Where onramp and asphalt,
Passing lane and hawk,
Converge in quick collusion
Against those who race and never walk.
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.
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.
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.
Ironically, the hawks that bless the aluminum trees of I -15 are the beneficiaries of freeway right-of-way killing zones. They have won their place in the visible ecosystem by being better able to adapt to man's advance than other raptors. The red-tailed and red-shouldered hawks and the American kestrel have all found it easier to adapt to the inland autobahn than the Cooper's hawk, the sharp-shinned hawk, or the doomed Swainson’s. Hawks hunt for squirrels, snakes, mice, voles, and insects along the freeway hillsides, but they won't turn down a carrion snack just because they don’t know the driver of the Toyota who prepared it. Roadkill means free energy. I don’t know any driver that would turn down a free tankful of gas.
Swainson’s hawks no longer frequent San Diego County. Their decline isn’t just a case of local development ruining their homes. There is, according to local bird guru Philip Unitt of the Natural History Museum, just as likely a reason to be found in the destruction of the Southern Hemisphere as there is the Northern for the Swainson’s local disappearing act. Hawks migrate, not in the formation flying of geese but every bit as far. In 1980, over 200 Swainson’s hawks were seen near Temecula, but not many have been seen since. They have gone, moved on to another place where their needs are better met.
Unitt is the head of the bird and mammal collection at the museum in Balboa Park. He wrote Birds of San Diego County in 1984, “the book” on San Diego County ornithology. (Things have changed a bit since then, and his book has lost some of its timeliness.)
Another local expert is Bill Toone, who works as the curator of birds up at the Wild Animal Park. Toone set up the condor breeding program at the beginning of the 1980s and now commands a high perch in the bird world. If Unitt is a least Bell’s vireo then Toone is a condor; he sees the big picture with the high-definition eyes of a bird of prey.
Toone’s office stood me up for a bigger catch the first time I was set to meet him. Some guy — interior secretary Bruce Babbitt, actually — came to town and grabbed all the available ears for a spewfest of greenspeak. Toone claims Babbitt said all the right things, especially pertaining to a measure that would provide a regional plan to develop the remaining local open space. Still, he retains a good part of his enthusiasm for the wait-and-see future.
Enthusiasm Toone has plenty of. He’s one of those people who loves his job and sees no reason to hide it. Sitting in his office at the Wild Animal Park, he had the look of someone who is winning the good fight. When I pushed him and asked if he were an optimist about the future of the San Diego ecosystem and 15’s role in it, he quickly demurred.
“I’ve been here all my life, I was born in Poway. I remember when 15 wasn’t there. Yeah, 15 is certainly a major corridor of disaster in terms of habitat destruction, but if you look at the county from the air, anywhere there’s a road going into the wilderness, there’s a tremendous amount of focus on [the ecosystem).
“If you look at the picture for San Diego County, the amount of space we have and the number of people we have, what the rate of immigration into the county is and all those pressures, (we have] all the makings for an environmental disaster.
“Ultimately we have to recognize that people win, and that’s biological as well; that has its own natural side to it. A freeway needs to be widened and you talk about, well, 20 people got killed on that freeway last year because we worried about a gnatcatcher, so we’re going to get rid of that gnatcatcher and expand the freeway. Meanwhile, the human population grew by four million. On a personal level, 20 people is really a tragedy, on a population level it’s not significant. Those gnatcatchers, on the other hand, their population isn’t growing.
“But the bottom line is we are people. (Our) biology, just like the gnatcatcher’s, competes for us to stay alive. Our own drive for survival might ultimately, I believe, be the biggest threat to humanity.”
Following a hint Unitt had handed me, I asked Toone to assess the Southern Californian raptor situation.
“But the hawks are doing well, right?"
“Well, just because for the first time [we have] such-and-such species of flamingo breeding here. Well, to me that’s not necessarily good news, all it means is that the place they were breeding last year isn’t there anymore. And they’re desperately looking for another spot.
“Some birds adapt well. Before the park was built there were cactus wrens and gnatcatchers |here). [So we) built the little 40-acre village here [at the Wild Animal Park], and we still have cactus wrens and gnatcatchers, but they’re not in the 40-acre village.
“What’s in the little 40-acre village is the house sparrow. They adapted well to being around people, these other birds less so. This is the kind of phenomenon you see with the hawks.”
The red-shouldered hawk has been “simply more adaptable,” more willing to use what man has to offer it. In that sense, Toone says, “it’s the house sparrow hawk.”
I had another Unitt question to check out. Like most urban-raised humans, I am more impressed by larger animals’ plight than little obscure ones. Unitt told me that up until the Sabre Springs development, there was a pair of nesting golden eagles in the canyon over in Poway. Toone, ever the condor expert, pointed out that not so long ago we had giant vultures living in San Diego.
“We had California condors nesting here at one time. [A pair of golden eagles have] a territory of 36 square miles. There aren’t a lot of undisturbed areas like that left. When a nesting pair is disturbed they move off, looking for another suitable area to take over. When they find it, nine times out of ten there’s probably another pair already there. So now we got a fight.” Most aggression, he points out, is within a species.
I asked Toone if there were anything that could be done to ameliorate the effect building a highway has on the environment. A highway like 15 seems to be a conduit for the destruction of the landscape. He suggested that there were some things you could do to lessen the damage, like planting natural vegetation on the sides of the freeway instead of planting pepper trees or the ubiquitous Acacia longifolia. He said that Caltrans was getting the message and changing their planting philosophy.
At this time of year, zillions of orange and yellow wildflowers border the HOV lanes in the landing path of Miramar. To the east of the runway, acres and acres of chaparral cover the ground to the horizon. The wildflowers are a recent addition to the landscape, the brainchild of some Caltrans employee who pointed out that they were cheap and pretty. Much of the freeway shoulders are sprayed with herbicide. Within weeks after an application, the plants wither and die, as if touched by Rappaccini’s daughter. Their skeletons, for the chaparral anyway, remain. The importance of creating firebreak prevents Caltrans from allowing the laurel sumac, chemise, buckwheat, black sage, scrub oak, ceanothus, mahogany, and manzanita to reestablish itself.
Homeowners and motorists want the oily brush beaten into submission. Most people can’t see much beauty in the greenish brown tangle that covers our hillsides. Toone hopes that people will eventually appreciate the sight of a hawk in a way that parallels urban civilization’s desire for “culture." Along the freeway people do notice the raptors sitting on the branchless trees that mark every point of egress and ingress. However, more time is spent looking for the highway police than enjoying the fleeting sight of a poaching red-tail. More brush might save water, money, improve the ecosystem, and reduce pesticide use. It also might improve the highway patrol’s hiding places.
Nearly everyone speeds when it isn’t rush hour on the local freeways. On the 15, speeding is the religion that feeds on the bread of multiple valves and high-output V-8s. Find someone who is driving 55 on a clear night and I will show you a person stubborn in their trust of the government.
The state recognizes the inevitability of the impulse to float in the velocity envelope, so it bumps the double nickels of tedium up to a pre-oil crisis 65 north of Escondido. Up there, traveling in the fast lane goes from an average in the mid-70s to well in the 80s, traffic permitting. Most anybody can hit double the speed limit with a new passenger car and the will to exhibit the joy of wanton disregard for authority. In Germany they allow the public to test their mettle at balls-out commuting. The carnage can be impressive, but something in the German psyche allows for this. Building the best cars in the world probably has something to do with it.
Cops hate speed as much as they hate drunks, if Officer Eric Flynn is representative of department ideology. Riding with him gave me a chance to view the freeway from a new perspective. It also gave me insight as to how to avoid this branch of authority. After riding around with Flynn, I drive slower. He didn’t have an exact figure for the average speed of traffic during clear-flow times, but it sure as hell isn't close to 55. He recognizes that nearly everyone is breaking the law, but he focuses his ire for the dangerously stupid, the perceptually dysfunctional. Speeding drunks might as well be garrotted — after a fair trial, of course.
While Officer Flynn’s designated target is commercial vehicles, if someone demands assistance, the daily objective is put on hold. Our first situation on his 1:30-to-10:00 p.m. shift was straight from a made-for-TV movie. Flaying the part of the giddy female was a La Jolla doctor’s wife from Rancho Santa Fe. She had all the correct props from wardrobe: gold Lexus, tennis-ball caddie in the trunk, kid’s lunch pail in same, designer jeans and see-through silk blouse, Gucci sunglasses, large breasts, treated hair, unconcerned husband. She was so completely flustered by the flat right front tire on her ES400 she’d forgotten her car phone number.
After a brief conference. Officer Flynn helped her move the contents of her trunk into the back seat so that when the Autoclub tow-truck driver arrived he would be able to get to her spare. As quickly as possible. Officer Flynn retreated into his air-conditioned Crown Victoria to wait. The woman asked him to stay until the truck arrived, and with no calls pending, we sat.
Like a bartender or a priest, officers of the law hear the confessions of the sinners. As Officer Flynn and I got used to each other we both relaxed, enjoying the company. As the shift ended, we made one last pitch down 15, looking for drunks. We pulled over a weaving 80-mile-an-hour maroon Ford Aerostar filled with an entire family. No drunk driver, but a sleeping child out of the car seat gave Flynn a chance to test his vehicle code recall for the citation. As we merged back onto the freeway — always a harrowing moment since those who are perceptually dysfunctional enough to get pulled over usually aren’t good drivers anyway — a drunk materialized. Like some wounded squirrel, fast and mean, the blue Chevy Celebrity begged to be eaten. The driver gunned his car to the right of a semi-rig that had already occupied the lane for the southbound Balboa offramp. Like everyone else pulled over during Flynn’s shift, this guy was asking for it.
“I love that sound," Flynn remarked as the siren shrieked the Celebrity off the road. The driver, gray hair illuminated by the powerful spots of the cruiser, expected the officer to come to his window. CHP officers don’t stand next to moving traffic lanes any more than they have to. They use sheet metal like a quarterback uses offensive tackles. Flynn had to tap on the passenger-side window to get the guy’s attention. Seeing that he had a live one, he motioned me out of the patrol car to observe.
It was brutally cold outside, about 9:00 p.m., wind howling with the deafening freeway. Everyone knows freeways are loud, but it’s easy to forget how much noise they make until you stand alongside one for 30 minutes.
Roadside sobriety tests consist of a lot of weird hand manipulations coupled with enough leg work to impress a flamingo. It seemed like the drunk did fairly well on some parts of the test: other parts, like the infamous heel-to-toe routine, he couldn’t do at all. When it came time to use the pocket Breathalyzer, he tipped the meter at .13, .08 being the legal limit. Two hours later at the downtown jail, after struggling to complete the official chemical test, he registered .12. Most likely, Flynn asserted, he was on his way up when we pulled him over. He probably burned up .0-1 or so in the two hours it took to reel him in.
He was a big fish too, easily 6‘3” or 6’4", 250 pounds. His wrists were so big that it took Officer Flynn a full minute to handcuff him: Flynn gave me a look of desperation as he tried again and again to get the damn things to engage.
While Flynn did the paperwork on the hood of the Crown Vic, including the dreaded vehicle impound form, I chatted with the driver from Allied Gardens Towing who came to take the Celebrity to car-jail. He too made a point of stepping away from his truck and the Chevy. Extra time spent between vehicles on the freeway shoulder is time spent fiddling with fate.
Tow-truck drivers are the vultures of the asphalt ecology, cleaning up the dead and wounded sheet metal. When you see them hovering around bad parking lands, looking for a cheap impound tow job, they’re parasites. Along the highway, however, they’re in glorious plumage, filling a niche by ridding the high-speed expressways of easy targets for carnage.
I scolded Officer Flynn for wearing his jacket, pointing out that Mark the tow-truck driver must be a real man because he only wore a dress shirt, by the time I was done pestering him, Mark was shivering like me.
“I like this,” Mark said, motioning to the Crown Victoria and the handcuffed prisoner. “After you’ve seen some little kid killed by a drunk, you want [the CHP] to nail ’em all.”
The ride downtown started quiet; no one likes to talk when caught doing something as emotionally laden as drunk driving. After we joined 8 west, the drunk began to speak.
“Yeah, maybe I made a bad judgment," he began, “but I try to set a good example for my kids."
Knowing it was confession time, Flynn gave me a little “roll tape" motion and began questioning him in earnest.
“How do you feel right now?’’
“Very, uh, very tired.” The drunk gathered himself and continued. “If I had a choice of, you know, going in somebody else’s car, I would’ve. If I had a choice of, you know, getting in a cab, I would’ve.”
Officer Flynn began going down a mental checklist as we junctioned from 8 west to 163 south.
“These are standard questions. Where were you drinking?”
“Where was I drinking?”
“94th Aero Squadron.”
“When was the last time you slept last night?” “I had to work the last, uh, ten days — there was a business report I had to put out.”
“What time did you go to bed?”
“Last night I went to bed about 9:00.”
“When did you last eat?"
“Probably about 2:00, 2:30.”
“What did you have?”
“Roast beef — roast beef and cheese sandwich. Bowl of soup."
“What did you have to drink?”
“A couple Heinekens."
“You had two Heinekens?” Flynn was incredulous yet friendly. We were at the top of the hill past Washington, going south on 163.
“Well,” Flynn continued, “you’ve had more than that to drink.”
“A couple Heinekens before I left.”
“How much did you have all night?”
“Well...well, I try to gauge myself. I had, uh, about five.”
“When did you start drinking?”
“About, uh, 6 o’clock.”
Flynn led the hapless fellow through an explanation of what time.it now was, when he had been pulled over, and what time the two Heinekens had most probably been finished. He gave me a nod over his shoulder as he pronounced how those nasty Heinekens could turn a man to jelly.
We headed west on Ash Street.
“So what’s it going to cost me?”
“I have no idea."
The two haggled over the officer’s knowledge and whether he should share it. The drunk refused to concede that he'd done anything heinous.
Officer Flynn wrapped up his questioning.
“When you drink, do you normally call a cab?”
“I thought it’d be better just to....”
“You thought it would be better to what?" “Well, what I usually do, if I drink, I drink at home. And, uh, maybe you’ve heard these stories nine or ten times, you know.”
“Every story’s different.”
It took an extra hour to get another breath test because the drunk knew he could buy some time by taking a piss test. When you get pulled in, you have three choices for the taking of your legal blood-alcohol level: blood, breath, or urine. Flynn warned the guy that nobody ever manages to make the piss test because first you have to void your whole bladder and then you have to piss again in 20 minutes. I would have bet my house that the drunk would opt for the urine, bet double or nothing that he wouldn’t be able to wee. Alas, no takers.
When it rains in San Diego, highway patrolmen curse. As I waited one gray Friday for my driver to come out and show me his brand new “stealth" patrol car, I watched every officer utter some crestfallen oath to the cloudy skies. Rain turns the streets into a bumper-car playground.
The trunk crusher I saw on 163, near the Balboa Park bridge, was actually two crashes. The first was a minor smack by a new black Ford Explorer into a flatbed truck. The nearsighted driver had — surprise — been following too close for the rainy conditions. California law is
clear on this; if you rear-end someone, it’s your fault.
When the flatbed pulled out from the shoulder after the parties had exchanged info, traffic convulsed, a guy smashed into the back of a red Tercel, and he in turn was rear-ended by an aqua Dodge Shadow, driven by a visitor from New York. The Dodge’s air bag went off and the front end crumpled into salvage material. The Tercel’s trunk was similarly violated. The S-10 Blazer that dealt the two telling blows suffered superficial damage, barely anything on its front end. I got the driver of the Shadow to let me sniff around his destroyed rent-a-car. The air bag left a heavy plastic stench.
The woman in the Tercel seemed fine at first, well enough to dismiss the paramedics who were on the scene well before we were. After the adrenaline wore off, she started complaining of back pain, and the paramedics were dragged back, to the displeasure of everyone involved. Her children seemed okay, but the language barrier (Spanish) and the fact her little girl was a mute didn’t help matters. She departed the scene on a backboard. As I waited for Officer Flynn to take the report of the first accident, a red-shouldered hawk screamed and flew over our heads.
Flynn pointed out that when you take an accident report, you have to listen very carefully to the first response, because that will be the truth. As the interviewee thinks about what happened, the ego starts playing a game of cover-thy-ass, and everybody else is at fault but thee. Several times, Flynn had to go back over the questions and answers. Responses tended to sway in the fresh air of the storm.
Seeing an accident is something we all get to do, but rarely do we get a chance to find out the story behind the crash. Most of the time, when we get held up by some pile-up, we get a ten-second glimpse for our 20-minute wait. If the damage is severe and it makes the news, we might even find out what happened. Generally though, with every crash we get a delay and not much else.
Jim Larson of Caltrans has that bureaucratic glow I most often associate with public schoolteachers. It’s a brightness seen emanating from people who shine apples rather than grow them. This is not necessarily a bad thing or a good thing; in Larson’s case it blunts his best ideas with the realpolitik of uniformity. For example, he suggested that the Lilac Road bridge, that impressive arch of concrete spanning 15 in north Fallbrook, would look great at night if they backlit it. I hardily agree. As quickly as he suggested it, he dismissed the idea. “But that would cost money,’’ he sighed, as if spending money for such frivolities as beauty were a grave sin.
The public — that giant amorphous mass of naysayers that Larson alludes to when he says “but that would cost money” — remains befuddled by the logic of the orange Caltrans trucks. They curse the ramp metering system that forces them to wait ten minutes just to get on the damn freeway. Larson explained to me that metering keeps the traffic flow from overcoming the narrow edge of capacity our freeways operate at. Most travelers act as if traffic jams are only caused by the other guy.
Larson plays neutral even if he has more than a couple of opinions. After telling me a story about some guy in Ramona whining about Caltrans’s decision not to build HOV lanes on Route 78, he points out this guy was commuting all the way to San Clemente. This, he argues, is not the type of behavior Caltrans is trying to promote.
“It’s nice to live in the country and all that, but we don't design freeways around that kind of a commute.”
While Caltrans may be in no position to “encourage or discourage" the long commute, the incremental nature of freeway building, which took place in the last 30 years as I-15 matured, didn't dissuade many people from making a long drive part of their daily routine. Larson explains our car habit as an affection, nurtured through a particularly local history. “San Diego,” he says, “grew up with the car.”
Lots of progressive I-15 commuters make noises about mass transit, car pools, telecommuting, or working closer to home. I-15’s character owes much to the new realities of driving in Southern California. Not only are the HOV lanes an encouragement to multiple-occupant people-moving, they were built sturdy enough to handle light rail, should the people so declare their political will. I remind Larson of how L.A. used to be well-served by trolley lines. Larson grew up in L.A. and remembers the trolley serving slightly different interests.
“You know, the whole idea of the rail system in Los Angeles — I mean, it was a great system; the whole purpose of it was real estate, to get people settled in Monrovia to work downtown and provide a system to get back and forth.
“That system [did] the same thing the freeways are doing: it provided an access so people could develop [communities] way the hell out in nowhere.”
I-15, at age 30, has reached maturity. It's building houses and having children. The decision to build 15 through from Riverside was made back in 1965, a logical extension from one military enclave to another. Larson argues that the root of the interstate highway system can be traced to General Pershing and his fears that we couldn’t move our troops around the country efficiently enough. As a sideline, he points out that the minimum height of our bridges, 16 6", was set because the atomic cannon of the 1950s needed bridges that high to get underneath.
Cold War weirdness mixed with apparent bungling to “complete” 15. The freeway was designed to go all the way to I-5 but still has failed to reach its goal. In the lobby of Caltrans’s public reception desk off Juan Street in Old Town, there is a full mock-up of what 15 is supposed to look like when it’s finished. The end product looks appealing, with a park built over the freeway south of El Cajon Boulevard. Such models are rare now, replaced by aerial photography in most cases. Larson’s explanation for 15’s unfinished section flabbergasted me.
“[T]here was a mistake, or an oversight, on some of the early legislation, and instead of ending on the I-5, the damn thing ended on I-8. You know, that was just a clerical error, and [it took] years for us to go through the bureaucracy. There was never any interstate money to finish that little gap between 5 and 8, which we are doing today."
15 was originally headed for I-5 through Balboa Park, what is now 163. It was rerouted through its present course so it could reach the 32nd Street Naval Air Station.
I-15 not only provides roads to bedroom communities, it provides a bedroom to more than a few tough souls. Under the HOV lanes at Mercy Road, a series of small cells provide shelter from bad weather. As you crawl by on heavy traffic days, it’s not unusual to see more than one person stretched out in the twilight sun, nursing their broken luck. Larson was unaware of this little fact, but he pointed out that the homeless have turned the insides of a few bridges into no-rent apartments. When discovered, they are kicked out.
Other sights cause quizzical pauses as you drive along. On 15 north of Fallbrook, high-tension wires have claimed more than one helicopter. On the way to a Cal Tech seminar one Saturday a few years ago, my wife and I, along with several dozen other commuters, were stopped dead by a CHP traffic break. Hovering hundreds of feet above was an old Korean War-vintage Bell helicopter with a huge red ball strapped to one of its landing skids. We all watched, transfixed, as a worker labored to attach the ball to the killer high-tension wires. The balls were designed to frighten military and civilian helicopters away from the deadly electricity. (A neighbor of mine met his end crashing a helicopter into power lines one foggy morning just off 15, north of Deer Springs Road.)
Directly opposite the sterile jets that pose in front of the Miramar airfield on Miramar Way is another curiosity: Fightertown Stables, home to 40 or 50 horses. A tunnel is used to reach the riding trails east of the freeway. After the rains, the floor of the tunnel is covered with a good foot of water, but the horses don’t seem to mind. Halfway across, the tunnel opens between the north and south lanes of 15, providing a skylight. The cars and trucks roar overhead, spooking novice steeds and their riders seeking vernal pools and a small lake on the other side. At the edge of the tunnel I found an abandoned duck egg, nestled in lush grass. Signs warn riders not to feed the coyotes or other wildlife lest they become threatening nuisances. At twilight, pilots land their F-14s, F-18s, AWACS, and sub-killers while hawks watch from the dead arms of 60-foot eucalyptus. Thousands of cars pass by every hour impervious to the rich bounty underneath.
Larson points out that one of the main reasons people commute so far is because they like getting in their cars. The desire to couple with machinery is a fantasy of our age. Try imagining people a thousand years ago coping with the amount of machinery we deem appropriate for our daily use. To them we are already creatures with metal skeletons. Terminator-odd in our complexities. In our information age, precious little information is explained for the miles driven. Most of the stories are summed up in traffic reports.
The people at Metro Traffic, the voices we count on to tell us why the 30-minute commute is taking an hour, tell us in those 20 seconds the hows and whys of the latest automotive fiasco. Janet Flinn, Ninette Sosa, Dinah Smith, Darlene White, Mark Seignious, Gonzalo Ruiz, Tony Chu, Mike McGregor, an eye-in-the-sky reporter, and the ubiquitous Monica Zech all inhabit the fifth floor of the old Security Pacific building at the junction of 8 and 163. They are radio personalities, but moreover, they are perceptual filters for the daily driver.
The afternoon crew — Flinn, Smith, Sosa, Chu, McGregor, Ruiz, and producer Jim Duncan — are a schizophrenic road show. Between reports they banter dryly about everything from diets to delusions of grandeur. They pick up the information for reports from four sources. First, and central, is the Caltrans screen, which provides lane speeds from sensors on every major freeway plus a revolving readout of all traffic incidents and the time they were reported. Cryptic statements like “Another VW on fire” are then translated into the smooth delivery of the traffic report.
Police scanners, PacTel Cellular, and the roving “eye-in-the-sky” all give additional information. Reports from the car phones of people on the scene are nice but sporadic. If the reporters have a question about a certain area, they can radio their airplane jockey and get a direct comment from him about the situation on the ground. As Dinah Smith points out, the days of delivering the traffic report straight from the air are numbered. While it sounds cool to have a deep voice from the heavens throbbing out commuting gospel, with as many markets as we have, it makes more sense to use the eyes and not the voice.
When I asked the afternoon crew if they visualized the road as they gave their reports, they nodded in unison. They see the road even as they speak, making the situations vibrant. They gain their visions from experience; they are car animals too. Dinah Smith commutes from Ramona in a big maroon Aerostar. Janet Flinn is a Powegian who plays handoff with her husband every day, passing their three kids back and forth, from Mom to Dad, so he can work at night and she can give both morning and evening traffic reports.
I ripped off a couple of right-brain expletives on the way to day care the other day as a large Ford needlessly blocked my path.
“Daddy,” my daughter warned, “you shouldn't say those words.”
Back on the freeway, 8 and 163. Officer Flynn’s been asked over the radio to get a vehicle off the big sweeping curve heading north. As we pull up, Flynn grows uneasy. It’s a favor that could get him killed. We’re off on the shoulder, exposed to the potential inertia of any lame sucker driving too fast in the rain. Between cars he gets his paperwork out of an aluminum box decorated with KROQ stickers. He keeps glancing over his shoulder and reminds me to keep my seat belt on if I’m going to stay in the car.
The gray Plymouth Voyager makes us wait. The vultures are loo busy today, too much food. The van is unlocked. Flynn goes through it, looking for the tailings. The guardrail is smashed nearby, somebody’s bad day, the energy of their crash safely dissipated two yards shy of a concrete ramp support.
In the little triangle of earth between the ramps, newly planted ornamental plums pop spring flowers, two stakes holding up each scrawny tree. Lantana and ice plant vie for space on the freshly weeded ground. Chopped-up Christmas trees mulch the soil, holding water for the baby plantings. Ten minutes after we leave this place, Flynn tells me about a fatal accident in the same place, his nervousness explained. On the body of the teenager was a note from his father, beseeching him to slow down his truck: “It’s not a race car.”
Two days before, I saw a red-shouldered hawk go into its hunting stoop in this place, launched from an [.-shaped silver light pole. Wings pulled back in an inverted W, he disappeared behind a wall of concrete shortly before impact. For a full second I glimpsed the hunter before my eyes.