The greatest ride in my life was about to come
Jack Kerouac. On the Road
Of the hundreds of airline routes crisscrossing the globe, Moscow-San Francisco is probably the most interesting. Assuming, of course, that you have a window seat. During fall or winter flights you always see aurora borealis because you pass very close to the Magnetic pole. You can see it better if you cover yourself and the window with a blanket to block off the light inside the airplane. In the spring and summer months the Arctic enjoys 24-hour daylight, so you won't see auroras. But there are lots of other things to look for along the way: ancient Solovetsky Monastery on Lake Ladoga islands, high plateaus of Khibiny Mountains, fjords of Norway, glaciers of Greenland, icebergs around Baffin Island, tundras of Nunavut, peaks of the Rockies and volcanoes of the Cascades. Sometimes you can even find the giant tower of the world's deepest Kola Ultradeep Borehole near Murmansk.
It's nice to watch it all, trying to relax after having to deal with Russian customs and border control. Even if you'd once had some warm feelings towards Russia, your last minutes there are always an effective vaccination to prevent nostalgia.
But I don't like Russia anyway. May be I'm just fed up with it after 27 years of being surrounded by dismal weather, boring post-glacial landscapes, and relatively mean people. Or may be it's just a result of being constantly told since childhood that it was my duty to love it. Do I really have to love some shithole simply because I was unlucky enough to be born there? No way! Motherland for me is not a dot on the map, but all places I've been to, or will be to, and that means all of our planet. I don't really care where I spend the necessary breaks between travels. If a US passport makes it easier to get various visas - well, the USA is my motherland. And, incidentally, the weather is better in California.
That's what I was thinking - or, rather, still arguing with my wife I'd just divorced. She refused to leave Russia. I was feeling really sick because of that divorce, and because of high temperature. I had caught a bad cold the day before, scuba diving in cold, murky waters of a suburban reservoir in a last-ditch attempt to obtain a PADI certificate - in my opinion, one of the most essential things to take to California.
Yes, I told myself, I should be really happy: I'm going to California with its redwoods, elephant seals, mountains, deserts, and good roads.
I had to hitchhike a lot in my life. Waiting for a ride in drifting snow or freezing rain, I tried to keep warm by thinking about that sunny day when I would move to America, buy a car, and travel around in my warm and cozy 4WD home all by myself, as far and as fast as I'd want to.
Eventually, as cars became more available in Russia, I got a license and spent a winter driving around Moscow in my mother-in-law's Oka, a car half the size of Geo Metro, but with the soul of a tank. It was a good car, with a "wide turns" bumper sticker and almost infinite mileage per bottle. Local police ignored it no matter how fast I was driving, but bad roads seldom allowed me to go faster than 100 kph. And again, I was dreaming about that day when I would pilot something larger along broad freeways of America, the land of the fast.
"By the way," I turned to a Portland businessman in the next seat, "what is the speed limit in the States?"
"65 mph in California, 45 in Oregon," he said.
I couldn't believe my ears. I felt cheated. The country of my dreams didn't exist. 100 kilometers per hour? That's an insult for any good driver!
Naturally, I considered myself a good driver, because six months of winter driving in Russia were supposedly equal to a few years' experience in the US. I was almost right: one year in Russia equals approximately 3 years in the States, or one week in Manila.
Meanwhile, the plane began to descend and I saw a nightmarish landscape below. As far as I could see, there were giant lakes of dirty water mixed with dusty yellow hills and shapeless blots of encroaching suburbs. All highways seemed to be blocked by miles of traffic jams. And the air was full of traffic, too - planes, helicopters, even blimps.
Later I learned that San Francisco Bay Area was not a bad place. These salt lakes and marshes are inhabited by a lot of interesting wildlife, especially in winter, when millions of birds arrive from the north. And the US in general proved to be worth dreaming of. But the idiotic speed limits are still driving me mad.
It took me a while to understand why Americans preferred to crawl like hypothermic turtles on their freeways, while in Germany, for example, there's no speed limit on the Autobahn at all.
You would expect US drivers to be fast. This country was shaped by the automobile. All American culture, from architecture to restaurants, is adapted to the driving way of life. A large part of a person's lifetime, from conception to death (or falling into total dementia), is spent in cars. You can live here for decades and never use public transportation, but you can't survive a week without driving. Getting a driving license is the major rite of passage; losing it is the worst punishment after going to prison. Excellent freeways crisscross the continent, they are probably the world's safest roads, and there's no logical reason to impose speed limits on them.
Cars are for Americans what horses are for Mongolians: best friends, the most important tools, and status symbols. If you want your neighbors, co-workers, and girls to take you seriously, you must get yourself a luxury auto or an oversized SUV more suitable for a Taliban fighter platoon, even if you'll never drive it anywhere, except for your office two blocks away and a grocery store.
One surprising consequence of total automobilization of life is virtual death of hitchhiking in the USA, where this mode of travel was practically born in the late 1940's. You can still get a ride on backcountry roads, where people are glad to talk to someone new. But it can take many hours on larger highways, or even on national park access roads, mostly used by tourists from big cities. I only hitchhiked a little in the US, but people I picked up usually told me they'd been waiting for a very long time. The only way to get a ride quickly is to have an empty gas canister in your hand, as if you've ran out of gas and are trying to get to a gas station. People who don't have their own cars are treated with suspicion.
So, why do millions of people spend a considerable portion of their life moving across the broad expanse of their country at half the reasonable speed? There's no worse torture than to crawl day after day along an almost empty, straight, smooth freeway, watching the desert roll by, listening to the tormented hum of your car's powerful engine.
Not everyone can withstand such abuse. Local police departments, especially in the West, exist largely on speeding fines. They use the same evil methods as their colleagues elsewhere: posting a particularly unreasonable speed limit and then setting a speed trap there; demanding an absolute stop at a stop sign (versus slowing down to 0.01 mph); hiding speed limit signs behind trees. They seem friendlier and less corrupt than in other countries, but deep inside they are all of the same ilk, the product of a system where the helpless are in the hands of a powerful caste supposed to "serve and protect" you, whether you want it to or not.
To understand why virtually all Americans humbly comply with idiotic traffic rules or pay speeding fees without any protest, we have to remember the history of the country. Since the landing of the first English invaders, and until the late 19th century, the continent was divided by an invisible line, later called the Frontier, separating the "civilized" lands in the East from the "wilderness" of the West. The official US history tells us that the "wilderness" was inhabited by noble, peaceful, environment-friendly Native Americans, and the "civilized" part was the domain of brave pioneers and their descendants - tough, freedom-loving people, shaped by the hardships and adventures of the frontier life. The American psyche was created by the frontier; that's why modern Americans live in the world's freest country and are not afraid to go hiking in suburban parks.
As with any official history, this is total bullshit. Not only because Indians were constantly waging genocidal wars against each other and drove to extinction more species of animals than the Europeans. Not only because Indian and even Spanish trade routes across the West had been established two centuries before the "pioneers" got there. (In the early 18th century, a native "medicine man" from a Mississippi Valley tribe walked to the Atlantic Coast, then to the Pacific, and back to his tribal land. It took him six years - not because roads were bad, but because he had to make 3-month stops to learn local languages.) But also because the effects of the Frontier were directly opposite to what most people think.
Life in the East was always boring. A lot of people couldn't stand the routine of small towns, modeled on equally boring places in England and Ireland, but with a higher percentage of religious fanatics. The only way out was to move West. For two hundred years, the Frontier served as a "population sink" for adventurous, smart, non-conforming people. For most of them, the road ended with an arrow, a bullet, or a noose. The rest of the population remained behind, and started to move westward only in the 20th century.
The surviving pioneers eventually settled in Alaska, California, in mountains and deserts of other Western states. The rest of the country was inherited by the descendants of the conformists. To this day, the United States, particularly the East, differs from other developed countries in having almost medieval levels of Christian fundamentalism, a backward social structure, and an outdated legal system. Life in small towns is as suffocating as it was 200 years ago, but most people have absolutely no knowledge of the outside world, and no interest in it. And the lack of personal freedom can be really striking.
Life of an average American is more controlled than the life of any citizen of Russia, China, or, say, Afghanistan. Teenagers here can't skip school to spend a lazy afternoon in a forest with a girlfriend, because you can't get anywhere without a car, you won't get a license until you are 16, and having sex on public lands is a crime. Your every step is recorded by security cameras, credit card companies, and your neighbors, who would immediately inform the officials if they don't like the way you raise your children or the plants you grow in your backyard.
In most countries, you see European, Australian, even Israeli tourists more often than Americans. One reason, of course, is that most Americans don't have vacations to speak of (just a week or two), so if they ever get abroad, they are limited to the most accessible tourist traps. But even those who can travel don't do it. People here are generally scared of the world, and only go to a few popular places like Florida, Hawaii, or Cancun. Internet access is slowly changing things, but the United States are still a "closed" society. Lots of people, especially outside big cities, still go to church every Sunday, vote for cheap populists (even if they are obviously retarded), don't care about the world outside their county, and believe that all problems are caused by immigrants, homosexuals, niggers, and the Democrats. According to the statistics, 80% of American adults don't even have a passport.
So most Americans just don't realize how slowly they drive. When you cross the border from Mexico, it seems to you that all cars are moving in slow motion, and all drivers are too old to drive (which is largely true). Residents of big cities usually drive only during rush hours, when speed approaches zero anyway. People in small towns and farm folks have nowhere to hurry, and seldom drive outside a 20-mile radius. Sometimes it gets funny. Picture this: a broad, straight highway across the almost-uninhabited deserts of northern Nevada. Speed limit is 75 mph, but the right lane is filled by local cars, moving much slower under the scorching sun, while in the left lane, occasional cars with Californian license plates zoom by, ignoring the speed signs.
That's true: California, especially the San Francisco Bay Area, is very different from the rest of the country. It is the ideal America, the one imagined by people waiting in lines in front of US consulates worldwide. Almost everybody here is a first- or second-generation immigrant (including the refugees from the boredom of the Eastern states). The ethnical diversity is striking: in many places you hear Spanish more often than English, or see Asian faces more often than European. But the members of the country's two main ethnic groups are much better than elsewhere, too: Anglo-Saxons are less boring, blacks are less criminalized. The obsession with racial issues, so typical to the US in general, is much less obvious in California. If you meet some interesting person online, three times out of four you find out that he/she lives, or has lived at some point, in California. The best of the nation is either already there, or moving in that direction: veterans of student protests of the 60's, environmentalists, homosexuals, Latin American and Russian-Jewish intellectuals, Indian programmers, Chinese dissidents, people involved in crazy activities such as underwater photography or kite surfing.
No wonder the national establishment generally hates Californians. Because of the electoral college system, a vote cast in, say, South Dakota equals two votes from California (although an average Californian pays three times more in federal taxes). The whole purpose of maintaining the electoral college is to give more voting power to less-educated and easily-manipulated people of underdeveloped states, officially known as "the heartland".
Unfortunately, these differences are not reflected in speed limits, otherwise visitors from other states would soon die from either collisions or heart attacks. So the local population invented numerous methods of civilian disobedience, a unique culture of fast driving. Antiradars and online lists of speed traps were invented in California. But the most popular method is defensive herding, easy to observe on Interstate 5.
I-5 crosses the state from North to South, mostly along the broad Central Valley. The speed limit is 75 mph, safe speed on most stretches is about 120. Defensive herding works like this: you stay in the right lane until somebody passes you. As soon as somebody does, you start following him. Eventually, a herd is formed, moving at the speed of the fastest car in the group. Now the first driver only has to watch for police ambushes ahead, while the last one has to watch for patrols approaching from behind. Of course, the leader is risking more than others, so it is considered polite to switch every half an hour or so. Speed traps are common on I-5, but the chance to get from San Francisco to Los Angeles in 4 hours instead of 7 is very tempting. If you are lucky, your herd will be led by someone who doesn't care about traffic tickets: a Mexican drug dealer rushing to the border, or a millionaire's son from Beverly Hills, or a foreign tourist with international driving license. Then you can just relax and follow him as fast as you can.
None of this has anything to do with driving safety. If there is some real hazard ahead - a sharp curve, or damaged pavement, or construction site - the speed signs are yellow, not white. Yellow signs should be respected; white ones can be safely ignored (it can be different in other states). On good roads such as I-5, the main source of danger are slow drivers, not fast ones. They force others to brake suddenly, change lanes, and so on.
In some states the police can use camouflage: drive unmarked cars with hidden sirens. But they can be easily recognized by their behavior, reminiscent of a wolf in a caribou herd. They would follow another car for a few seconds, checking its speed, then move to the next potential prey. The only difference is that wolves look for the slow ones, cops - for the fast.
A few hours is not much of a difference. But if you are driving from San Francisco to New York or Miami, speed limits become a serious problem: the trip might take a week instead of four days. In this case the weird American legal system can help you. Usually only adjacent states exchange information about traffic violations. So if you are from Seattle and get a ticket in Florida, you can simply ignore it. Just don't drive drunk or faster than 100 mph - it is a criminal offense. If you really want to find out how fast your car can move, go to some Indian reservation. Most of them are half-independent bantustans, and their police files are not shared with outsiders.
I had a lot of fun in my first few months in America, while I could still drive with a Russian license, ignoring the speeding tickets. By the time this window of opportunity closed, I was good enough in avoiding them to get only one or two per year. Now it's not that much of a problem anymore. I've already seen virtually all interesting places in the country, so I seldom have to drive too far, except to other parts of the continent. Tickets from Alaska or Canada never get here, and in Mexico or Central America you can get off the hook by paying a small amount in cash. Besides, if you get pulled over somewhere in Northern Yukon or Cordillera de Las Cuchumatanes, a policemen is very unlikely to issue a ticket to the driver of the first car with Californian license plate to ever make it there.
Because of my Russian background, it took me a while to learn to relax when
talking to police. You shouldn't look nervous, otherwise they'd think you are
a terrorist or a drug dealer. There are lots of ways to avoid speeding fines.
Just say something like this:
"I've just got new, larger tires - my speedometer isn't accurate anymore!"
"I thought the speedometer shows speed in kilometers, not miles!" (Or, if you are in Canada, say "I thought the signs were in miles, not kilometers!") Foreign accent helps a lot;
"I have to go to the bathroom!" (Works even in the most remote places);
"I'm very tired and tried to make it to a rest area before I fall asleep!"
And so on, ad infinitum.
I've seen a lot of interesting places in seven years. North America has the most beautiful deserts, forests, and seashores in the World, plus a lot of nice mountains, caves, tundras, grasslands, and so on. As elsewhere, the best places are not necessarily the most popular ones. For example, while some of American caves are visited by millions of tourists every year, the most splendid one (Caverns of Sonora in Texas) is virtually unknown.
But if you are not interested in nature, this country is probably not for you. USA has almost no architecture to speak of, and culture in general is very uniform. Only two cities in the "lower 48" states (San Francisco and Santa Fe) are worth visiting just for their looks. Most of time you see the same ugly cityscapes with clumps of skyscrapers marking downtown areas.
Of course, there are certain local differences in mentality and lifestyle,
but they are not easy to see if you are just driving by. You'll notice that in
the South, even a tiniest town has a lot of churches; that in the Midwestern states
most radio stations are playing country music, and so on. The culture of any two
states differs less than the culture of two neighboring mountain valleys somewhere
in China or the Caucasus. Yet these tiny differences are still a favorite subject
of American jokes. For example, here's a folk depiction of local driving habits:
- One hand on the wheel, the other on the signal - Chicago;
- One hand on the wheel (and pressing signal at the same time), the other outside, middle finger up - New York;
- One hand on the wheel, the other holding a newspaper, foot on the accelerator - Boston;
- One hand on the wheel, the other holding a cup of nonfat decaffeinated cappuccino, foot on the accelerator, a handgun in the lap - Los Angeles;
- One hand on the wheel, eyes closed, both feet on the brake, shaking with fear - Ohio, but driving in California;
- Both hands used to talk to somebody at the back seat, both feet on the accelerator - Italian Quarter in San Francisco;
- Old truck, gun sticking out of the window, empty beer cans on the floor, squirrel tails on the antenna - Alabama;
- Both hands on the wheel, blue wig, driving 35 mph in the left lane with blinking turn signal - Florida.
I'm not saying there is no interesting culture in America. When people throughout the world complain about the invasion of American culture, they are actually talking about the international mass culture, and it's not the same thing, although much of it originates from the US (simply because most new things originate from here). But, as in most developed countries, you have to leave the highways and stay in one place for a while to see the authentic culture, not its tourist-oriented version: the colorful life of blacks of the Deep South, or cowboys of the Plains, or miners of the Rockies, or software engineers of the Silicon Valley. There's a lot of stuff worth seeing: rodeos in small prairie towns, snake-handling ceremonies in old Appalachian villages, splendid Indian dances in remote Alaskan settlements. Still, American culture is only as diverse as in an average European country, while nature here is the most interesting in the world - outside the tropics, of course.
Well, let's assume that you are interested in nature, you are not afraid of long drives, and you have some good music for your car stereo. In that case, the US is a great place, and you'll never get bored here. Even in California, where I know every canyon and cove, I still manage to see something new on every weekend trip. So I was right, and my home is here, after all.
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