The Commuter Life: Bernie (No, Not That One)

As a native New Yorker, even after 25 years as a California resident, I remain fairly ignorant of the ins and outs of state politics here in earthquake land. With so much at stake, however, perhaps it is time for me to learn. After all, I work just four blocks from the capitol rotunda, where It all goes down. There is no longer any excuse for me to bury my head in the sand.

Back in my college days in New York, I vaguely recall hearing about popular singer Linda Ronstadt being the girlfriend of a young California governor named Jerry Brown. Then I heard that a former California governor and star of Hollywood kitsch movies was running for president. By the time my feet hit the Golden State, I felt we were lost for good when the administration of Gov. Gray-Out Davis gave way to the Terminator. Then Jerry returned to the governor’s mansion. Everything old is new again. Now we have a new governor, still a Democrat but not a fiscal conservative like his predecessor, whom my mother wryly refers to as “gruesome Newsom.”

Maintenance and improvement of infrastructure has become rather a big deal in California, a point that may not always resonate locally, but one that rises to the fore if you commute a long distance to work every day, as I do. The politics involved in widening roads, repairing potholes and making lane merges less dangerous is brought to mind by the somewhat odd practice of naming sections of highway and even particular interchanges after civic leaders of yesteryear.

For example, after years of availing myself of the short hop on Highway 4 (Crosstown Arterial) between Highway 99 and Interstate 5 in Stockton, I finally had to research who exactly is the guy behind the “Ort J. Lofthus Freeway” sign. Apparently, he was instrumental not only in getting that road constructed, but also in building the last piece of I-5 (also in Stockton) that completed that interstate between the Mexican border south of San Diego and the Canadian border crossing in Blaine, Washington. Also, he was the manager of a local radio station. An interesting bit of California history.

Now that I commute back and forth to Sacramento, curiosity got the better of me in regard to my daily drive past a sign on Highway 99 announcing the Bernie Richter Memorial Freeway. As my aunt taught me when I was ten years old, “memorial” is a polite way of saying “he’s dead, you know.” I soon learned that the same is true of the practice of preceding someone’s name with the modifier “late.” (I remember being disappointed, thinking that “late” should mean what it says, that the person is never on time. Then again, I was a big fan of Ramona Quimby, who believed that “attacked” should mean to stick tacks in someone. And I guess, in a way, it kind of does.)

A quick search online informed me that Bernie Richter was a high school teacher in Chico who was later elected to the state Assembly, where he was a staunch opponent of affirmative action. I read that the conservative Republican was known for his impassioned speeches, was seen by some as a racist and caused plenty of legislative controversy.

It seems that Bernie Richter could be considered the ideological opposite of the other Bernie, the independent from Vermont whose bid for the presidency I support.

Still, while flying down the pavement at 70 miles an hour early in the morning, it’s good for a commuter to know something about those whom our state government has chosen to so prominently honor.

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The Commuter Life: Suddenly, it Dawned on Me

Gooooood morning, Sacramento! What time is it? Oh five hundred. What does the O stand for? Oh, my God, it’s early!

No matter how you cut it, 3:30 am comes early.

That’s the latest that I need to haul myself out of bed if I’m driving into the city for another day at the job. It gives me about 90 minutes to get ready and still make it out the door by 5 am. Any later and the likelihood of availability of the one and only handicapped parking space that allows all-day parking and is close to my office rapidly approaches zero, like the curvilinear graphs I remember from calculus class.

Looking on the bright side, I get to witness God’s handiwork every morning, as the sky is brushed with purple, pink and gold. It’s an inspiring start to my day.

My morning commute destination: My parking space, when I can snag it. At least it’s under a leafy tree, shading my car all day from the 100 degree plus afternoon temperatures that we’ve been experiencing lately.

I try to balance my need to awaken in the pre-dawn hours with my desire to spend time with my wife in the evenings. Eight hours of sleep would require me to be in bed by 7:30 pm, which (let’s face it) is not terribly conducive to a reasonably normal family life. My bedtime was later than that when I was eight years old.

An approach I have been taking involves splitting the difference by taking a nap as soon as I walk in the door and then getting up later to have dinner and family time. On one level this works well, as I am invariably exhausted when I get home. But the experts warn that splitting up sleep time like this deprives the brain of its vital REM cycles and the body of opportunities to replace its supply of melatonin. I tend to compensate by engaging in marathon sleep sessions on the weekends. On Friday evenings, I want to say “Don’t wake me up til Monday morning.”

I am extremely grateful to my wife, who drives me in to work and returns to pick me up twice a week. I look forward to those days, as I get to sleep until 5 am and then nap in the passenger seat during the commute. But it means that my wife must make two round-trips, leaving a severe dent in her schedule. And it costs us twice as much at the gas pump.

No one said living in the exurbs was going to be easy.

On average, my morning commute takes about 40 minutes and my return in the evening about ten minutes longer. My previous concern was that my evening commute time would double due to the need to take surface streets out of Sacramento to avoid the harrowing experience of entering the freeway at the metering lights downtown. True, at times the two-lane merge can be nerve-wracking, but I find that I am starting to get used to it. It seems to be just a matter of signaling, making eye contact, and then muscling your way into the flow of traffic as if it’s your God-given right. There may be some so-and-so who’s determined not to let you in, but you can’t let it faze you. The attitude has to be “here I come, so get out of the way. Oh, you’d prefer to rear-end or sideswipe me and raise your insurance rates? Make my day, pilgrim.”

No, the problem is not the loonies with whom you have to share the road. As has famously been said, “we have found the enemy, and the enemy is us.” My chief adversary out on the road is myself alone.

This is not to say that I won’t end up in a wreck eventually. If I do the commuting dance long enough, the odds are simply not in my favor (particularly in light of my already dented, scratched and crunched driving record). More than likely, however, the day of infamy will arrive when I fall asleep while tooling down Highway 99 at 70 miles per hour.

I’ve tried just about everything to stay awake on the drive home. I keep the windows open, blast the music, sing, slap my face. I drink coffee in the afternoon and sip a Pepsi on the road. Sooner or later, however, I catch myself nodding off. It’s been a long day and the road is monotonous. More than once already I’ve reached my exit with little memory of how I got there. I guess my horse knows the way home.

All I can do at this point is count the years remaining until retirement and hope that, in the meantime, I’m not awakened by an exploding air bag to the face.

And with that I shall say good night. 3:30 am comes early.

The Commuter Life: Ready, Set, Go!

Tessie, my sister’s new toy, er, commuter car.

My sister recently texted me a photo of her newest acquisition, a shiny black Tesla. “This is Tessie. Pretty no?” she asked by way of introduction. “She’s sitting in the garage sipping electricity.”

The thing costs almost as much as I earn in an entire year. But then again, the garage in which Tessie imbibes electrons is part of my sister’s million dollar plus home on a mountain overlooking San Francisco Bay. Tessie is now her commuter car.

Someone needs to tell Sis that she is doing things backwards. Thousands of Bay Area employees cannot afford to live there and endure hellish daily commutes from the exurbs just to keep their jobs. Sis, who has always been a bit of a firebrand, has decided to buck the trend. While she has been unable to escape the fate of the supercommuter who spends hours behind the wheel, she at least gets to do it in reverse, and on a nontraditional work schedule, to boot. She commutes from her fancy home in the East Bay against traffic to two jobs in the Central Valley. She mitigates the distance by working both weekend days and by staying over with my parents two nights per week.

I feel sorry for my parents.

Mom and Dad are well in their eighties, but that doesn’t stop Sis from upending their routine on a weekly basis. My sister leaves her junk all over the place at my parents’ house, then disappears for a week. If my parents try to clean up, when Sis returns she throws a fit about not being able to find anything. Oh, and she brings my parents food and expects them to cook it for her.

Granted, I would not enjoy living the type of commuter lifestyle that my sister has fallen into. And so, the vagaries of fate being such as they are, the commuter lifestyle went out and found me instead. It’s about to bite me on the nose.

At the improbable age of 60, my wife and I have just purchased our first home. On the salary of a public servant, we cannot begin to afford the hyperinflated prices of houses near my workplace in Sacramento. We ended up buying a newly-constructed home in a bland subdivision in an exurb requiring a commute that nearly rivals my sister’s.

I’ll have a better idea of how this odyssey will play out when I embark on this new challenge next week. What I do know at this point is that I must leave our new home no later than 5 a.m. for the 45-minute drive downtown if I am to be assured of a parking space. Coming home, however, will be far worse. The outbound commuter traffic on Interstate 5 during the afternoon rush is reminiscent of the parking lot known as the Long Island Expressway. Not that I would even attempt it. I panic at the very thought of merging into freeway traffic from the downtown streets at rush hour. I am not prepared to take my life in my hands. So I figured out an alternate route through surface streets that is likely to take me at least an hour and a half. I know, I should count my blessings when thousands sit in their cars for four to six hours each day. It’s just that it will take me some time to get used to the commuter life.

My chief concerns are the cost of filling up my gas tank every day ($4/gallon out here), the fact that my already aging vehicle will surely give up the ghost on Highway 99 one fine morning, and that I already struggle to fight off sleep on a relatively short 30-minute commute. My plan is to pull into a fast food parking lot about halfway home and take a nap in my car before hitting the freeway. This, of course, will extend my commute to encompass even more of my day.

I am fortunate that my very generous wife has agreed to drive me in and home two days per week. On those days, I can put my seat back and saw logs while in transport. As for the other three days, I’ve made contingency plans for those inevitable times when there are simply no parking spaces to be found anywhere near my place of employment. I will simply drive another half hour to a suburban shopping center and will wait there for Uber to pick me up and transport me downtown. After work, I’ll have to pay for another Uber to take me back to my car. On the bright side, my drive home will be shorter on such days.

All in all, I anticipate that the commuter life will turn out to be an expensive time suck that I’ll never really get used to. And then there’s the whole fossil fuels/carbon footprint/destruction of the planet thing. Perhaps it’s time to follow my sister’s lead and buy a Tesla. Not that I can begin to afford one now that, in my old age, I have finally become a real adult with mortgage payments.

Clearly, there is only one solution to the problem of getting back and forth to work. Beam me up, Scotty!

Is There a Maximum Driving Age?

My wife and I visited Florida in May and, as I recall from my experiences traveling there to visit my grandparents in the days of my youth, we noticed many senior citizens driving the highways and byways of Fort Lauderdale in their big boat cars.

The idea of the little old lady in the Crown Vic has become something of a joke, a stereotype that has a basis in fact.  Legend has it that driverless cars have been reported (in the days before Google) that turned out to have Grandma at the helm, now so shrunken that she could not be seen over the steering wheel.

At the time of her death, my grandmother, who lived to the age of 97, had not driven in well over twenty years, probably closer to thirty.  (Unless, that is, you count her oversized adult tricycle with ANN on the license plate.)  She didn’t really need to drive, as my grandfather took care of that all the way up to his death at the age of 82.  After that, Grandma pitched in a bunch of money so that she and her daughter could purchase a house.  Grandma had her own little wing with private bath and my aunt and her husband took up the driving duties.

My mother stopped driving about the time my parents retired and moved from New York to California, more than twenty years ago.  My father, who will turn 83 this fall, does all the driving.  He was a driver education teacher for 30 years and wouldn’t have it any other way.  He claims that spending his life driving was a curse wished upon him by his own father when, as a teenager, Dad was always taking his car.

Thankfully, my parents no longer make cross-country road trips as they did for years, particularly when my sister still lived in Boston.  Sis resides in Dallas these days.  After a few annual road trips to the Lone Star State, my parents gave it up in favor of flying.  It’s a real pain.  They drive three hours to San José, stay over in a hotel, pay to park their car, take the shuttle to the airport, wait forever at the TSA checkpoint, then hop the first leg of a flight that usually involves at least one change.  When they arrive at DFW, they have to rent a car so that they’re not stuck at my sister’s house with no escape for a week.  Still, it’s better than 23 hours of driving to Texas and then the same back to California.

My other sister lives in the Bay Area (except when she’s working out of state), and my parents usually make the six-hour round trip to visit her once or twice per month.  Three or four times each year, they drive up here to the Sacramento area to visit us, a nearly nine-hour round trip.  We live in two rooms and there is no place for anyone to stay over.  Rather than expending the money and effort of packing clothes and paying for a hotel, my parents treat it as a day trip.  More than once, my parents have mentioned that it’s more driving than they can safely do in a day.  Most of the time, we go there.  To be honest, however, we don’t go all that often.  We both work hard during the week and we prize our time off on the weekends.  Still, we made the drive to the Central Valley for Father’s Day in June and met my parents at my sister’s home in the Bay Area for my nephew’s birthday last weekend.  My parents will likely drive up for my wife’s birthday next month and we will spend several days there for the High Holy Days in October.

Needless to say, something has got to give.  My parents aren’t getting any younger.  I’ve expressed my concerns in this space on many occasions.  The fact that they live out in the boonies doesn’t help the situation.  When I ask my mother how they’ll take care of that big place when they’re 90, she admits that they won’t be able to do so.  Well, that’s seven years away.  For now, my parents are doing fairly well for their age.  However, I cannot escape the feeling that the future is now, just one phone call in the middle of the night away.  Along with a million other things, what will my mother do about driving when Dad is no longer around?  Will she suddenly begin driving again at the age of 90?  I mean, the minimum driving age in California is 16, but what is the maximum driving age?

Meanwhile, can I count on my father to stop driving when it’s no longer safe for him to do so?  I seriously doubt it.  His hearing is now considerably diminished and I can only hope that the manifestation of his road rage is limited to the stream of unprintable invective that streams from his mouth any time he objects to the actions of another driver.  My mother assures me that’s not the half of it.

How do you tell a parent that he or she shouldn’t drive anymore?  And what are the children supposed to do when driving is the only way the parents can get to the grocery store, to the doctor, to worship services or anywhere?  My father says that getting old is not for sissies.  But to leave elders as prisoners in their own homes seems like adding insult to injury.

My grandmother used to tell me that, in Broward County, Florida, anyone over the age of 70 who surrendered his or her driver’s license would be given a free bus pass.  But when you live out in the country, it’s not like you can just walk to the corner and wait for the bus.  If we’re lucky, perhaps my mother will go live with my sister when the time comes.  But what about in the meantime?  Will my father continue to drive until he has a serious accident?  Remember, no driving means no independence (at least in rural California it does).

I read an article today about how to get your elderly parents to stop driving.  To me, the suggestions are nothing short of despicable.  To wit:

  • Contact your parents’ auto insurance agency and get them to cancel their policy. (So now I’m supposed to turn informant on my folks?  Wait, wasn’t that what the Nazis encouraged kids to do?)
  • Place an anti-theft club on the steering wheel of your parents’ car. (They already use one.)
  • Move the seat all the way forward so your elderly parent can’t get into the car and sit down. (Fortunately, my parents still have all their marbles and know quite well how to adjust the seat.  Umm, I think.)
  • Remove the distributor cap and tell your parents that their car can’t be driven because it won’t pass smog. (If you don’t live in California, you can’t appreciate the headache of the infamous smog test.)  (My father can take a car apart and put it together again.  I know because he’s done it.  Exhibit A is the perfectly running Model T Ford sitting in his garage.  He takes it out for rides periodically.)
  • Simply sell their car! (Someone explain this one to me, please.  How exactly does one sell something that belongs to someone else?  Wait, isn’t there something in the California Criminal Code about that?)

Tell me that people haven’t lost their minds.  Please.

 

36 Miles

sunrise

Sunrise on the way to work (before the time change)

For seven years, I lived within walking distance of my place of employment.  When we moved to Fresno, and again when I was hired to work out in the middle of the desert, we rented the closest house or apartment to my job that we could find at a reasonable price.  Although I didn’t walk to work due to health problems, the duration of my morning drive was typically two to three minutes door to door.  I now realize just how spoiled I was!

It would be an understatement to say that becoming a commuter has constituted a bit of a change.  Instead of living around the corner from work, I now spend a significant portion of my waking hours on the 70, the 99 and the 5.  (If you’re not from California, you may find it strange that we place the word “the” before our road names.  And don’t call them “route numbers.”  Those are freeways, pardner.)

On weekdays, my alarm goes off at the ungodly hour of 3:45 a.m.  To ensure arrival at work prior to my scheduled starting time of 8:00, I have to be out the door no later than 6:45.  This gives me three hours to get ready.  Now, that may seem crazy to you, but I am not what you would, by any stretch of the imagination, consider normal (at least not in the morning).  I am so sluggish in the morning that it takes me forever to get going.  I am by nature a night person.  I enjoy going to bed at about the time the sun rises.  Mornings are just not my thing.  After nearly a year of unemployment, however, flexibility has become the name of the game.  I am more than willing to make whatever adjustments are necessary to bring home a paycheck and keep the bills current.

Typically, the drive into downtown Sacramento takes 40 to 45 minutes during the morning rush.  It’s only a matter of 36 miles.  When the traffic gets gnarly, however, all bets are off.  The trip can take an hour and a half.  You simply have to leave early because you never know what nightmare you may encounter en route.  A few weeks ago, for example, there was the Monday morning when a driver decided it might be a good idea to make an illegal U-turn through the median strip while traffic whizzed by at 70 miles per hour.  The poor man paid for that error in judgment with his life.  Between the emergency response vehicles, the wreckers hauling away mangled vehicles and the looky-loos, traffic came to a dead stop.  By chance, we happened to leave early that day and I managed to (barely) make it to work on time.

I say “we” because I am extraordinarily blessed to have my wife drive me to work every day.  There is simply no parking to be had in downtown Sacramento unless you pay the monthly fee to leave your car in a garage or lot.  Many employees take the bus or the light rail to work, and the nearest stop is only a few blocks away.  When walking is a challenge bordering on impossibility, however, you’re pretty much out of luck (unless you arrive at 5 a.m. to grab a space on the street where you can use your handicapped parking permit).  So my wife drives me to work in the morning, drives home and then makes the same round trip all over again in the afternoon.  That’s 144 miles that we put on our car every day, Monday through Friday.  At this rate, we are going to kill our high mileage vehicle in short order.

So far, we have had to replace the front brakes, replace two of the belts, have the tires realigned and change the oil twice.  That’s in less than two month’s time.

And that’s not to mention the wear and tear on my wife.  Her devotion is just one of the hundreds of reasons that she is so precious to me.  I thank her regularly and profusely, but there are some gifts for which even hundreds of sincere expressions of thanks are inadequate.

Come pay day, of course, both of us are thankful.

NoCal road warriors, over and out.

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What I Learned This Week

TGIF!  Happy weekend to all those who worked all week and now have a chance to relax.  Now two weeks unemployed, every day is the weekend for me!  Not to rub it in or anything.

What I Learned This Week:

  • WinCo Foods may have decent prices, but they are not very community oriented.  They expect local residents to spend their money there, but they refuse to allow local churches to conduct a holiday canned food drive outside their store on Saturday mornings.  A manager told me that this is easier than choosing who to say yes to and who to turn down.  She also told me that their attorneys won’t allow it.  I wonder what would happen if the community were to turn WinCo down the way they turn down the community?  Lucky thing there are so many other supermarkets in the area.  Wonder if they all feel the same way?
  • We have a population of resident frogs on the property between the church and the parsonage.  And I don’t mean the little things that hop out of the bushes at night at my parents’ house.  No, these guys are big suckers.  The kind of grenouilles whose cuisses show up drenched in garlic butter at French restaurants.  The kind that end up pickled in formaldehyde and dissected in biology classrooms.  The kind of tz’fardeah that jumped out of the Nile en masse and took up residence in the mixing bowls of the Egyptians and in Pharaoh’s bed chamber and in his bed.  I don’t know what these guys are feeding on, but they are obviously happy amphibians.  Ribbit!
  • Tower Mart’s deli counter closes promptly at 7 pm.  So if you get a hankering for some potato wedges in the evening, forget it!
  • My niece has acquired a one-piece PJ outfit that is all red and white stripes with pictures of the Sock Monkey on the pocket and on the footies.  Adorable!
  • The way Highway 70 in Marysville is being chopped to pieces by construction crews, it is very difficult to get over to Yuba City, particularly if you are new to the area and haven’t a clue about where you’re going.
  • When you buy a book for a penny on eBay, do not be surprised if it has been written in, marked up and highlighted to within an inch of its life by a maniacal college student.
  • Marie Callender’s sells frozen pie crusts in the supermarket, and they are both vegetarian and kosher.  Big smiles!
  • If I clap my hands, my little grandniece will copy me and start clapping, too.  If only I could figure out who or what we are applauding.
  • If Starbucks messes up your drink, they will not only remake it for you, but will also give you a coupon for a free drink next time.  Woot!
  • My mother-in-law’s coconut crème pies are a huge hit with all of our family and friends.  Three cheers for Aunt Jackie pie!
  • Technology has always confuzzled me, but I am a bigger technodork than even I imagined.  I have just barely figured out how to use Spotify, but Twitter is making me frustrated!  Sign me “caught somewhere between the @ sign and the hash tag.”

Blogs I discovered and enjoyed this week:

  • Piglove – The adventures of Bacon, the pot-bellied pig!
  • Must Be This Tall to Ride – Dad shares custody of his five year old son while maintaining his sanity and his job as a writer.  Funny, funny stuff.  No typos, please!

Blog posts that most moved me this week:

twilight

Twilight outside our new digs.  In silhouette are my nephew and niece.  After spending hours digging a trench to try to fix the gas line to the social hall, my nephew had to drive back over here to help my niece when her car wouldn’t start.  If you listen very closely, you can hear my grandniece in her car seat screaming her fool head off — just because she can.

On the Road: Stuck in the Zip Code Twilight Zone, Playing Double Dutch on the Freeway and Doing the Greasy

Southern California to Northern California.  Two (stuffed) cars are better than one.

From personal experience, the following is my advice on moving from one part of the state to another when said move involves packed-to-the-brim vehicles and many hundreds of miles of freeway driving:

  1. If clothes, furnishings and household utensils extend halfway up your rear window, you will be able to see only the roof of the little foreign car tailgating you for twenty miles or so.  How does that old saying go again?  If you’re not a hemorrhoid, get off my ass.
  2. When driving an overloaded vehicle, never play leapfrog with a yellow Penske van driven by a maniacal SOB who would just love to see you careen off the freeway into a ditch at 70 miles per hour.
  3. Consider investing in a bumper sticker bearing the logo: “I’ve just been laid off and I’m moving in with my mother-in-law.  Go ahead, make my day.”
  4. The right side view mirror is your friend, particularly if that end of your rear window is blocked by the upended legs of a chair or table and a pile of blankets and pillows.  When passing a vehicle on the interstate, it really is necessary to check said mirror before pulling back into the right hand lane.  Trust me on this one.
  5. Never, ever agree to follow anyone or to have anyone follow you for more than 500 miles.  Particularly if the anyone is your wife.

Having turned in the keys to our rental house on Thursday (my last day of work), we spent a night in a motel and hit the road at six o’clock Friday morning.  Both cars were packed to within an inch of their sorry automotive lives, including the trunk, the back seat, the floorboards and the passenger seat.  Just enough room for the driver remained.  Northward ho!

My wife followed me as we trekked across the desert from the Arizona border to Coachella, our first refueling stop.  We stopped on opposite sides of the same gas pump, with the idea that we’d fill one vehicle and then pass the nozzle over to fill the other one, all on the same credit card receipt.  This should be a snap, I thought, and we’ll be off in a jiffy.  What I forgot is that nothing ever goes smoothly when you’re traveling.

These days, most gas pumps in California require the purchaser to key in his or her billing zip code after swiping a credit card.  Having updated our records with the credit card company, I input our new zip code.  Incorrect.  Alrighty then, let’s try the zip code we just left an hour and a half ago.  Incorrect.  (Sigh.)  Let’s go back to the new zip code, keying it very carefully, one digit at a time.

DENIED, flashed the display.

What do you mean, “denied?”  It can’t be denied!  We have used this same credit card forever.  Well, maybe not forever, but at least since our credit card number was stolen the last time we moved.  It seems we had entered the Twilight Zone, a strange purgatory between zip codes where matter and anti-matter collide and you simply cease to exist.

Now what?  Fortunately, we had cash on us.  But I was stewing.  This sort of petty inconvenience gets me riled up way beyond anything remotely warranted.  And then I went inside the truck stop to use the rest room, only to find that every single stall in the men’s room was occupied.  All six of them.  What the hell?  Have I stumbled upon a pooping convention?  Or has every traveler on the I-10, in some cosmic coincidence, chosen this exact moment to take a dump?  I really, really wanted to say bad words.  Instead, I got back in the Mercury and roared over the San Gorgonio Pass on the way to our prearranged breakfast stop in Calimesa.

I had suggested stopping at Bob’s Big Boy, although I couldn’t remember exactly which exit to take.  “I think it’s County Line Road,” said my wife the previous night.  “Why don’t you look it up on your phone?”

Of course I didn’t look it up on my phone.  And of course County Line Road was not the correct exit.

What we needed was the exit before County Line Road.  My wife figured this out easily, but I, being thick in the brain, did not.  She zoomed ahead of me and exited at County Line Road while I followed her back onto the eastbound freeway to backtrack to our correct exit.

Now it was her turn to fume.  “Didn’t you see the huge sign?” she demanded.

“No,” I admitted sheepishly.

“Didn’t you hear me honking and honking?”

With the windows closed, the air conditioner blowing and Rod Stewart serenading me through my iPod?  Not a chance.

At least we lucked out with a fabulous breakfast.  Big Boy’s breakfast buffet was as good as I remembered it from back east, with bacon and sausage for my wife and oatmeal, fruit and home fried potatoes for me.

We agreed to gas up before hitting the freeway again.  Now, one would think that I could successfully follow another vehicle less than a mile to a filling station.  No such luck.  This is me we’re talking about, remember.  Mr. Thick.

Somehow, I didn’t see where my wife turned off, and then missed the gas station as I drove right by it.  After driving a couple of miles down the road, I realized that I must have made a mistake somewhere along the way.  I pulled into Del Taco and checked my phone.  Sure enough, she had texted me.  “You missed the gas station.”

“Going back now,” I responded, backtracking and, miraculously, noticing the big Arco sign this time around.

“Clearly, this is not working!” my wife exclaimed as I pulled up to the pumps.  She was spitting mad.

And indeed, clearly it was not.  As the saying goes:  “Do not lead, as I may not follow.  Do not follow, as I may not lead.  Just walk beside me and be my friend.”  If you can figure out how this applies to doing the double dutch down the freeway, by all means let me know.

I actually managed to successfully follow my wife about 90 miles down the 210 through Pasadena and onto the I-5, stopping only once to switch cars when my leg was cramping so badly that I could barely lift it to the brake pedal.  You should know that the I-5 interchange involves six lanes of traffic and the Highway 14 split.  So I promptly lost sight of my wife again.  And caught up with her just as she was exiting at Newhall.  Now, I had a feeling she might stop at Newhall, as we have stopped there many times before and it is one of the last decent stopping places before heading over the Grapevine.  The only problem was that I didn’t actually see my wife get off the freeway and, fortunately for me, just caught a glimpse of her car at the very last second that I could turn the wheel without missing the exit entirely.

From Newhall, we chugged over the ‘vine and into our regular overnight rest stop in Buttonwillow, Kern County.  “See if you can get a room in the front,” my wife asked as I prepared to go in and register.  “Hurry!” she added, as she saw another guest coming from behind — another guest who might take the last room in the front.  I rushed over to the door and, pulling it open, realized that I had just entered the laundry area.  The other door, behind me, was the door to the registration area, that is, the area where the other guest was busily paying for her room at the counter.  “Face it,” I thought, “I can’t do anything right.”  I feel a deep, abiding kinship with Charlie Brown.  (Although, so far, no one has called me a blockhead.  Wishy-washy, maybe.)

The importance of renting a motel room in the front of the property is twofold:  First, you want to avoid having to drag your suitcases down an exterior corridor or over the grassy area by the pool.  Second, when you are traveling with two loaded-down cars, it is helpful to be able to see them directly outside your window so that when some miscreant breaks into them in the middle of the night, at least you can dial 911 and yell “help, help, oh help” while the thief makes off with all your possessions.  We didn’t really need all that old stuff anyway, now did we?

When the woman who hurried in front of me to the registration desk finally finished, I shuffled up to the clerk to learn that there was exactly one room left unrented in the front of the property.  But it was a smoking room (choke, gag).  I texted my wife to see whether she wanted the smoking room.  “Sure,” came back the reply.

Suffice it to say that we did indeed choke and gag for most of the night.  We borrowed some air freshener from the front desk, but it didn’t really help very much.  The smoke just seeps into your lungs, your hair and your clothes.  And although no one broke into our cars, we both wished we had taken a room in the back and bump-bump-bumped the suitcases over the lawn by the pool (particularly when the air conditioning quit on us about midnight).

Then came the matter of dinner.  We saw a barbecue joint, an Indian restaurant that received poor reviews online, a plethora of fast food establishments and Denny’s.  We settled for Denny’s, having visited this particular location on many occasions and having been impressed by their excellent service.  For road food, Denny’s is actually fairly dependable.

Except not this time.  My wife ordered bacon and toast.  Her toast was actually cold.  “Now, how can you mess up toast?” you may ask.  Leave it to Denny’s, they managed.  My wife is generally reluctant to send any dish back to the kitchen, no matter how bad it is.  After all, we’ve read the horror stories about how such dishes are, shall we say “adulterated,” before being returned to the table.  But this time, the toast was so inedible that my wife did send it back.  Did they prepare her a new order of toast?  Heck, no!  They simply warmed it up and brought it back out.

As for her bacon, she had ordered it done crispy.  Instead it came out done greasy.  Greasy and inedible.

So much for depending on Denny’s (although I must say that my veggie burger and six little pieces of broccoli were excellent).

In the morning, we headed into the home stretch, driving more than two hours down the road before stopping for breakfast at a truck stop in Santa Nella, Merced County.  We stopped here for dinner recently and were singularly unimpressed.  For the sake of convenience, however, we decided to give their breakfast a chance.  Their breakfast buffet was actually not bad at all.

As it was late in the morning when we arrived, the staff was just starting to put out the salad bar for lunch.  We asked whether salad was included with the breakfast buffet and were told no, only the soup was included.  Say what?  Perhaps the waitress didn’t know what she was talking about.  After all, we heard her telling diners at a nearby table that she had worked at this truck stop for 41 years.  “It’s time for her to retire,” I told my wife.  And I believe she did just that.  Once she took our order and wrote up a sales slip for two buffets, we never saw her again.  We had to shanghai other staff members to refill our beverages.

If you follow this blog, you may recognize this truck stop as the place where I recently engaged in a Spanglish conversation with the nice (impatient) janitor lady through the stall door.  This time, there was no janitor in evidence, but the only stall available (unlike Coachella, at least there was one) had a broken lock.  I am pleased to report that only two gentlemen walked in on me while I was taking a crap.  The older one seemed slightly embarrassed and reached in to close the stall door behind him.  The younger guy just seemed pissed off.  Hey, this is not exactly my cup of tea either, young dude.  Do you think I enjoy showing off my fat butt to total strangers at a truck stop on the I-5?

We arrived safe and sound in our new home in northern California, just in time to gather with family and friends to celebrate my niece’s seventeenth birthday.  It only took us a day and a half to get both cars completely unloaded, although the house is still a mess of half-empty boxes and clothes strewn every which way.  But we were both very glad to finally get off the road.

For a few days, anyway.  Tuesday we head back to southern California.  Sometimes we feel like Sisyphus, rolling the boulder up and down the I-5.