Going to California

Life by the Valley

I thought I knew what I’d be doing when I headed out from Austin to the San Francisco Bay Area — what specific job I’d be doing, I mean. I was told one thing, but once I arrived I was told that I would be doing something else, to be explained to me in a few days. Some people were traveling at the moment and wouldn’t be back until the next week, so they wanted me to get settled first, maybe take on a few little jobs here and there while I got to know the place.

Sounds like a relaxing time. But the drive out? It was intense.

It was the perfect topper to all my driving days back in Austin. I loved driving so much that it was how I used to procrastinate, while working at the game company. When it was late, and I needed inspiration to keep going, I would take Sixth Street across town to Red Bud Trail, and drive around in those hilly, moody neighborhoods out there until I spotted a deer. You could usually find several, frozen just off the road, if you kept your eyes open. Once I saw one — a symbol of what, I couldn’t say — I’d feel like I could turn around and come back.

The long, rolling drive out of Austin toward El Paso was an epiphany. Why had I never done it before? Because I’d always been told it would be boring. It wasn’t. It was gorgeous.

I hit El Paso as the late-summer sun was setting. Once you’re west of El Paso, you’re in another state. As a Texan it felt odd, knowing that I’d left my home state behind. Luckily, by the time west Texas dumps you into New Mexico, you’re halfway through New Mexico. I pushed on, given that the third state in my journey was not too far away.

Around midnight, in the middle of nowhere, I was channeled off the empty freeway by a diagonal line of cones into what looked like a truck weighing station where military men stood in small clusters, talking. Some held rifles.

I stopped where it looked like they wanted cars to stop. Holy crap, I thought, am I in a good-enough state to be driving at this point? As I rolled my window down, a man barked, “Where were you born?”

“Carswell Air Force Base, sir,” I said crisply, surprising myself.

He pointed forward while stepping back, circling his other hand to tell me I should move on, so I did, back out into the borderless darkness.

I made it about another hour, to Tuscon Arizona, before giving in to a motel, but six hours later I was back on the road with a full tank of gas and about $22 to get me through the day. I had some snacks, and some water; I could survive until I landed in Los Angeles, about the same time that my Austin bank would close for the day, which was when the rest of my moving expenses would be made available to me in my account.

My dad had recommended that I drive all night and sleep during the day, to avoid the heat. He didn’t know how much I enjoyed the heat. “You don’t want your car breaking down out there,” he’d said. But I had a cell phone and $22, and I wasn’t going to kill a day trying to sleep in Arizona. The drive through the great American desert was excruciatingly beautiful, vast expanse after vast expanse, punctuated by the occasional long rise up into what eventually turns out to be a low hill, after which the land opens back out and you coast on down into the next long, low valley to come.

I stopped at the General George S. Patton Memorial Museum & Gas Station with enough money to fill my tank and maybe grab a snack, though that had been pretty optimistic of me. There was a lot I’d be learning, including how much gas cost in California.

Unfortunately, the only shade for perhaps forty miles in any direction was underneath the gas pump handles. That’s where I surprised a bee, who was probably only looking for a place to cool off for a moment, which stung me.

It didn’t hurt much, but I’d already spent all but $1.70 of my money and couldn’t afford anything to ease a bee sting in any case. But what the hell, I’d suck it up.

Once I got back on the road, I started to notice my finger swelling where it had been stung. Then over the next twenty minutes, the swelling began to spread, from finger to knuckle to the meat between thumb and forefinger. Pulling out my hand-held recorder, I began to tell whoever might find my car on the side of the road about the foolish thing I’d done. If only I hadn’t filled my car all the way up — I could probably still make it to LA on less, right? — or had waited to drive at night, or had simply put everyone off another day before leaving so that I’d be traveling with the cushion of the many thousands of dollars that waited for me only a few hours in the future from where I was clearly about to die, on the side of the road, more than twenty miles from the nearest sign of civilization, not even a shotgun shack, as two-thirds of my hand inflated.

Then as the swelling continued to move, it seemed to lose its energy, diminishing overall. Over hours it faded, and as the low little hillsides cresting the end of every valley grew higher and higher, I finally popped out the other side of one especially tall one and thought, Ah, so that’s as far east inwards as the rain really goes. It was as if I’d punched my way through from desert to dreamland. The ground was lush, like I’d always heard that so much of the land outside of Texas could be. As each successive valley had even more green on the ground, the air rapidly cooling, the views out my dusted windows began to show signs of that most expected of scenery infestations, the suburban communities. They dotted, then they speckled, then they covered.

Throughout, I was talking — mostly crazy things, I’m afraid, muttering to myself. I haven’t been able to bring myself to listen to the tapes, though I have gone so far as to digitize them.

My descent into Los Angeles was the insanity’s last attempt to grip me. As I shot into the city proper, a horrible rhythmic noise echoed in my little car. I honestly couldn’t tell if it was the freeway that was awful, its enormous concrete plates all bowed in nearly exactly the same way, forcing a terrible DRUM-DRUM-DRUM sound into the tires and up through the car’s frame and into my forearms by way of the steering wheel, or if the car had simply taken all the abuse it could and was determined to shake itself to pieces.

Then I landed, in the languid late afternoon, at an apartment complex in north LA, ringed with palm trees, where I met up with an old friend. He and his wife had moved out to California, though they’d targeted Hollywood, not Silicon Valley. They calmed me. It turned out to have simply been a crappy freeway; my car was fine. They took me to a bank machine, where I found that I’d suddenly gone from having less than two dollars to holding on to a lot of money. I bought us dinner, and we laughed for hours — Holy crap, can you believe it? We’re here! Isn’t that amazing? It is; it really is — until one or two or all three of us fell asleep.

In the morning, I woke alone. I locked the door, went out to my car, and made the last, patient leg of the drive, six hours up the incredible coast. The air was like nothing I’d ever felt before, literally cool, while the sun shined bright all day long over green grass, waving in ocean breeze.

I had come through something, somehow. I was no longer going to California. I had arrived.

I still haven’t told you what I was driving out there to do, or what I would then find out they really wanted from me.




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