Kage Baker always cautioned me to be careful on I-5 in the winter.
“It’s weird out there,” she would say. “The whole place changes – it’s not tame farmland in the winter. You be careful if you ever have to drive it.”
Today I left Los Angeles early in the morning, and hurtled north like a migrating animal – seeking Extreme Christmas in the far North. The long weird length of Interstate 5 is half hollowed out now, with winter and the solstice bearing down on it: the crops have been harvested, the verges are thinly greened over with the grass that rises like smoke under the first winter rains. All the trees are bare or burning with colour. The seasonal wetlands have surfaced whever the rains have gathered, and herons and egrets stalk the verges like assembling pilgrims.
The white cattle are appearing on the hillsides. Ravens are sporting in the middle air, but every other weathered fence post seats a sulking hawk. Nothing can sulk like a hawk in the winter – not cats, not fourteen year olds. Every line of their bodies, so graceful in the air, sits on a fence post and mimes I don’t want to be here.
Animals are thick on the roadside, the annual sacrifices in their unlikely poses by the traffic. Badgers, squirrels, owls like half-made fans … I passed 4 coyotes in the same pose by the road, miles apart. However, Kage told me about that trick: there is really only one Coyote, and he’s faking. That’s important to remember. Stop your car to check on him, through pity or curiosity or some weird craving for a dead coyote, and he will immediately inflate to his real form. You’ll come around the back of your car and there Coyote will be, grinning at you, singing Pretty Woman in a bad Roy Orbison voice …
A girl can’t be too careful on I-5.
There are tumbleweeds on the median, and cars upside down; does the same wind do that? Windmills and wind turbines turn at every angle, though the air at ground level is still; the blades flash and flicker, shadowing the grazing cows like the shadows of movie film. Cotton bales are everywhere, the size of trailors, vast white blocks of marble under their ridiculous little tarp caps. The bottom half of each bale is bare, blue-white with the memory and ghost of frost. Two months ago, you might see one inexplicably in flames by the road; but now, in this antechamber of winter’s dark heart, nothing anywhere burns.
It took me six hours to reach San Francisco,; six hours and a season and a half. It was clear and bright and warm in Los Angeles, which never can easily decide when winter arrives. But the further North I went, the thicker grew the scrim of silver ice-light in the sky; the thicker rose the clouds from the sea, and the fog breathed out by the silver hills. By the time I crossed the Bay Bridge, the Bay itself was hammered silver under a cold wind.
A whole different world. I parked in the icy shadow of the Cow Palace, and walked into London – eternally 5 PM on Christmas Eve, smelling of sweet pies and ale and the ghosts of cattle.
I’ve driven again straight through a time warp. Guess I wasn’t careful enough. But then, I didn’t really try to be …