On a Highway to Hell

Twisting one’s way at a snail’s pace via a rented motor vehicle up or down the West Coast’s famed Route 1, oohing and ahhing at the almost unnaturally natural scenery that envelopes it from every direction, always seems like a good idea. Or at least in my case, has seemed like a great idea twice before. It is true, you’d be hard pressed to find a single other road in these United States that offers as many stunning views in such rapid succession. And the few small towns that exist between Ventura and Santa Cruz, tucked amongst the tall trees of Big Sur, offer a chance at an oft sought sort of peace away from our daily routines that so many of us seek.

Before I paint my brain’s ugly version of the experience, it would be fair to the road to let you know that our most recent jaunt upon it was in a Prius. A car that delighted me with its gas mileage, but left me uneasy each and every time I went to slow its front-loaded chassis as we sailed into declining turns atop sunlit cliffs, and kept me guessing right after those serpentine kinks with the sickly growl it created while struggling to accelerate back up the mountain while various Beamers, Audis, and the like taunted it from behind. Their drivers apparently with bees in their bonnets–desperate to arrive at some future destination as quickly as possible, and not at all making the same journey in order to observe the reams and reams of jagged rocks that lay to the west of what at times felt like eight, maybe nine, total feet of asphalt.

Still, ultimately, the Prius and my steadfast commitment to driving like an old codger protecting a family of seven got us from Point A to Point Portland. Had it rained much, I’m not sure I’d be able to say the same.

I love to drive long distances–few things relax me more, though in a rental I’m less inclined to light up a smoke while I cover those miles. And that section of Route 1, and some section further up in Northern California, on their worst days couldn’t even come close to ranking as precarious as some of the roads my wife and I have navigated in Costa Rica, where at times the only thing between you and certain death is one or two inches of dirt road to the right or left of the vehicle, that is defying all logic with its refusal to crumble into the ocean below it like the previous six or seven inches of road clearly had before. Those drives of 2011 were some of my favorites–a testament to how my brain writes a revisionist history for us both, as I’m simultaneously positive that I must have been silently cursing the beings who believed a road like that should exist in a place where it rains three to four straight months in the fall.

Similar to Costa Rica, there are scars all along Route 1–evidence of previous mudslides, mishaps, fires and huge chunks of landmass missing, the victims of former storms, and often at the most delicate intersections of manmade bridges and the mountain’s desire to shed some weight. Perhaps the reason for such prevalent speedy driving along that road is the theory that you can outrun the potential dangers. I know I gunned it once or twice, as much as you can gun a Prius, believing that the next slide area might be the last slide area we’d ever visit, and our only chance was to dash through it as quickly as possible.

The sounds of sirens, sadly not the kind that coax you into plowing your sea vessel head first into rocks, might have served as a warning of what lie ahead on ol’ Route 1–at least tipped off a more savvy couple of drifters–but not us, no sir. Even after watching all manner of emergency vehicle race North into the hills from the Elephant Seal Viewing parking lot, we hopped back in the Prius to move forward with our plan of maybe catching a quick hike before sunset somewhere around the cozy cabin that awaited us only sixty short miles that same direction.

Let me partake in scribing the utterly overused phrased, “it has been said that a picture is worth a thousand words.” Here’s three that capture the dilema our decision to press forward on that mighty two-lane highway thrust us upon. Photographic evidence of what for nearly an hour and a half felt like the first minutes into a new future that would at some point loosely resemble last night’s season three premiere of AMC’s The Walking Dead.

Never mind you what might have been the impetus to that complete standstill–though the rumors floated around by the more curious, and thusly the more annoying, of the stranded onlookers that joined us there atop that mountain indicated something along the lines of a drunk driver who crashed his or her SUV into the mountain side, setting it ablaze. Word on the street also indicated that the occupants of that vehicle had walked away from the wreckage unscathed. So see, your real concern should center somewhere around the safety of me and the Mrs.

“So you were inconvenienced, Rosch? Who gives a flying f-bomb?” You say?

Let me lay a few of my own thoughts from the incident before you for your consideration: Did the engineers of that particular stretch of road ever take into consideration the potential havoc the sheer weight of that many vehicles stuck on that cliff might result in after years of soaking in rains and baking in harsh summer suns? When was the last time a good rockslide had rolled through that passage, and what are the chances that a boulder or two might use the opportunity to make its plunge while there were sitting targets to strike? I know if I were a boulder on my way out, I’d like to take a few folks with me for good measure–go down as the most legendary of rocks to ever slide down the mountain, a sort of folk hero for all the remaining boulders to tell their pebbles about before bedtime. How long does it take for a group of impatient drivers–as evidenced by their desire to pass me at every opportunity–to begin some sort of revolt or riot? How many unwatched children will have to peer over the side of this road until one finally vanishes right before my eyes? Can I make it overnight on only the backwash of the Diet Coke sitting snugly beside me and the four cigarettes left in my pack? If there is a fire ahead, and it decides to make its way south down Route 1, can we outrun it? At what point will this Prius’ parking brake make a mockery of modern engineering by releasing the vehicle backwards and into the BMW behind me? Are there mountain lions perched just above us, feeling frisky and totally stoked to have a buffet of folks with almost no exit strategy before them? And if so, will the Prius’ windows hold up to their advances as well as the windows of the hatchback that protected that little blonde boy and his mother in the 80’s Stephen King flick, Cujo? Do we have any real visual guarantees that all of this has been caused by a car wreck at all? Isn’t it possible that this is just the beginning of some sort of infection, and up ahead the police have begun a useless quarantine roadblock of sorts, and simply hadn’t gotten around to letting all of us know our days were numbered? And finally, certainly not the last thought I had, but the final for the purposes of this post–would they hold our room at the cabin if we didn’t show on time, and if not, are we destined to check into something we hadn’t researched the likes of the Pinewood Motel from the movie Vacancy?

I gave long thought and pause to these and many more potential scenarios, and don’t mind telling you that my money was squarely on that last one. After all, what better ending to an intense story of survival amongst the elements than the surprise twist that finds our heros being butchered for snuff films? The answer, of course, is none.

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