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