Back On The Road Again

Kage Baker enjoyed traveling. Especially by car. It was fast enough to move us hundreds of miles in a day, and slow enough so she could see what was out there. She was a landscape aficionado.

She was also a connoisseur of High Weirdness. And you get a lot of that by the sides of interstate highways. They are designed to cut a straight unnatural line through everything in their path – biospheres, rivers, mountain ranges, dimensions. The traveler who pays attention gets a cross-section of parts of the world whose innards were usually not meant to be on display.

Example: have you ever noticed the layer-cake strata  making up a roadside embankment? It’s often very pretty. Have you ever noticed that sometimes it is  … bent? It does up or down at angles; it breaks and doglegs and bits of it seem to have fallen out or been paved over – have you ever stopped to wonder what did that to the ground? When those pretty stripes besides the road were laid down, they were the surface of the ground; things walked on them. Now they look like the broken pretzel pieces at the bottom of the bag. Bears thinking about: what happened? When? When will it happen again?

Driving through Missouri, what most astonished Kage was that the strata exposed by the highways were straight and level, as tidy as garden walls. Missouri is mostly flat and has been pretty quiet for a long time. In California, our strata regularly get up and run around; that contrast between the active and sleeping earth was what caught Kage’s eyes.  But most travelers don’t notice it; our hosts, native Missourians, never ever had. And roads are rich with even weirder stuff if you keep your eyes open.

One of the weirder roads in California is the I-5 through the San Joaquin Valley. I don’t know why. The sky over that place is larger than normal, and inexplicably burns with isolated rainbows at all seasons of the year. The valley is huge and strangely empty, being mostly given over to agriculture. The landscape is immense; the towns are few and far between, and most of what  lies beside the road is not real habitation but only gas stations and fast food. These die and are abandoned in cycles, like the fields, and so you never know quite where the next bathroom or hamburger is to be found: where you stopped a year ago may now be the lair of tumbleweeds and broken glass.

We used to drive the I-5 many, many weekends of the year, commuting between Los Angeles and the Bay Area for Renaissance Faires. Then we moved to Pismo Beach, and the softer, more civilized Highway 101 was our regular road. This March, though, I moved back to L.A. – and now that it is time for the Dickens Fair, I need once again to be driving to San Francisco every weekend. But now, after a 16 years absence, I am back on the I-5.

It’s as weird as ever. Some stops have grown, acquired motels and more fast food and even a few amenities like car washes and Starbucks stores. Nothing that really says: “People live here” – no supermarkets or laundries or bookstores or video rentals. Just mini-marts. You can buy some soft porn or a bad cover CD there, or laundry soap, or a newspaper (maybe) but it’s really a case of “everything for the traveler”. And only the traveler. Because no one really lives there.

Kage believed I-5 to be the ultimate road. Everything that could happen, she said, would and did happen beside it. You just had to keep watching. Sometimes you had to interpret just what that strange light off the road was,; or why an electrified fence 20 feet high had been been erected over one short week around an empty field; or how and why a cow could lie by the road – alternately swelling and then deflating in interesting decomposition – for three whole months and never get picked up or eaten?

What lives beneath the surface of the California Aqueduct? (Near Gustine, something large enough to leave wakes visible from the I-5 moves through the water.) Why are there always sundogs over the Diablos?  Does the ghost of the ancient Pleistocene sea rise when the rains flood the Valley? Or it that just the tule fog?

Kage speculated for years as we drove up and down that peculiar road, dodging tomato trucks and looking for clean bathrooms. Many of her ideas mutated into bits of her books. I have custody of the rest, along with whatever may be born of this coming winter’s perambulations …

Adventure is out there still. I’ll be driving through it every weekend. Kage’s spirit will be looking out the window, exclaiming at what she sees; missing our turn-offs, mixing up right and left and directing  me to wonders.

What a time we’ll have.

Tomorrow: rehearsing London


About Kate

I am Kage Baker's sister. Kage was/is a well-known science fiction writer, who died on January 31, 2010. She told me to keep her work going - I'm doing that. This blog will document the process.
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6 Responses to Back On The Road Again

  1. David says:

    “No one lives there….” This has been one of my Kagean thoughts for as long as I’ve driven the I-5 (about 25 years or so). I’m driving along, I think to myself, “I really would like to empty some liquids from my body and replace them with some others–preferably some that contain stimulants to keep me awake and alive on this dismal, flat, neverending drive,” and bam! there is one of those 50%-50% stops. (By this I mean 50% oasis, and 50% strip mall.) And I walk in and use the facilities, and get an energy drink or foul-tasting coffee, and as I am being told the total amount of money that is expected of me in exchange for said caffeinated goodness, I think, “Where do you come from, lady taking my money? There are no homes for miles, and this exit’s cross street is a two laner that stretches as far as the eye can see.” It makes me want to shake them and question them, but then I am stricken by fear: what if they are not from here? Like, not from here here. So I hand them five dollars of earth money, scurry off to my car (trying not to look like I’m scurrying–‘fly casual’ as Solo would say) and then drive off, checking my rear view mirror as I pull back onto the Five. Creepy, I tell you.

    • Kate says:

      That’s almost the motto for the I-5: No one lives here. But it’s a place just chockfull of life. A lot of it is cattle, corn and cotton – but what goes on behind those fields and pastures? We drive by and wonder. We got off near Buttonwillow once, an exit too early – it says Buttonwillow and there are streets and some houses, but in the two miles to the main drag of the “town” we saw no people. In fact, not a living being: all there was moving in those streets was a dead dog and a burning mattress. Cue Rod Serling …

      • David says:

        I was driving south to University once on my way back from break, and my car’s catalytic thermostat broke. The exhaust superheated and set fire to the splash guard under the engine, which in turn ignited some trace oil and crap on the engine. The whole engine compartment caught fire. I got the fire stopped, but had pulled off the freeway to do it. (The CHP drove past me twice, though I was waving my arms frantically and the car was still smoking.) The nearest town was called “Three Rocks”, and walking in to town to use the pay phone was a surreal experience right out of a movie. Dirty little diner that had tomes of history worn into its booths and stools, dessert tower with two sad puddings in it, and a person behind the counter who looked exhausted–not by the work, of which there was none, but by life. The coin-operated phone did not take coins, and I had to arrange a collect call–me, the “college boy”, in a dingy room with two ancient hispanic men and a waitress who could have been the Queen of Apathy, had she cared to be. I am not convinced that Rod Serling was not the cook.

      • Kate says:

        Most of the towns off I-5 are like that. You are lucky the fry cook in that diner was not actually a 3-eyed Venusian.

        A night drive home from Northern Faire one year involved 2 flat tires (but only one spare), a tow truck ride up the Grapevine, my truck full of passengers and a caged parrot, and finally a wait in the diner/mechanic’s in LeBec – where the sink in the Ladies’ Room was covered in Kitty Kibble (not litter – cat food), there was pickle relish in the whipped cream on the cocoa, and we finally left with a new tire that was “almost” the same size as the other 3 …

  2. Jason Sinclair says:

    Misty and I did the same commute for years, as we lived in the Bay Area while her parents live in Santa Ana. I-5 creeped out both of us, sort of like California’s answer to Stephen King’s town of Castle Rock. Wait — no, more like Lovecraft’s Innsmouth, but with ranchers instead of fishermen. The 10 Freeway linking L.A. to Phoenix is also pretty weird, what with gas stops surrounded by WWII tanks (the Patton museum) and a giant indian casino/hotel with a huge laser eye atop it making it look like Sauron, but it feels more like something that fell out of the brain of Hunter S. Thompson. I-5 feels like there’s cults making sacrifices of Slim Jims, slurpees and salesmen to alien gods in the hills just off some random exit…

    • Kate says:

      Oh, my, yes, Jason! I-5 is the Highway of the Weird, and it creeped Kage out frequently, too. I like it, though. It is so very strange. I am constantly amused and diverted by what I see. On the other hand, I never stop … that wouldn’t be safe, I suspect. Curiously, there are few reports of UFOs or abductions: which leads me to believe simply that no one ever notices.

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