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Creek Running North

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February 04, 2004

Reading the land scrapes of America

The freeway that runs through Pinole, Interstate 80, is one of the most heavily traveled roads in the US. A major east-to-west thoroughfare, the fastest route to take across the northern half of the country, and the main corridor between Sacramento and Oakland/San Francisco, I-80 is usually full of traffic.

So when I set out to drive the six miles to the BART station each morning, my speedometer rarely tops 35. This gives me lots of time to watch the world in relative safety, unless some cell-phone yakking moron decides to shift lanes into my nose without realizing it.

There are lots of implied stories in the lay of the land along the way. Clear plastic bottles filled with amber liquid tell the tale of deregulation in the trucking industry, and drivers with no time in their schedules to stop for bathroom breaks. Near El Portal the road heads downhill into a small valley where San Pablo Creek crosses the Hayward Fault: this pull-apart basin will liquefy during the next Great Quake and all those little houses will vanish. Sound walls and retaining walls buckle and creep, victims of the long dance of the tectonic plates.

But there's a shorter history on display too, one measurable in split seconds. From Truckee to the Pacific, I-80 is marked with skids, stochastic hieroglyphs of fear and distraction. Let a radio lose its signal, and a driver come up too fast on a slowed SUV while tuning, and the asphalt will bear two short stripes to tell the tale.

I like to read this writing as I drive. It's a way to imagine stories to entertain myself, and a constant source of fresh reminders of the importance of attention to detail.

There are the routine marks, ten or so feet of increasing black, precisely parallel to the lane markers, that end abruptly, sometimes just before gouges in the pavement but more often vanishing into thin air. Variation on the above: the "dotted line," not usually ending at a gouge, product of short attention span and ABS brakes.

There are the enigmas, dark commas and odd curves that cause my brow to furrow. Was that a motorcycle in a tornado? Under a toppling 18-wheeler? Or are those superimposed skids from separate incidents, perhaps three or more, a Goodyear palimpsest slowly being worn away by rain?

There are also the screaming horribles, the ones that demand your attention and then force you to blot out the images that come. Broad long arcs that cross lanes and point back at the oncoming traffic. Sharp, straight lines that barrel up to the base of the far sound wall. Short dark bands flanking truncated light poles. Hellish skids hurtling off the edge of the world.

A little more than a year ago I was almost to the train station, going through a busy intersection, when a distracted woman in a minivan ran a red light and t-boned my old truck. Her northbound vector added to my eastbound vector caused the rear end of my truck to swing 90 degrees to the north, while the truck as a whole continued eastbound at about 25 per. As trucks are generally resistant to traveling sideways at 25 mph, mine tipped over onto its side, subsequently rolling onto its roof. After a couple of dramatic spins like an empty bottle in a ring of teenagers, I was staring at a swath of pavement and broken glass while hanging upside down from the seat belt.

I was fine, and only somewhat shaken. I turned off the engine (important!), mentally inventoried all my moving parts for damage, and let myself slowly out of the seatbelt down to the ceiling, crawling on hands and knees over shattered safety glass to the passenger door, which opened. The EMT looked deep into my eyes before allowing me to refuse transport. I went back to the intersection a week later, but a storm and constant stream of traffic had already washed the skid marks into the storm drain.

Posted by Chris Clarke at February 4, 2004 03:23 PM TrackBack URL for this entry:

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hi chris. i've been reading your blog for a while now. i love reading your writings about pinole and the creek. i grew up in pinole with -- and sometimes in -- the creek. i've lived in san diego for the past five years, and have missed the bay area and pinole every second of it. thank you for writing about it for those of us whoud can't be there.

Posted by: brian at February 4, 2004 04:59 PM
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I'm not sure I wanted to know this...

Posted by: beth at February 4, 2004 05:01 PM
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That wreck sounded awful: your description reminded me of the stomach-churning sensation when your vehicle hits ice & you lose control...

I loved the title to this piece: land scrapes. Now why didn't I think of that...

Posted by: Lorianne at February 4, 2004 06:45 PM
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Those skid marks are compelling! The ones that always get me are the ones on the divider walls; I saw a pair once where they ran along the wall, then disappeared over the top. Brrr!

(Glad you survived that wreck, btw.)

Posted by: Rana at February 5, 2004 05:31 PM
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=v= I drive very rarely, so the "hieroglyphs of fear and distraction" have a strong and fresh impact on me every time, as I imagine they wouldn't to those who've incoporated them into their daily lives. I appreciate your awareness and that you describe their effects so eloquently.

(BTW, I live near the East Coast's most heavily-travelled stretch of freeway, which is the last place I drove. "My exit" is the photo on p. 21 of the latest Earth Island Journal.)

Posted by: Jym at February 7, 2004 10:43 AM
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why tediously drive a car for the paltry dixtance 6 miles every morning when you could go probably as quickly and more healthily by bicycle?

Posted by: bill at February 7, 2004 06:36 PM
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If my sense of where Pinole Creek is located is correct (or at least close to correct), there may well be no alternative routes. The north/east Bay Area is a collection of communities separated by hills and valleys, connected primarily by the freeways that run between them. Surface streets are usually locally restricted, or extremely roundabout to accommodate the terrain.

Hence the traffic.

Posted by: Rana at February 10, 2004 11:36 AM
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