built for high volume. These freeways are Sistine chapels — beautiful, but with mass appeal — while Oregon’s urban planners draw with crayons. “Oh shit, we grew,” is the approach, meaning that there’s one stop light where there should be four, the narrow streets are converted to an endless series of one-ways, and public transit fails to attract ridership in all cities but one.
This is the one. The flight to Portland is smooth; I hop on the MAX train to ride into the city center, watching the landscape and the twitchy man in the seat in front of me, who turns out to be quite nice. The freeways flow as freely as the Columbia, at least until rush hour comes. I wave “hello” to the I5, Oregon’s main vehicular artery, connecting all its population centers in one easy swish, interchanges nonwithstanding.
What would we do without the freeway? I think of a story I’ve heard from various locals in my new home of Santa Cruz. For this coastal city, there’s one main freeway, the 17, to take drivers up and over to the Silicon Valley, and it’s a doozie.
Driving the 17 for the first time will make you feel like you’re in on four-year-old’s high-stakes racetrack. The road winds relentlessly up the mountains, offering miles-long views of the forested hills for those who can tear their eyes off the lane. Drivers who commute daily get used to it; the 60-mph hairpin turns just another death-defying day at the office.
Last winter, heavy rains loosened the tenuous hold of the big trees in the steeply graded soil above a section of the 17. Down came the trees, placing their wooden bodies over four lanes of concrete, ready to block access between the metro areas for hours, possibly days.
Those commuters were having none of it. Some carried chainsaws. They cut up those trees themselves and kept driving.
Although I’m sure it didn’t quite play out like this, I have an image in my mind that won’t be erased: Suited businessmen and women on their way to work, leaving their cars in the standstill traffic, bearing down on those hapless trunks with their power tools. Teetering on heels, coats flapping in the wind, they fling the logs over the metal guardrails, passing long branches hand to hand until the job is done. Then they march back to their Lexuses and Priuses, clap the bark and pine needles off their hands, and keep driving. Take our freeways, take our lives. We all have somewhere to be.
* The US has an average of 795 cars per capita, the highest number for all 192 recognized nations on Earth, except Monaco and San Marino, which barely count. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_countries_by_vehicles_per_capita