Wednesday, November 19, 2008

The Atascadero Grade

It isn’t called the Atascadero Grade, but that’s what Roger called it as we committed to the climb in the pitch-blackness of the 101 on Saturday night. A foreboding freeway sign could well have read OUTTA GAS? YOU ARE FUCKED instead of Next Exit 10 Miles.

“Did that sign say the next exit was 10 miles?” I asked Roger.

“Yeah, what’s the gas gauge say now,” he asked calmly. It had dinged to tell me I had 40 miles left in the tank in what only felt like minutes before and now it was, wait, now it was empty?

Looking down, briefly, because after all how long does it take to read one fucking number, I grimly read, “ZERO, it says zero.”

We were on this road and in this place because we’d both awakened to a strong smell of burning that morning. Even in the dim early morning light it was apparent that the opposing hills were under smoke, just like us. Pretty sure that it wasn’t drifting smoke from the Montecito fire in Santa Barbara, I ran into the living room and turned on the TV and my computer. Every station was filled with news about the firestorm in Sylmar, just across the Valley and East from us. The wind was obviously blowing in this direction and the air was dense with smoke and ash.

It didn’t take Roger long to make the call that he wanted to leave. Not because he feared we were in fire danger, although thinking back, everyone was in fire danger at that time, but because he didn’t want to breathe the air for the next couple of days if we could be somewhere else. It sounded good to me, so we packed [very] lightly and were out the door by 10:30. An adventure.

Stupidly, we didn’t bring our insurance papers or computers or the file drawer with copies of everything we’d need in case our house burned down and I’m still not clear why we were so casual about it all.

But, change of underwear and toothbrushes packed, in case we wanted to overnight somewhere, we headed down the hill to Malibu where the air was thick with smoke. Driving a little further north, we pulled over to look at some shore birds this side of Port Hueneme. Still smoky. So we headed over to the 101, continuing north, and thought about lunch in Santa Barbara, wondering if the air would still be fouled by the two-day prior and not yet fully contained fire in Montecito. The further we went, the sweeter the air and so Santa Barbara was our first stop. Their smoke was obviously blowing south and not bothering the town at all. It was one of those bright blue days, just perfect. We picked up some apples and dates at the Farmer’s Market and then found a good little restaurant on State Street.

After eating and mulling over our next move, we decided to press on to the north, thinking San Luis Obispo, a favorite little town of ours, would be a good place to spend the night.

It was such a perfect afternoon that we pulled into the State Park beach at El Capitan, nosing our car under a tree and with the waves crashing below, contentedly read for half an hour or so before wandering down to the beach. The shore birds were all hungry and feeding and the air and light couldn’t have been more perfect.

We were in no particular hurry, except to find some good restaurant in San Luis Obispo and somewhere to stay.

I drove this leg of the trip while Roger called for reservations. “You want HOW much for a room at the Hilton?”

“You know, I’m a Hilton Honors Gold Club member…don’t I get some discount?”

“It’s not a Hilton…it’s an Embassy Suites…uh, no, we’ll check around and get back to you if we can’t find anything cheaper.”

“They want $220 a night for a room at the Embassy Suites in SLO,” he said with total amazement in his voice.

We were both remembering that we’d stayed in an Embassy Suites last year, the one near the site of the Twin Towers in Lower Manhattan…and I think our room was $345 a night, so $220 did seem a little steep.

Eventually we settled on a Ramada which, tax included, came to about $82. SCORE!

Directions from the nice, but kinda stoned-sounding desk clerk were simple. “Stay on the 101 and exit at Santa Rosa Street and boom, there it is, dude.” Roger dutifully wrote it down. He’s like that…thorough. As we got off the 101 to turn back northwards, I noted a 76 gas station and then hopped back on the freeway. And then the exits: Madonna, Marsh, Walnut (or something like that), but no Santa Rosa.

And so there we were, on the Atascadero Grade, running on fumes and betting the bank on the next exit.
And nothing but blackness and the Los Padres National Forest to our right and left. “Do you think there will be a gas station and why didn’t they mention gas on that sign. Did they mention gas on that sign?” I worried.

“Oh fuck, what if there isn’t one?”

“Go more slowly. Put your flashers on.” He was full of advice (and pissing me off), as I drove up the long grade with an ominous zero flashing on my gas gauge.

“Oh fuck,” he intoned, just to make me feel even more comfortable. I continued cursing myself and wondering why, why, why I hadn’t pulled into that 76 Station just five miles back when we’d taken the wrong exit. Jesus, anyone would think we were looking for a hotel in Rome and not the Ramada Inn off the Santa Rosa exit in San Luis Obispo. We’d already driven north (not far enough), then south (too far) and were now committed north again but this time I didn’t get off at the ‘last’ exit for SLO. This time I truly fucked up.

Big rigs whizzed past me as I did a sedate 55, remembering the days when the gas shortage gripped America and I queued weekly in the Washington suburbs with my newborn baby sleeping in the back and my tiny girl in pre-school. And as much as I missed them being tiny, I was really happy I didn’t have two little kids in the back of a yellow Pinto as we lumbered up the hill in our far more comfortable ride.

“Bugger. Why didn’t I stop at that 76 station at that next to last wrong exit we took.”

“Slow down,” barked Roger.

“If I go any slower I’ll be stopped…I’m not going any bloody slower. Just shut up.”

And so it went, back and forth, as we crawled up the Atascadero Grade, emergency flashers winking crazily and the pair of us sniping sharply. We’re both pictures of calm in a crisis. No, really. Give us a true crisis and we’re good. This kind of bullshit, though, leaves us just pissed off, collectively and individually.

Every now and then there’d be a left-turn lane that seemed to appear suddenly in the dark and Roger would yell, “There, on the left, turn left and head back to San Luis Obispo.” But I wouldn’t. That just seemed nuts to me.

“Okay, let me get this right. You want me to drive across two lanes of freeway traffic, RIGHT NOW, so I can then turn left going south on the 101 with downhill, fast-moving traffic bearing down on me from the right when there’s the odd chance that I may run out of fucking gas and get T-BONED???? That’s what you want?” I screamed inside my head.

What he heard was, “No fucking way.”

And then we crested the hill. “Praise the Baby Jesus,” I muttered.

Roger said, “Put it in neutral and coast.” And I did…gathering speed as we hurtled downhill doing at least 50 mph. And then in the dark, a sign.

“Santa Margarita. Maybe they’ll have a gas station,” the voice of doom intoned.

“Of course they bloody will. It’s illegal for any town not to have a gas station in America, isn’t it?” I sniped.

Heading down the exit ramp I slipped the car out of neutral and into drive, against the advice of the Grim Reaper and we both said, “Oh fuck.” Total, sodding blackness. Nothing. There was not one flipping light welcoming us to Santa Margarita.

“Maybe we should have turned left,” he worried

“No, no, they would have told us if that were the case,” she said not having the slightest idea if she was right or not.

If our dashboard could have screamed, “YOU NOW HAVE NEGATIVE GAS IN YOUR TANK YOU MORONS” it would have.

We continued another three miles or so and joy of joy, houses. Not many, but some and then a hand-painted sign that said, simply. GAS, one mile ahead!

Sweet relief. At this point we knew that even if we ran dry, we’d be okay. And we were. Because Pintor's was open. Pintor's. Heard of them before? They're not big, but are very important.

Back on the freeway headed South, up and down the Atascadero Grade was a snap. Our moods were light. “Pass the Bolly sweetie darling!”

And 10 minutes later we saw the sign for Santa Fucking Rosa Roadand were able to tell the nice young man at the front desk at the Ramada Inn that actually, one can only exit on Santa Rosa Street if you’re going south…there was no way we would ever have seen it heading north because it wasn't bloody there.

But we didn’t scream because now we were the happy clappy couple who were just so bloody jolly and ecstatic that we weren’t sitting on the side of the 101 on a Saturday night, emergency flashers mocking us in the pitch black, waiting for AAA to come to our sorry rescue.

And the next day was all sunshine and surfers and sea otters and satisfaction.

And, luckily, when we drove home Sunday night, our house was still standing. And all we have had to deal with us black ash everywhere. And that's a lot more than can be said for hundreds of other Southern Californians. We got lucky.


Blogger granny said...

I was worried. Spent a lot of time looking on maps to see where Sylmar was. Too close for comfort. Glad all well and that you got your gas and hotel eventually.

All these names of places mean so much more now....just read the latest Sue Grafton and kept seeing Santa Barbara in my head, thanks to you...

4:22 AM  
Blogger Lin said...

It was too close for comfort and I know we're praying for rain up here in Topanga. I just want the rainy season to start and the fire danger to diminish. Of course I hope for a gentle spring-like rain for the folks in the burn areas so they don't get mudslides. Sometimes the cataclysmic nature of this state is overwhelming.

8:40 AM  
Blogger OvaGirl said...

And that was a great story Lin. Happy that you were happy in the end.

12:36 PM  

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