For months during the worst days, when we slept with cold cloths over our mouths and in the cracks of the windows, I promised myself I would leave California when it stopped burning, but it never did.
About three hours outside of Los Angeles, when the oak trees and poppies stop growing and the mountains fall away, the sun gets thicker, a big red weight in the sky, and there is a rest stop town built like the old Western movies. This is where you can find the first In N Out Burger in miles, where the hot wind blows and the ash from all the fires meet in the sky: the center of California, just off the Five freeway. I really couldn’t tell you the name of this town. I want to say Kingstown, something with a K – but I think it is better suited with no name, or else, it makes sense that I cannot remember the name. This area of California, the space that creeps its arms all around the freeway, where roadkill is frequent and the color green doesn’t exist, is one which most say is best forgotten. It is desert with all of the dust and none of the vastness, the land stepped on and suffocated for harvest. This freeway, the Five freeway, the road that cuts its way through the very middle of California, is absolutely straight. It is straight for six hundred and twenty miles, six hours during which all I want to do is close my eyes. In the center of California, in between North and South, is a great big hole.
The fastest way to get to the other side of California is to take this road, infamous for its ugliness and mundanity; for six hours, even the air is the color of dust. The cows on the roadside farms, waiting patiently for their slaughter, are coated in it. During the dry months, it is much worse. The air crawls through the cracks of the car, pitch black, so thick you could take it in your hands. Even after we have survived fire season, the sky is still stained with it, every tree smeared with smoke, arms reaching, pathetically triumphant, up. To drive the Five requires so much focus that often I cannot listen to music or think of anything but what is directly in front of me. Everything seems about to burn. My hands sit so long on the wheel, so focused on not moving, that towards the end of the drive, I always get an unnerving urge to jerk, to steer off the road – anything to interrupt the monotony of my foot on the gas pedal, the view out of my window of all of the world that has already died. When I am driving, always there is a moment, logical or not, when I’m filled with the exhausting sensation that whatever we have decided the world is, we have gotten it very wrong.
This freeway is an ordinary thing; it is how we get back and forth. “The Five” is not a place for most Californians. It is an object; it is the way through. Here, it is commonplace to drive through burning hills, past dead coyotes, mountains of dust, and year-old car wrecks, piles of rust and old clothes and plastic water bottles, a landscape of unkindness, or just neglect. We drive this way to get to the other side, to the redwoods, to the white sand beaches, all the places where this state becomes a marvel, a universe of crashing sun and towering forest, roaring light at the edge of the world. California has always been a kind of catastrophe, but it is the kind people want to see, to steal, to come from.
The freeway was ordinary to me too, fast and uncomplicated, until March of the new decade, when I developed an almost inescapable urge to drive across California, and so I did. I had all the time in the world – the years were stretched out ahead of me, watered down every day, blanketed in claustrophobia. I had not meant to be in California. I had meant to be somewhere else. But, by then, most words and promises that used to make sense to me were crumpled and dusty under my tongue, lost in the pages of books, and in the silence of my suddenly bewildering youngness. For months during the worst days, when we slept with cold cloths over our mouths and in the cracks of the windows, I promised myself I would leave California when it stopped burning, but it never did. Even when the fires dwindled away, I could feel all of the mountains on their knees, and for months, the hills were thick with ash that floated up into the sky when it was windy, papery black sand that fell like cherry blossoms from what was left of the trees. Every day that there was no fire was a day of waiting for it to return to us. With nothing left to say, I walked Los Angeles until I knew the length of every streetlight. I swam in the sea during stingray season, and never saw a stingray. I chewed up every day and waited to get older. This didn’t work and so in the end, I started driving.
I had time to take the longer ways, where the roads are kissed against sea cliffs, slinking through mist, and always there are seal cries and pelicans. But that was not the way I went. I took the Five, through the smoke and gray, past donkeys searching for blades of grass, and eerie white egrets every four or five miles, their eyes trained to the parched and angry sun. I drove through the soot of the midland, where wildflowers abandon the mountains, the meadows all hang their heads. On my fifth journey, I realized that I know this road too well, all the houses planted in fields of ash, the empty and cracking sky, and I know the absence that surrounds it. What I thought then was this must be a tear in the world, that this road does not exist, and I am here, in a place that does not exist. But of course, this isn’t true. It is right here. It is a place, and I am driving in it. The fifth time, I felt a peculiar feeling that there is something deeper, concentrated around this road in California’s center, that cannot be made sense of no matter how much I see of it, how many times I exist within it. It is a world preoccupied with its own ending. I felt a little older then, and a little more afraid.
What was I afraid of? And if I was, am, so afraid, why not stop going, or take a different way? Something draws me back here, to this hole of wind and dust that seems always in the process of vanishing, of erasing itself. There is something important in these journeys I take, a reason I can’t stay away from this nauseatingly endless road. I never drive at night, never when the colors of the sky are falling, a time of day when maybe I would find something worthwhile and unexpected – blues and pinks. I choose this road, I drive during fire season, I drive at noon. On one especially bad day (110 degrees and a dust storm) I got out of the car near the old Western town to get gas. This, I’ve discovered, is called Kettleman City, though calling it a city feels like wishful thinking. I could taste the air outside of the car. The wind had long fingers; the sun had spider arms. The sound of the wind and the sound of the trucks were the same. The sky was sand. Everywhere there were ghosts and everything — the oak tree slumped in the distance, the cow running for shelter from the bleeding sun, the crow on a dying strawberry plant, watching me — all of it was more familiar than anything else. The whole world was sketched out for me, the end of the west. I knew then why I was afraid. I had been driving, I realized, as practice, as preparation, in order to remember – this is the place I come from.