There Are Still Empty Places in California
Drive east out of San Diego on Interstate 8, the main route over the Cuyamacas, and into the vast, vacant desert, past sun-bleached signs that say “12% grade ahead” and “next services 51 miles.” Nowadays we ignore these warnings, cocky, air-conditioned travellers that we are, confident in our fuel-efficient engines, sealed radiators, and smart phones. It used to take brains or dumb luck to make it safely across the desert. You had to pay attention back then, check your fuel gauges, test your overheated brakes. The alternative was to end up on the road’s shoulder among the other victims of heat and poor timing—slow lizards, lazy rabbits, an occasional aged coyote—that, even today, provide a steady if grisly diet for the ever-vigilant buzzards and carrion crows circling overhead. The desert has a terrible beauty but is a hard place to love. Still, if you slow down to search for it, you’ll find life even in the driest, hottest fix, underground or in shadows, thriving—against all odds—on the blade-sharp edge of survival. But once on the 8, once you cross the Tecate Divide and plunge over Horsethief Ridge—at 2800 feet, not even a mountain by some folks’ reckoning—there’s nothing to distract you until, blowing like a hot wind past Plaster City doing ninety in a seventy-five mile zone, the desert floor sinks fifty feet below sea level and you start to catch whiffs of the stock yards in El Centro, still twenty miles away. Maybe, like me, you prefer a more conventionally scenic route. If so, you’ll avoid the 8; head north instead on Interstate 5, passing the strip of beach communities—La Jolla, Del Mar, Solana Beach, Encinitas—until, speeding out of Oceanside into the barren expanse of Camp Pendleton, the GPS screen goes white save for the tiny, pale blue avatar of your car on an endless purple ribbon beside the ragged cobalt profile of the Pacific coast. Freedom! Gone are the dense rectangles of cities and towns with their stoplights and doublewide strollers in cross walks. Now it’s just the occasional on- or off-ramp, you and your car, and you’re yearning for wasteland, for emptiness, falling in love again with the open road, mainlining RPMs like there’s no tomorrow, pressing the accelerator toward the floor but hoping you’ll never get “there,” never get to the end of it!