Escaping LA: How an “angel” saved me from oblivion

Posted: 18 July 2010 in Riding
Tags: , , ,

This is a (mostly) true story.  Any factual errors are not really my fault since I was sleep deprived when most of it happened.

So, I rode to the Mexican border from San Francisco (the picture on the left “proves” this–I promise that I did not “photoshop” or otherwise tamper with this photo).  Great trip with my friend Allan (see more on the trip from his perspective here).  From SF to San Luis Obispo was a dream–

At the Mexican Border (Borderlands State Park)

a rider’s dream, a traveler’s dream.  When we hit the “101” south of Lompoc (BTW, the 101 is a very “personal” freeway, unlike the “5” or the “X05’s”–fill in the X–that wind around LA.  The 101 was kind of “fit” between the mountains and the sea and exits are abrupt and seem to end up on people’s front yards–almost like the exit signs should say: “Next exit–the Smiths, the Leonards and the Ruiz families!  Welcome!”), anyway, when we hit the 101 we stopped for a break and talked to a shop owner about the road ahead (Santa Barbara and south).  He said a very simple thing: “You are going to see a lot of pavement and a lot of cars from here on.”  Yea… True… Sadly true.

Malibu was 27 miles long and about a mile wide with trillion dollar houses perched on hillsides, no ocean views to speak of, and a long parking lot of cars that made me wonder, “where are all the people who own these cars?”.  Anyway, that was pretty much it the whole way down.  LA sounded like a cool ride–but wasn’t. Orange County was… well, more on that below. Camp Pendeleton–yes, riding through a military base is just exactly what it sounds like: “tank crossing ahead” is not a comforting thought when you are on a bike.  Anyway, we arrived and after an afternoon hanging out with Allan’s family I headed out on the night bus from San Diego to Bakersfield and beyond.  I took the ferry across San Diego harbor as the full moon rose over the city and cool breezes reminded me that soon enough I would be back in the hot desert of the Central Valley.

The overnight bus was pretty full and my favorite front seat had a hand scrawled sign attached to it: “Reserved for Handicapped”.  Damn, I like that seat–can look out the front and feel a little more in control. I mean, I am always reading about bus drivers on these long hauls having heart attacks or other health emergencies and I want to be the one that gently rolls them out of their seat and takes control of the wheel and becomes the hero you will read about in USA Today (that little section where they have a “highlight” from each state–mine would be under CA).  But no, I was shunted to row two and promptly started to doze… It was after 10.

He got on in San Clemente–didn’t exactly look “handicapped” to me but he hopped into my front seat and promptly started his… umm… “monologue”?  Anyway, he started talking and did not stop.  I thought he was talking to the bus driver (who, it turns out, seemed to kind of chat non-stop herself, directing her comments in the general vicinity of anyone near the front).   Anyway, he talked about buses, bus schedules, trains, train schedules, new routes for both, on-time statistics for said trains and buses, bus drivers and train engineers on said routes and just about any other piece of trivia about Southern Cal buses and trains you could ever want (or not).  He seemed to be speaking to the driver but most of the time she was also holding forth in her own mumbling way and she only rarely stopped long enough to say “uh-huh” or use some other verbal cue–just enough to keep the guy going.  His knowledge bank on all matters “public transit” was impressive but by then it was going on 1:00 am and I just wanted the madness to stop. Now, and you can ask my wife about this, I love bus and train trivia.  I am kind of a public transit geek myself and so for me to be sick of this babble you know it must have been excessive.

With no end to the information spewing forth about the problems with Metra’s rail service or whatever happened to Percy (a bus driver who had some kind of alcohol problem, I surmised), I settled in for a LONG ride–wondering if this guy was going all the way to Bakersfield (Please God, no!).  I started to drift again but was snapped awake by a curse from the driver–“Damn CalTrans, closed the ramp onto the 5, now what?”.  She continued cursing the detour signs–cursing louder as it became clear that the signs were taking us nowhere!  That’s right, by some accident or, more likely, some juvenile prank, the signs led us–and a whole bunch of people following us (a traffic jam at 1:30 in the morning???–only in LA and Delhi, trust me on this)–to a dead end.  So there we were, at the end of a cul de sac in Orange County with no way out but the way we came in.

It was about this time that I had a kind of “epiphany”.  Now, I think epiphanies are supposed to be “good” flashes of insight so maybe what I had was not an epiphany but rather a “foreshadowing” of some kind.  I don’t know, but all I can say is that all of sudden it struck me: “Robb, you are not going to get out of Southern Cal.”  It was really clear.  And immediately I began thinking about a really good short horror story I had read as a teenager.  A story the title for which I no longer know but which goes more or less like this: A couple drives home through the hedgerows and fields of a “moor” somewhere in England.  The husband tells the wife how well he knows his way around these parts even as she frets about how poorly marked everything is.  Well, as time goes by it becomes clear that they are lost.  Not just lost but, well, irretrievably lost. They have driven through some kind of unnamed time/space continuum and they can’t get back!

Yes, that story was going through my head at high speed and I was reminded that Anglican theologian NT Wright has suggested that “heaven” is not “out there” somewhere but is kind of parallel reality really, really close to our own.  Well, if Wright is right about this (and I kind of hope he is), then, wouldn’t that suggest also that “hell” is really, really close by too?  It seemed totally plausible to me at that point that there might be a kind of “portal to hell” right here in Orange County!  Now this is not meant to disrespect Orange County (my apologies to all my good friends from there) but I had ridden my bike through that county and, quite frankly, it kind of feels like hell (at least bike rider’s hell).  I kept thinking as I was riding: “someone here just needs to call ‘time out’ for a second and slow everything down!  The place needs help!”  I speak as a cyclist, of course.

(The other thing I kept thinking was–“Geez, LA wants to steal everything.” I mean, it steals our water [check out the aqueduct along the “5” in the valley sometime].  It steals our identity.  Typical conversation between people I meet anywhere in the world and me:

Them: So, where you from?

Me: I’m from Northern California.

Them: Woe, surfing and beaches, must be nice!

Me: No, I said I’m from Northern California–mountains, redwoods, biking…

Them: Hollywood…

Me: No, that’s 500 miles from us! Northern California, dammit!

Them: Whatever…

And now LA wants to steal my soul too!)

Well, after a 28-point-turn-around, the bus driver finally got us out of the cul de sac and we headed back to the “freeway”–sure its free but you and I know that there is no such thing as a free anything.  Somehow we ended up on one of the “X05s” (I can’t tell you which one) and the guy in front of me starts talking to the bus driver.  No, I mean he was really talking to her–like actually addressing his comments directly to her. At first she was not listening–keeping up her endless stream of invective against CalTrans, Amtrak, LA, etc.  But then it struck her, I guess, that this guy was really talking to her and she started listening.

I cannot repeat exactly what the guy said but the basic line was this: “If you go up here and get on the “V05”, then you can get back to the “Y05″ and that will take us to downtown LA and the train station”.  Now, the bus driver became totally silent and I KNEW what was going on in her mind–because it was going on in mine too: “Should I listen to this guy? Sure, he knows all the train and bus schedules from Thousand Oaks to San Ysidro but does he know anything about the freeways?”

In the end her decision was pretty simple–she HAD to listen to the guy because, by her own admission, she did not know the freeways of LA!  That’s right, she drives a bus 4 days a week from San Diego to LA but ONLY knows the route she takes–nothing else!  And(!)  the bus had no GPS or even a workable two way radio (she had to use her own personal cell phone to make calls to “dispatch” [dispatch was clearly “manned” by a sixteen year old wise ass who was too busy watching reruns of the OC or something to care about our “bus of the damned” circling endlessly on the “Z05″]).

So, she keeps saying to the guy:”Are you SURE about this”? and he simply says “Well sure, everyone knows this.” And, in the end she decides to take a risk and accept his advice.  His confidence was overwhelming!  It was like every word out of his mouth was something like “well, two plus two is four, isn’t it?”  Anyway, we exit where he suggests and the next thing I know I am seeing my very first “high speed police chase” (it will be one of two I see in the next 5 hours–I kid you not), which ends, as they always do, very badly.  There is a high speed wreck and the “freeway” (keep in mind what I said about “free”) comes to a standstill and it is wall to wall cars at 2:00 am. The horror story fast forwards to the gory end of our traveling English couple and I know I am doomed.

We are in the far right hand lane and the guy–who I am starting to refer to in my mind as the “idiot savant of SoCal”–says to the bus driver: “Get off at this exit right here.  It goes up and to a street and you can get right back on the freeway past the accident.”  How does he know that???? my mind is screaming.  The driver finally looks back at the guy and says: “Are you sure?”  He says (basically): “Two plus two is four” and we get off the exit (we are the only ones doing this BTW) and, sure enough at the top of the ramp we can get right back on and continue on our way–having passed by the accident and, now, having the entire “Q05” to ourselves!

We are triumphant–I want to high five the guy but he is busy debating anew with the bus driver.  “So, now what?”, she asks–such a pessimist she!  I mean this guy just pulled a rabbit from his hat (he was wearing a kind of grubby one) and you want to know what’s next??? I mean, we escaped and, by the looks of that exit it was a “nowhere” exit in the middle of a vast wasteland of “nowhere”–how could he have known about that???

Anyway, after I stopped to think about it, she was right… Now what?  We still needed to get to “downtown LA” (does LA have a downtown? I am not sure) after all.  So, the guy says, “No problem, you are going to go up here and get on the ‘R05′” (did I use “R” yet?).  So  she says (unconscionably in my book): “Are you sure?”  He answers something like “Two plus two equals four” and she says, “Okay, let’s give it a try”.  Then he says–to my utter astonishment and I want to fall at the guy’s feet and brings gifts of gold or something–“Yea, when you do that, you can get in the left-hand ‘bus-only’ lane and that will dump us two blocks from the LA train station” (our destination).  Bus-only lane?  We are home free!

The driver clicks her tongue and follows instructions.  We merge onto the “R05” (I am losing track) and look to get in the left lane but immediately see that CalTrans has closed it down!  I am NOT making this part up (or any part for that matter–remember, however, the opening caveat)!  Anyway, they have signs up everywhere saying: “Bus and HOV lane closed next 25 miles”!  I thought we would be in the ocean in 25 miles!  And, once again, the earlier epiphany returns and I know I am never getting home.  I start praying a little and asking God to help my wife to make it okay without me.  I am now thinking of Stephen King’s The Langoliers–a story about a plane that flies right out of our time/space continuum into a place where it can land and take off as many times as it wants–never needing fuel–but never able to get home.

Silence for a moment… I am waiting and wondering if we are all out of miracles from my new best friend in the front seat.  I am also wondering if we should have ever trusted this guy in the first place (I mean the guy got on in San Clemente–the place where “Nixonland” was masterminded after all…).  Ah… we are all so fickle.  We love our saviors for all of five minutes before they fail to meet our latest “need” and then we dump them like all the rest and whine for a new messiah!

Anyway, after a disconcerting pause our freeway phenom says: “Take the next exit.  It will take us to the station.  I know this.”  The bus driver–and this was not a fun moment for me–literally turns in her seat (doing 65) and says: “Are you serious? I have never heard of this road!”  The guy just sits there and mumbles something like “Two plus two is four”, and the bus driver turns around and… takes the next exit.

The rest is a matter of lefts and rights with a u-turn mixed in.  There is no more discussion.  There are no more doubts.  There is only… obedience.  And, before we know it, we are at the station.  Saved.  Our “guide”, our “messenger” gets off the bus and says, “wow, that was fun!”  The bus driver mumbles a thank-you–looking tired and drained.  I am wondering if she can make it the three hours-plus to Bakersfield.  The guy ambles away… We scratch our heads.

Finally, I speak up.  “Who was that guy?  Do you know him? He seemed to know you?  She looks at me, shaking as if from a dream, confused about how she got here.  “I don’t know who he is but he is clearly my guardian angel”.  I nod, real slowly.  The aforementioned short story vanishes and Stephen King evaporates.  I settle down for a rest–feeling exhausted in a way that an 80-mile ride over hilly terrain could not match.

We arrive in Bakersfield 40 minutes early, and I awake to a half moon!  Adrenaline courses through me!  So!  We were lost, we were in a time/space warp of some kind!  Full moon over San Diego, half moon over Bakersfield!  Too tired to work it all out I load my bike in the train and settle in for a nap–back in the valley.  I escaped LA.  It is only when we get to Fresno and I get a copy of the “Bee” that I learn that last night the “valley” had experienced a partial eclipse of the moon.  So much for the time warp!  Still, I was going home and, somehow, a freeway angel had made it all possible.

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