Kage Baker loved driving Highway 101, because it was a familiar, family road. Most of her life, she lived within sight and sound of its roar, literally on the edge of the road. It ran to her front doorways. And it is rich in restaurants and bathrooms.
She was fascinated by the I-5, for its immensity and weirdness. The Company stories were born on that road; Mendoza first came walking into our world somewhere around Lost Hills, through the Russian thistle and salt flats. But the 5 scared her, too, since anything could – and often did – happen there. Many of you, Dear Readers, are too young to remember life without cell phones: but when we began our long treks through the San Joaquin Valley and associated dimensions, there were no personal phones. There were also no emergency phones beside the road. If you broke down, you broke waaaay down.
Kage always swore she would never drive it by winter, either, when the tule fog rises and black frost can form on the road. Nor did she: we did 10 years’ worth of Dickens Fair on the cozy Highway 101. But the 5 has its charms, even by winter and dark…
Aside from the brevity of the trip (I can do it in 6 hours, barring disasters), it is a sea of mystery. Strange buildings, stranger ruins; animals both dead and alive and equally unidentifiable by the road – also, lots of cows, which get amazingly interesting in large numbers …really weird gas stations, with really weird snacks in them, obviously being run by either goblins or bandits. Do not try the off-brand jerky.
One of the great mysteries is what only appears after dark: cities.
They are made all of light, and run in unsuspected angles and lines all the way to the mountains that rim the Valley east and west. By daylight, there is no sign of them. There are roads that run off, yes, but no sign of habitation. Signs reading Three Rocks and Pumpkin Center may point you off the 5; but if you follow them, you eventually reach a cluster of two hamburger joints, a closed hair salon and a gas station. Green metallic beetles obscure the half-dozen working street lights and there are no houses; Kaspar Hauser is working behind the fast-food counter, and you will end up with pickle relish as a garnish on your cocoa’s whipped cream. (True story.)
By no stretch of even Kage’s imagination are these cities. They are barely ruins. As a friend has recently observed, the motto for these places is No One Lives Here. And yet, and yet … when darkness falls, the lines of white and gold spring up, burning away across the miles. Intersections, grand concourses, squares and walls and towers spring up on every hand. If you follow them (perhaps running desperately on a spare tire or with steam jetting from your dying radiator) you find no towns or even farm houses: just long, well-lit empty roads.
At some strange hour of the night or season, something must rise up in these places, into the urban footprint prepared for it. Shangri-La? R’lyeh? The suburbs of Crow Landing? I have evidently never been late or lost enough to catch it. That may be just as well, though, since I would hate to have dawn rise in that golden wilderness and find that the I-5, too, has vanished …
So I’ll continue to admire the night cities from the dubious safety of the road. I have a nephew and a parrot to think about, after all. Not to mention the memory of my red-haired navigator, eyes wide and sparkling in the dashboard lights, warning me not to seek the fata morgana off I-5.
Tomorrow: adventures in set building