evasive maneuvers: driving in the San Joaquin Valley

I had never noticed the state of the roads in California previously. I have visited here numerous times throughout the entire course of my life thus far, but other than observing the insane inclines of the streets of San Francisco, the great breadth of nearly all the highways, and the spaghetti-like crisscrossing of those same freeways, I paid very little attention to California vehicular infrastructure. Since arriving and driving the roads and interstates myself, I have become aware of the obvious and stark reality: I’m not on North Carolina roads anymore.

If I drive anywhere I usually leave in the mornings, which are crisp and a bit nippy around here. If I am lucky, the first thing I notice when I step out the door is the lovely scent of dog food mingling with the leftover wisps of mist. There happens to be a dog food factory located a few miles down the road from the house, and the wind typically brings the smell right to the front door. What great fortune! Once I turn on the heat in the car the dog food odor morphs into the even better aroma of warm, lightly toasted kibble. I would wager that if you took any spare dry dog food lying around in your house, tossed it in a pan, and cooked it, stirring constantly, until it turned just a slightly deeper shade of brown, you could experience the fragrant fumes for yourself.

Sometimes that wonderful wind – the one that spreads the dog food molecules across the miles around the plant – blows exceptionally fiercely and detaches brittle tumbleweed bushes from the inadequate stalks anchoring them to the earth. They bounce their way across the positively horizontal San Joaquin Valley ground until their trajectory is blocked by one of the chain-link fences that run alongside roads that parallel the highways to prevent straying livestock (and tumbleweed, perhaps?) from wreaking havoc on the freeway. Of course, those pesky tumbleweed – some of which are as large as nice, fluffy sheep – pile up and encroach on the road along which is located the fence. That means I get to weave and swerve around them!

Dodging tumbleweed is good practice for driving on the interstates around here, it turns out. In fact, any sort of defensive driving technique helps. I am convinced that there is an unspoken California driving law that requires maintaining what Drivers’ Ed. would certainly consider an unsafe following distance, even tailgating. Furthermore, while I am aware that drivers speed in NC, at least not everyone does. Here they do. Ten miles over the speed limit? Not a problem. Fifteen? Sure. Of course, not all speeders are created equal, so weaving and cutting off and shifting and swerving are simply necessary precautions to avoid running into the eighteen wheelers rocketing along slightly less rapidly.

Perhaps I should not blame the Californians for their excessive speed and erratic highway driving. Likely as not they are just universally ignorant of the speed limit. Someone seems to have neglected to place speed limit signs within reasonable intervals of each other. It is possible to drive around for five or ten minutes without spotting a single speed limit sign. They appear no more frequently on the interstate. I used to think North Carolina’s roads were littered with speed limit signs. Now I appreciate them. I wonder if, because of the severe lack of signs, the instance of speeding tickets in California is unnecessarily inflated? I like this theory of mine. I am not going to google it to find out I am wrong.

Another reason for the speeding could be that everyone is attempting to conclude their road trip as hastily as possible in order to escape the teeth-rattling sensation caused by the beautiful patchwork pattern of concrete, asphalt, cracks, bumps, and seams that is the road. Driving over the hardened quilt is like continually driving on a bridge, which, last time I took note, were the only thing around home in North Carolina that made use of the structural element of the raised seam. Unless I am completely mistaken, the highways are made of concrete – nay, old, fragmented concrete – around here. To attach the various sections together and repair cracks, snaking black seams and patches dance across the surface of the road like random scribbles of a four year old. As if the normal town streets could not be outdone by the quality condition of the interstate, the normal asphalt roads sport slightly reflective bumps to divide the lanes instead of painted lines. The little domes of annoyance are everywhere! I suppose, though, they are indeed more effective than the lines I have seen. Where the painted dashes should be on the highways, I can only sometimes make out faint, white smudges. Staying in my own lane is often quite difficult. The dark seams of the highway do not always follow the white smudges. Sometimes they are a few to one side or another of the dashes. I am usually tempted to stay between the dark and obvious seams rather than the little white paint drippings. It is quite confusing.

Happily, in my day to day commutes here and there, I manage to evade the drama of driving on the interstate and content myself with avoiding those bothersome little bumps. Life in California is quite an adventure!



  1. I just happened to read this post and couldn’t stop laughing at your remarks on the driving habits of those around you and the roads on which they drive. My husband and I just moved from the North Bay area after living there for 18 years, so I know first hand what you are talking about. My advise to you is to hone your defensive as well as offensive driving skills as you will need to use either at any given moment. Good luck!

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