Kage Baker was always a little apprehensive about the I-5 highway.
She liked it because it was fast, much faster than the 101 for long hauls between San Francisco and Los Angeles. She liked the scenery – it ran from bleak but beautiful to paradisial fields and orchards, but always right on the border of the Fields We Know: she was fascinated with how the Weird crept in over the verges of the road like fog.
But that same strangeness made her nervous. We and all our migrating Faire friends knew stories about people who drove off the road following a lit gas station sign – and ended up in a field of broken asphalt somewhere, vainly trying all the nailed up doors on a shell of a building in the utter dark … or went off on a side road toward the towns that only show as lakes of lights in the night, and never, ever found any town. They found themselves in artichoke fields or abandoned walnut groves, and had to sleep in their cars until the sun rose and the roads to reality came back again.
In the daytime, the Weird is largely confined to strange wrecks or dessicated corpses off to the side of the road. Or miles-wide sundogs, huge disks of rainbow light in the highest clouds. Hand-lettered signs for dubious fruit – NAVEL ORNGIS – PEECHES – PLUMBS – AVOCADES. The ever-popular RIPE CHEERIES. These are all things to make one giggle for a few miles; even now, when a lot of them have been replaced by even more badly-lettered signs castigating all politicians for poor water usage laws. MODERN DAY DUSTBOWL, howl some of the signs – apparently unaware that the prairie was ploughed up by diesel tractors, and the devastated Oakies fled in Model T’s.
But the signs are still entertainment, as long as one is determined to never, ever follow the paint-dripping arrows off into the fields … there are even honest-to-gosh gas stations I won’t stop at it, having once done so and found utter Weirdness was grinning behind the counter. I found a decapitated hare’s head jammed on a gas pump handle at one of those one Sunday night. And found another near the juncture with the 580, where the ladies room had no toilets: just half a dozen holes in the floor, with toilet paper dispensers neatly on the wall beside each one.
I left for the North this weekend when it was still technically night, and was clear of the Grapevine before the sun came up – all the way to Buttonwillow before the dawn hit me in the eyes. When I came down the North side of the Grapevine, in fact, there were still the phantom cities glowing on the valley floor in the blue ere-dawn; lakes and rivers of light, solitaire diamonds in distant squares of maybe-fields. By the time I left Buttonwillow, they had all receded into mystery and the view all around was dry fields and orchards.
I saw some odd things, though, before then. In one unplanted field, was what I first thought was a wrecked bus – then, as I passed it, it was clearly a small airplane. There was no sign of a crash, but it had obviously died by fire. The wings were shattered and burnt, the windows broken out. Looked like someone had lured a little plane off the road and then torched it.
And at a feed lot a ways North of the split between the 5 and the 99, I encountered a really vile stench. Not the usual stockyard smell – I’ve passed Harris Ranch often enough to know that. Wet straw, damp cows, manure: the homely stench of the byre, as Lord Dunsany described it. This was different, worse. Scary. It was a smell of old, cold smoke and stone dust, blood and a pervading stink of rotting meat. A siege smell, a battlefield smell. Nasty and choking and hair-raising, nothing you’d expect of cows.
Were the ghost cities of the Valley engaged in war Thursday night? Were night-time skirmishes and aerial battles taking place outside the lights of I-5? No one would notice, I bet; unless they ventured down a side road and a trebuchet-load of dead cows and rocks landed on their car …
Kage had good reasons to be wary of night on I-5.
I, however, will be on that road of surprises tonight – or very early this morning. And to tell you all the truth, Dear Readers, I rather like it. If I glimpse the troops of the Unseelie Court harrying Summer down the road to Autumn – well, I’ll hardly know who to cheer for. I’ve got acquaintances on both sides.
I’ll just make a note of it, make sure my doors are locked, and speed South to home.