Driving mechanics

railroad track signReflecting on all of the intersections within Walla Walla, I can’t recall a single NO LEFT TURN sign. Not by the Bi Mart, south side of town. Not at any point on Isaacs Road, which is a straight shot east into the Blue Mountains and which is littered with fast food shacks, auto parts stores, car washes, and oodles of plain gray parking lots. Not in the small downtown, even though every other city I’ve tromped through has boasted at least one stubbornly red sign.

It’s a small thing, I know, but it takes on a bit more meaning once one ventures into a large city with any kind of traffic issue. One finds oneself in a strange place and on the wrong street, and once the first battle with orientation is settled, realizes that the quickest way back to the tiny quadrant one does know is forbade by the local powers in charge. And then one is faced with a decision: break the law and feign innocence, or try to find another way over to the relief zone.

In DC, drivers could find themselves hitting a series of NO LEFT TURN signs, their frustration building quickly as they creep along, stuck behind other tourists, bicycle messengers, and a lot of men in suits with big briefcases.  And here the visitors thought government was trying to go paper-free. Little do they know that those are more likely the private sector guys. There are 50,000 practicing attorneys in Washington, DC.

In DC, defensive driving means watching out for all the Lexus owners texting while driving, the cars with fake paper license plates in the rear windows that add the important note, “STOLEN,” and the truly clueless in RVs. Who the hell RVs to a major city? Sometimes I would stand on a corner and laugh while they circled the block, trying to find parking. I wasn’t trying to be mean, it was just such a great pastime. Twice in DC my car was hit while I was idling at a red light: once from a guy who slid into me on black ice, and once when a driver in front of me backed up, trying to make room for a turning tour bus. These things just don’t happen in Wallyworld.

In Walla Walla, defensive driving means looking out for small children who’ve broken free of a parent’s grasp, slowing down for momma and baby ducks, and watching the red light runners, which I’ll get to later. These things tend not to happen in DC, although there is a street over by the army hospital with a goose crossing sign, and the two days I was on that road, I did in fact have to stop for crossing geese. It was almost as if they waited for my car just so they could cross, which I’ll note is the logic most pedestrians in the city, use too.

I’ve been made aware of the split between this corner of the United States and the world inside the Beltway that ensnares everything in the District. It has come in the form of massive snowfall. And it has come in the total lack of snowplowing afterward. It’s shown its face in the 5-minutes-to-anywhere nature of the city confines, a distinct difference from DC, in which most things are at least 35 minutes away, no matter how one travels. 2,800 miles away from the Capitol’s epicenter, how government really functions is invisible to people, who have en masse decided to decide that everyone in government has their worst interests at heart. And I try to explain as gently as possible that the government is just like every other office they’ve worked in, with all of those personalities working against and with each other for 8 hours a day.

These discrepancies remind me that we fear what we do not know. I’m not a subscriber to the “if we educate, we’ll have world peace,” because I’m far too cynical to believe that bigotry, oppression, and anger are only the result of ignorance. People have stakes. People earnestly believe their group (read: race, nation, state) has stakes that are threatened by some of other group. I could no sooner “educate” Rush Limbaugh and inspire him to be a bleeding heart liberal than I could teach a worm to fly, and I say this feeling pretty certain that even Rush doesn’t believe half the crap he spews out into his microphone. But Rush has a stake in his persona, and like everything else, if he’s not being increasingly conservative, he risks becoming irrelevant. And so he spews.

In the same way, people dig their heels in about what they think government represents, who they think it represents. It’s been a long time since I heard anyone say they feel personally supported by the Federal government, even as they drive on interstate highways, take their kids to the public library, call 911 when their kitchen’s on fire, or go to their child’s high school graduation. Instead when they make the pilgrimage to DC they get caught with one-way streets and NO LEFT TURN signs and it signals to them that they’re unwanted, when all it really means is there are way too many cars on the roads in the city and someone is trying something to make the system keep working.

Walla Walla is a place where people run red lights all the time. I was astonished when I saw the first runner, because I’d been conditioned out of it from all the ticketing cameras that have grown into the East Coast traffic system like kudzu, and because I’m such a law-abider, my exception that of speeding. I never saw a speed limit that 7 more miles an hour didn’t make better. But going through a red light, to me, was just jaw-dropping, in the same way that any minimally suicidal tendency is, like intentionally gaining 500 pounds, or BASE jumping.

But maybe it says something about the garden variety Walla Wallan. As if the rules don’t apply out here. Or that my neighbors and fellow car drivers won’t mind. It’s just one light. It’s just today. It’s just that it’s 3AM. It’s just that I see other people do it all the time.

In this kind of context, what else can the government represent but an angry nanny, an everything-is-rules custodian who seeks to end pleasure and red light running, out of spite? I shouldn’t be surprised at the level of distrust, I suppose.

I wonder what 20 months in Walla Walla has done to change my perspective, what new kinds of things I’ll see as we drive back across the country, and what I’ll miss that I wouldn’t have before. I am the guy who wants to discover the hidden world in the sidewalk crack, a focus on fascination that I’ve carried with me since I was 3. I want to start seeing where we come together because I am damn tired of seeing how far apart we are. I want people in DC and Walla Walla to know that they are closer than they think: in both towns I was a regular customer of several businesses, laughing with them about inanity. Both towns boast big, tree-covered parks. Both towns struggle with caring for their elderly, face cutbacks to their education budget, struggle with aging and fading infrastructure. We could learn a lot from each other.

I am not looking forward to being told I can’t make a left turn. But I won’t blame anybody about it, either. I’ll try to take the laissez faire attitude of the Northwest to the Type A personality of DC. I’m a peace ambassador.

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Categories: driving, ponderings

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