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PULLING A FAST ONE : A Speed Demon on the Open Road Faces the Urge to Fly by Night

August 09, 1992|Wanda Coleman | Wanda Coleman is a Los Angeles poet.

Driving through California is exhilarating and fraught with beautifully eerie moments: night defined by banks of glowing lights on slow-moving rigs; heavy rain on an incline forcing you to pray through it and grip the wheel; a full plum-colored moon hanging on the horizon so long that it seems to be rising from the west.

Something about la costa tempts me to take the time to do the regular stuff: pose by a giant redwood or the Golden Gate Bridge; forgo a burger stop to lose my head in the clouds at Nepenthe's in Big Sur; gawk at the silk-clad spooks haunting San Simeon, then wind inland to overdose on walnut maple fudge in Solvang. The big challenge is to soar through to Malibu, stopping only for gas and java.

Ultimately, direction doesn't matter. What counts is the ride : weaving down from Eureka, in and out along the 101 and PCH; beelining up Interstate 5, cresting into Bakersfield, dead-set on Fresno; zooming north along the 15, Vegas-bound; Del Mar-busting, headed for Baja. I call it the California run. It's in my blood. And I plan to do it as long as I'm do-able. Black lady rebel with a car. (Wasn't it the summer of '55 when James Dean caught the light where the 46 meets the 41 up near Paso Robles?)

Road dangers are legendary, many exacerbated by the ever-present temptation to break the safety barrier. For some of us demons-on-wheels the 55-m.p.h. speed limit merely increases the thrill of outrunning stormy thunderheads at Tejon-Lebec, sky-driving near Big Sur or midnight fog-surfing in Santa Maria. These aside, the baddest danger sometimes lies at the vanishing point of one's thoughts--as it did on one recent trip I made alone.

Headed up the coast to the Santa Cruz Mountains, I averaged an illegal 85 m.p.h. At confident moments, I dared as much as 110. One eye on the road, one on my wristwatch, I was pleased at my excellent timing. Having left L.A. in the wee a.m., I made San Luis Obispo at sunrise. I figured I could make the whole trip in under six hours. The going was gr-r-r-reat until San Jose.

R&B blasting, I roared up behind two teensy compacts crawling parallel to each other at 50 m.p.h. I slowed and waited a quarter-mile for the bug in the left lane to pull over and join the gnat on the right. It didn't and wouldn't. There was a sheer drop on the left. On the right, the shoulder was too narrow for me to pass.

Furious that my road rhythm had been broken, I began to anticipate bumpercide. These guys had to be doing this deliberately. They had to know each other. This was probably a stunt they pulled regularly on us poor unsuspecting speeders. Let the California Highway Patrol give chase and bust me by law, but God help anyone else who cramps my driving style.

I moved over and tailgaited the car in the right lane for another quarter-mile. He wouldn't give an inch. I could hear the drivers' dufus laughter. I decided to make them clean their seats.

I slowed to 40 m.p.h. and fell back a dozen or so car lengths. Then I jammed the accelerator to the floor, revving up to 75. I rammed my four-door, half-ton monster down the middle of the road, charging past the two compacts. They were too small to hog the road, the space between them making a breezy escape route. I laughed all the way into Santa Cruz.

The next day, my husband called, upset. He had received something that looked like a ticket. It was from the CHP in San Jose, and addressed to him, since the car I was driving is registered in his name. What had I been up to?

"A vehicle registered to you has been observed by a concerned citizen in violation of: 21658 (a) V.C.-UNSAFE LANE CHANGE: Your cooperation in obeying the rules of the road is requested." Signed by a captain commander, it stated that no further action was being taken. Lucky for me.

I try. Seriously. But the road runner in me is hard to tame. On my trip back, I took the big dare. I ran the 101 straight through to Malibu. The trip was considerably less eventful, and my timing was slightly off. But I managed to do it without stopping except for gas, java and, uh, two CHP citations.

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