Some 40 years of driving and I’ve never seen anything like it.
Four lanes of cars and big rigs that populate Interstate 10 through southern California stretch beyond what the eye can see. A woman in an SUV in the next lane pops up through the sunroof and turns eastward and westward to capture pictures and then presumably returns to the air-conditioned cabin.
In this desert heat of 105 (40.5 C), you need to keep cool. And hydrated.
It’s the coattails of high noon in a desert punctuated by mountains, cacti and critters unseen by us here on the road. The sun is glaringly and nakedly obvious in the sky cloudless and blue.
I won’t be pulling into a mini-mart to replenish my water bottle any time soon and neither will any of thousands of vehicular drivers and occupants. None of us is going anywhere soon — or fast. Unknown miles ahead is an accident that’s caused a backup of unknown length and duration.
“Massive” is one descriptor. Four lanes of cars immobilized. Big trucks parked front to end on the right shoulder waiting it out along with the autos that’ve filled up the infrequent rest stops along the interstate.
“Slow” is another. We advance at a stop-and-go clip of 1 mile an hour. Drive 10 feet. Stop. Wait. Drive 15. Stop. Wait 12 minutes. Drive 20. (We’re speeding now!) Stop. Wait 9.
The afternoon sun is hot hot hot, like the road and heat generated from asphalt, metal and engines. You could probably fry an egg on a hood. By the speed and sight of things, we’re here for a while. A snack doesn’t sound half bad. I drink from a half-filled bottle of water judiciously and am kept cooled by a light breeze from the car’s air-conditioning. I’m grateful for both.
And I’m grateful for the two radio stations that can be picked up thanks to strong signals from Phoenix and Los Angeles; I happen to be smack between ’em on a major interstate.
Another blessing: a cell phone signal. As a traveler, I can attest to Verizon’s coverage being the best. This enables me to text my old college friend Bill to tell him I’m running late. Not a little late but a freakin’ 3 hours late! It’s unfortunate that our visit is a short two or three evenings of dinners and conversation. It’ll be bedtime by the time I inch through this backup and the California evening commute ahead. Bye-bye to my travel planned to avoid that (as much as possible)!
To top it off, I’ve got a migraine since awakening. As any migraineur can attest, getting through a day is a terrific challenge. The aspirins and homeopathic remedy popped through the day bring no relief. A massive traffic halt in the desert in an afternoon is a tough environment with a migraine. No dark rooms with a cool fan or washcloth here!
I contemplate the timing of a trip intended for relaxing and respite and release. Ironic to find myself instead stuck on a highway in a desert on a scorchy afternoon. I dig into my internal backpack for tools. I don’t have to dig far. Traveling really brings out my activist contemplator / contemplating activist, clears away debris and spotlights issues and/or changes sought — much like that desert sun above us.
I’m ticked off about the delay, which brings with it the California commute I’d timed my travels to avoid, because they’re draining away valued time with a longtime college friend, and his family, whom I rarely see.
Still, these three hours are opportunity to practice centering (as much as a migraine permits, that is!) and being in the moment without resistance.
Moments — hours — to take in the beauties of the desert, the brown rugged mountains slicing across a flat arid landscape punctuated by brush and cacti and critters unseen from our seats on the highway. It is peaceful in the desert. The harsh vast landscape reminds of the daringness, grit, drive and determination of early settlers and travelers to push onward toward other frontiers.
I’ll admit, being Zen in the desert is more easily accomplished than being Zen in a backup 10-15 miles long under the desert sun! But I work on it! I practice not what I knew to do, rather what I’m endeavoring to learn. Being there, present, calmly, without pushing, letting the situation be what it is, letting the disappointment about the shortened visit with my friend be, no fixes, no way to regain time lost, making the best of the time we have.
I feel compassion for the thousands in their autos and trucks — those on the interstate as well as the area’s sole main byway feeding into it. It is hot, it is uncomfortable and it is hours on a highway with no alternatives or alternate routes.
An airport shuttle to my left, any passengers inside are definitely missing their flights. How many days and evenings and plans and activities and travels are changed? Is someone missing an important job interview or business appointment?
Would a baby be born in a car instead of a hospital? Would a celebration be missed or a funeral or a family dinner or a date or any one in a myriad of life activities?
How vast the number of individual courses changed greatly or minimally by a single accident. Like when a spider jars a web.
Some three hours later I arrive at the spot of that spider. A large truck is overturned, its metal sides shredded and burned by fire. Denizens of officials are gathered around like flies on fresh roadkill. A tall crane and two giant flatbeds stand ready for removal. The rubbernecking of we westbound travelers slows traffic not at all. After all, no one’s exceeded 5 mph for hours!
Beyond the accident, we’re all like horses outta the gate, resuming the posted speed of 70 and much above in many cases. Sadly, accidents, fatalities and closures are not uncommon on this interstate for its many speeders.
I’ve still the California commute and all its (renowned) aggressive, rude and tailgating drivers to contend with. I bear through, glad to be moving even at 20 mph — better than 0! — and relieved that earlier accidents have been cleared.
I arrive at Bill’s just before bedtime after a 10-hour drive that normally would’ve taken about six. It’s good to arrive, wearied and frazzled though I be. And to discover that for their own weird reasons, their dinner was delayed, enabling the three of us to sup late after all!
Then it was straight to bed for all of us! — after reading the news. The 35-year-old California truck driver was traveling at 55 mph in the right lane. He became distracted when reaching for something in the passenger side, hit a guardrail, over-corrected, causing his truck and trailer with pesticides to overturn and burst into flame.
Miraculously, he was not injured. Also, there were no consequential accidents or injuries (which I attribute to sparse traffic of the early morning hour). The enormous delay was caused not by cleanup but many hours of California authorities enmeshed in political correctness, socialism and moves to circumvent lawsuits in a particularly litigious-happy state figuring out in their officialdom how to proceed.
At night some 14 hours later, the backup was just beginning to thin. At the same time, I was enjoying the last of a dinner conversation with old friend Bill and wife and through the exhaustion appreciating that road trip as extraordinary and memorable.
A bit spooked nonetheless, I reckon I’ll opt for another route upon returning to Arizona in a coupla days. When I’m back, I’ll turn around and head back out for a vacation from my vacation! Instead of venturing by car, I may rent a horse. Or a bike. A pair of skates. Or a paddleboat to take out onto a lake where my sole companions are fishes instead of thousands packed onto a desert strip for milesuponmiles like, uh, sardines.