When driving between San Francisco and Los Angeles, I try to avoid I-5. The flow of interstate traffic during the day is often excruciating, with big rigs hogging the right lane while everyone else cruises in the passing lane. In the summer, temperatures hit triple digits and the barren landscape resembles something out of Mad Max. In this scorched terrain, irrigation management is political. Signs along the road denounce the government, as canals filled with glistening blue water meander through desolate earth. It’s an unpleasant drive through a hostile environment. And for what? To save an hour or so versus Highway 101?
I much prefer El Camino Real. Driving through the fertile Salinas Valley, over the rolling hills covered with vineyards and along the rugged coastline is like driving through the California of your dreams. On I-5, you could be in any one of the arid western states, but on Highway 101, you know you’re in California.
After languishing in a sweltering West Hollywood apartment for over two weeks, though, we weren’t interested in a scenic drive back to the Bay. We just wanted to go home as quickly as possible and start looking for a new place to live. So, on Friday morning, we gassed up the car and took 170 to I-5, then careened up the Grapevine into the San Joaquin Valley.
It was a relief to leave Los Angeles. Not to just bash on the city, but LA didn’t seem like the safest place to be during a pandemic. Even though Trump claimed back in February that by summertime the heat would wipe out the virus, the hot Southern California climate seems more like the perfect breeding ground for a respiratory disease. Of course, like Trump, I’m no scientist and that’s just my opinion, but…
The streets are filthy. The sidewalks and gutters are littered with trash. On the curb in front of my in-laws’ building, a mountain of Amazon boxes grows larger each day. After a while, they’d been tagged repeatedly and repurposed as receptacles for more garbage and multi-colored baggies of dog poop. The city seems to have discontinued street cleaning. But landscapers still show up every day with their mowers and leaf blowers.
While everyone wears masks in public and signs encourage social distancing, most stores are overcrowded. But at “rock and roll Ralphs,” where an outbreak of coronavirus cases led to the grocery store being rebranded as “COVID Ralphs,” the shelves are fully stocked, and you rarely have to stand in line for more than a few minutes.
Mornings are quiet. One day, I went out around 9 a.m. to look for a cup of coffee, but Hollywood was desolate. It isn’t until the afternoon that things start to get busy, which continues into the evening and nighttime. Coming from the Bay Area, where everything shuts down by 10 p.m., it’s surprising to see so much activity after dark. Restaurant patios are crowded with diners even at midnight. Most places with outside seating are usually packed. And traffic is nonstop.
Driving around and exploring old haunts, the homeless situation is in your face. Because of the warm weather, many unsheltered folks sleep directly on the sidewalks without much protection from the elements. Tent encampments have sprung up along major thoroughfares, on side streets and in parks, which are still closed to the public. In some areas, bus stop shelters have been repurposed into yurt-like structures.
It was a depressing “vacation.” And all the negative aspects of LA seemed to follow us on I-5. Even after transitioning onto 580, where traffic came to a standstill due to an accident that shut down three lanes. But once we made it over the Altamont Pass and into the East Bay, temperatures dropped. We turned off the AC and rolled down the windows to let in the fresh Pacific air. Our bodies relaxed. Our spirits soured. We were back home.
Still, the daunting task of finding an apartment awaits us. Which is challenging in normal times. In the midst of a pandemic, though, when everything is out of whack, it’s downright terrifying. But at least we’re back where we belong. And that’s the first step, I guess.
Kelly Dessaint, a San Francisco taxi driver and veteran zine publisher, is the author of the novel “A Masque of Infamy.” His long-running Behind the Wheel zine series is collected into a paperback “Omnibus,” available through all book marketplaces or from his blog, idrivesf.com. His column appears every other week in the Examiner. He is a guest opinion columnist and his point of view is not necessarily that of the Examiner.