The unnatural ecology of a freeway

Scavengers find their niches on I-15

Crash victims. The trunk crusher I saw on 163, near the Balboa Park bridge, was actually two crashes.
  • Crash victims. The trunk crusher I saw on 163, near the Balboa Park bridge, was actually two crashes.
  • Image by Robert Burroughs

Where onramp and asphalt,

Passing lane and hawk,

Converge in quick collusion

Against those who race and never walk.

Carmel Mountain Ranch. Interstate 15 is the fastest ride to the obviousness of house-farming suburbia.

Carmel Mountain Ranch. Interstate 15 is the fastest ride to the obviousness of house-farming suburbia.

Southern California has it all. We’ve pot ground that shakes, hillsides that burn, a dazzling assortment of gun-toting psychos, cities full of riotous portent, air you can chew.

Occasionally, when it rains, we get some dandy floods. We like our environment, even if we occasionally fear it. It asks us questions, and we answer them in the particular language of Homo sapiens californicus (the border race). To get home, we drive, and we ask ourselves: Is it worth the time, the money, the effort, the love? When we know the answers, we are home; we Wong to this life and not some other.

Officer Eric Flynn recognizes that nearly everyone is breaking the law,

Officer Eric Flynn recognizes that nearly everyone is breaking the law,

For all the dangers we withstand to belong here, it’s in the automobile that we face mayhem and death nearly every day. San Diego is defined by its freeways. If you live here, who you are and the vehicular language you speak can be reduced to a number: 5, 805, 94, 52, 78, 163, 8; each conjure up a dreamscape of images, sandblasted into the synapses by the repetition of earning a living.

15, looking south from Escondido. Up there, traveling in the fast lane goes from an average in the mid-70s to well in the 80s.

15, looking south from Escondido. Up there, traveling in the fast lane goes from an average in the mid-70s to well in the 80s.

My number is 15, its particularities are mine. Interstate 15 is the fastest ride to the obviousness of house-farming suburbia. The proverbial house and two cars signify, for those lucky or unlucky enough to afford it, security amid a framework of jeopardy. We vie for a place in the mini-cities that make up this polyglot town, driving up the artery that feeds us, concrete rivers flowing over the valleys of our hope. Tierrasanta, Scripps Ranch. Poway, Rancho Bernardo, Escondido, Fallbrook, Temecula, the 15 goes north planting San Diegan seeds until the seeds are planted by some farmer in the north, Riverside, Los Angeles, Las Vegas, etc, etc. Those et ceteras go all the way to Canada. “I” is for interstate, and 15 hits a lot of states on its journey north.

I-15 has gained its present prominence on the San Diego landscape only recently. I-I5’s sheen hasn’t always been so bright. Thirty years ago, 15 was old 395. Some egotist once wrote, “There is no life east of I-5.” Fifteen years ago when I first read those words on some insecure fellow’s bumper, I probably couldn’t understand his north-south bias line. I was already dead, a hopeless mountain boy too spoiled by the less-congested Santa Barbara beaches of my birth to catch his distinction. I-5 has always been a little too precious for me, coastline clamoring for recognition, the obvious attraction for the easily amused. It is also, now as it was then, chokingly overused.

When I first moved here in 1979, I-15 was nothing more than a two-lane road for much of its San Diego County length. I have dim memories of my first encounters with its rural character. Once, driving south from an L.A. Frisbee tournament north of what is now Temecula, I became so disoriented by the cows and the lack of service stations that I had to pull over and consult a map.

I rarely drove the 15, and when I did it was to take a trip away from home (a putrid domicile around the SDSU nexus) into the mountains and wilderness. In 1988 my wife and I bought a house in North County. Looking back now, it’s easy to see why. The frontier myth (you know, the part where we think the grass is greener and the kids are all above average) seduced me into thinking I could go hack to my youth of debauchery, spent under the spell of a high school that bears the same name as the town where I now live: San Marcos.

I drive the 15 every day now, racing along its myriad lanes, bottleneck to bottleneck, with foolhardy alacrity. 78 to 15 to 163 to 8 and reversed in the evening, the majority of my driving is spent on 15. I don’t pretend to know every facet of 15 from here to Montana, but I would bet that the amount of humanity locked into the inland North County commute outweighs any comparable mass along its 3000 miles. According to Jim Larson, community relations director at Caltrans, 220,000 cars use 15 every weekday. During rush hour there are something like 12,000 cars per hour careening and crawling along 15.

I-15 is the highway of the American dream, San Diego-style. I-5 doesn’t have the growing, striving character 15 does: no MOV (high-occupancy vehicle) lanes, nothing to keep it moving, evolving. The land rape is pretty much complete on I-5; all that’s left is real estate most of the people who drive it can’t afford. There are other snippets of highway that might still be breathing hope into the hearts of San Diegans, but none of the other local interstates has anything new to give. I-8 is beautiful once you get out of the El Cajon sinkhole, but only lunatics commute that crash-tested ribbon for long. Put it this way only people with gun racks dream of moving up to El Cajon. Santee, or Lakeside.

And only yuppie scum dream of living in Rancho Bernardo or, dare I admit it, San Marcos. (My present neighbors include a truck driver, a fireman, a postal delivery person, and several renters who I assume are employed in legal occupations.) Driving along the highway every day, I do see a fair amount of upwardly striving people and some of the selfish ugliness attributed to their conceits. Besides the usual bumper-sticker affronts to intelligence and good sense ("My child was student of the month at ," "I love ," or anything that has to do with abortion), we get ones like the arrogant swill I spotted etched on the silver license frame of a brand new black 325i BMW. “God is Awesome,” it proclaimed, conjuring up images of Terry Cole Whitaker or theosophist Katherine Tingley.

There are signs of beauty on the freeway that more than make up for such horrors. Most striking are the hawks that patrol the updrafts and occupy the light poles all over San Diego. Their presence around 15 leavens the sterile forms of machinery with the stunning perfection of nature. They are highway avatars of our progressive expectations. Their shadows bless the cyborgs of North County with the feathers of God.

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