On driving, and California

Driving has been an important part of my life ever since I turned 16 and got my license in high school. Growing up and going to college in Texas, a car was a necessary mode of transportation—I spent a lot of time behind the wheel, and I came to enjoy the driver’s seat as a place where I could be alone with my music and my thoughts. I still remember my first job, working as a telemarketer the summer after my junior year and driving 45 minutes each way to get there and back; the thing that I looked forward to most at the end of each day was getting out of my air-conditioned cubicle with all its rules and restrictions and into my little Civic hatchback, which didn’t have air conditioning and where I got to set the rules. To this day I still associate the feeling of a hot steering wheel with freedom and relaxation.

I started doing road trips out west my freshman year of college, and in the process I fell in love with Interstate 10 and its 70-mph-plus counterparts—long, uninterrupted stretches of American engineering that took me to the deserts of the southwest and the Grand Canyon and California and all sorts of great places in between. Driving across the country, and travel in its other forms, became a form of meditation for me, a way to disconnect from the context of my day-to-day routines and think more clearly about my life.

I’ll never forget the first time I followed I-10 all the way to the California coast and came face to face with Highway 1, the long, narrow strip of road that hugs the Pacific for the majority of the state’s 840 miles of coastline. It was love at first sight, and it sparked what would eventually become the next phase of my relationship to the open road.

It was the summer after my freshman year of college—my older sister had just graduated from the same school at which I’d just started, and as soon as her graduation ceremony was over a good friend of mine and I jumped into my little Civic hatchback and sped off for L.A. to see the world premiere of the first of the new Star Wars movies at the Mann’s Chinese theater (now called the Graumann Chinese). We drove through the night to Phoenix, crashed hard at his grandparents’ place, and eventually met up in L.A. with another college friend, a girl whose parents lived in Orange County and with whom I would start into the first serious, long-term relationship of my young life less than a year later. When we picked up our tickets at the theater around midnight we were told that they’d be opening the doors at 7:00 to start letting people in. We had a choice—we could either wait in the huge line of people, some of whom had been camping there for weeks so that they could be the first ones through the doors, or we could use the 7 hours we had to see a little bit of the area. We opted for the latter, and had a fantastic time driving around Hollywood before we headed out for the coast. I remember thinking that the Pacific Coast Highway (as 1 is called in Santa Monica and Malibu) was one of the most beautiful things that I’d ever seen—we watched the sunrise from the Pepperdine campus, then turned around and headed back to Hollywood for the movie.

I returned many times to the California coast and beyond over the remainder of my college years, alone and with good friends, and it was on a trip to visit two of my roommates who were interning at Microsoft the summer after our junior year that the seed was planted that would eventually lead me to move to Seattle after my own college graduation. When I made the decision in the summer of 2002 to start my life over from scratch in the Pacific Northwest I’d never driven the full length of the west coast, so I resolved that I would take my time and do it right, and let the drive serve as the buffer between my old life and my new one. I stopped off in Orange County to pick up my friend, who by this point had gone from being a close friend to a girlfriend and back to a close friend again, and we drove up the coast together, she on tour with a couple of fellow singer-songwriters and I just entering the ascetic renouncer phase of my life, obsessed with independence and with the germ of The Big One swimming around somewhere inside my head, still waiting for it to take root in the fertile soil of Millennium Ford and then blossom in the port of Long Beach into the Direct Tui. As we drove along by the ocean, in a time before “travel all the way around the world without flying” and “cargo freighter across the Pacific” had entered my vocabulary, I looked out and wondered, not what was on the other side—I already knew that firsthand—but what the expanse felt like, what it meant experientially to cross an ocean at eye level instead of from 30,000 feet.

17 months later, with my money and my plans and my freedom firmly in hand along with a burning desire to spend them all while I was still young, I slipped out of Seattle on a snowy New Year’s Eve morning and left no footprints behind me as I drove back down the coast en route to Texas. I’d thought about what the freighter would be like every day as I drove past Harbor Island on my way to work, and now I wondered the same thing as I looked out at the calm timelessness of the Pacific to my right and prepared to say good-bye to America for awhile—until I ran out of money or wanderlust, whichever came first.

The Direct Tui—like an economy car in its relation to the global body of water, vs. the convertible roadster that Ragtime would eventually represent—lost sight of the shore before dawn one morning in late January of 2004, with me watching it recede into nothingness from the observation deck. The next time I saw the California coast was in early 2006 on a 3-week, 10,000-mile road trip extravaganza with a good friend from high school, after what I didn’t yet know was the end of the international adventures of my youth and before I started an office job in Texas, where I would again look forward to a hot steering wheel at the end of the day, in the name of being able to spend more time with my mother in what would turn out to be the last year of her life. It would be the last time that I drove Highway 1 in a Civic.

There’s a certain feeling that comes from the combination of a warm, sunny day, a twisty driving road, and a car that’s been built from the ground up to take advantage of both. It’s a feeling I know well now, analogous to what surfing is to a wave or snowboarding is to a mountain, a visceral connection and an adrenaline rush and a personal test all rolled into one; but up until the Burning Man trip I was missing the proper vehicle, not yet fluent in the physical language of curvy mountain roads. That changed in 2007, and my relationship with the California state highway system moved to a whole new level, when I rented a Miata for three days and took it on a whirlwind tour of the best driving roads between San Francisco and Los Angeles before heading out east to Black Rock City. It was an amazing experience—all of the twists and turns and switchbacks were transmogrified along with the sun and the car into something else entirely: a new sport, a new form of control, and an entirely new way of being alone with the open road.

I totaled the Civic in Ohio in 2008 after logging just over 240,000 miles with it altogether, and I replaced it with a used S2000, one of the most beautiful driving cars ever created. After election day I was off and running—I spent 2 months and 15,000 miles hitting all of the best driving roads in the country in style, learning the car’s physical limits and my psychological ones, and then after the inauguration in D.C. I turned my sights Seattle-wards and got here via a magnificent drive up the coast. It was the most fun I’ve ever had with a car and a road, and when I arrived in Seattle it was the first time in my life I’d ever moved somewhere that I wasn’t planning on leaving, where I was actually planning on putting down roots and building a future for myself. A month after I hit the ground I sold the S2000 and went car-less for the first time in my life; I’ve toyed with the idea of flying down to San Francisco and renting a nice little driving car a few times since then, but I never acted on it until this past week.

Two Fridays ago my fiancée broke off our engagement and brought my whole world crashing down around my feet. My response was almost automatic once I recovered enough to be able to sit down and think about what my next steps would be: I flew to San Francisco the next day, had a long conversation over dinner with the same friend I’d watched the movie and driven up the coast with, found a place that would rent me a manual-transmission Miata for a whole week for a reasonable price (City Rent-a-Car—highly recommended), and took off for Palm Desert to enjoy some uninterrupted communion with the open road. At the time I just felt like I needed to be able to breathe, but in retrospect I realize that it fits well into the “boundary between two phases of life” role that California has often played for me—it wouldn’t have been physically possible for me to go about my life as if nothing had happened, and I don’t think that I could have processed that first week well if I’d stayed in Seattle. I’ve always evolved via travel, and the road trip was a great way to clear my head, temporarily leave behind all of my commitments and obligations, and start working through the situation and thinking about how to rebuild my life from a neutral frame of reference.

There were a lot of good revelations over the course of the week—I’m still sorting through it all, as you can imagine, but one thing I realized very clearly the last day, wandering down a short little path to the Pacific that reminded me of New Zealand and the freedom-and-happiness-seeking mindset of my youth, was that writing, the road trip impulse turned inwards, needs to be a bigger part of my life going forward than it has been recently.

Consider this a down payment.

9 thoughts on “On driving, and California

    • Thanks, Annie; that means a lot to me. Re: Tumblr, I don’t have an account–RSS is the easiest way to get new posts, but I’ll always put them on Facebook and Twitter, too.

  1. I’m so glad to read this. I’m going to have to keep up with my RSS now to stay tuned in to this next stage of your evolution. I look forward to reading more of your writing!

  2. the open road gives us time to contemplate, germinate, breathe, with a good dose of “WOW’s” from the scenery. one of my favorite Wow drive’s is between Calgary and Jasper, up hiway 1 to 93. This drive is definitely one to make my simple soul be marvelled with nature’s brilliance. Keep on writing, Sol.

  3. A well-written, tightly woven essay that expresses your amazing talent to paint compelling pictures with words. I love it, Sol. Keep up the good work. Love

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