Freeways Are Always Soul Crushing. Now They’re on Fire.

Dickens or Tana French may be on the audio system, but the California fires are igniting my imagination.

Firefighters battle the Woolsey Fire in Malibu, which closed down a major freeway.
Firefighters battle the Woolsey Fire in Malibu, which closed down a major freeway. (Eric Thayer / Reuters)

Even when fires are not threatening them from both sides, freeways are a brutal part of California’s physical and metaphysical infrastructure, providing a map in your mind of where it’s possible to go—and raising the question: Can you bear to drive there? The roads crisscross the soul, seeming to open up all kinds of destinations but, overcrowded, under construction, whimsically closed for unstated reasons, pretty much block your way to wherever you might be thinking of going. The freeways, which in name conjure hair-blowing convertibles, were not planned for a population this size. The arteries are clogged in the old circulatory system. The hair does not blow.

I live in this soul-crushing web of lies. By which I mean that my job forces me to drive at least twice a week from Los Angeles to Orange County, and then back again during rush hour.

It’s a ridiculous commute. Just to be clear, and for my Southern Californian readers—or anyone fond of old Saturday Night Live jokes—this means I drive 20 minutes from my house to the 101, and take that mega-road in virtually unmoving traffic to the 5, and then maybe get on the 605 or the 710 (or both, one after the other), depending on which is sort of vaguely moving, and then, always, onto the fearsome, capricious, cruel 405, for many a long, harrowing mile. Then, having failed to die in a crash with a jackknifed tractor trailer or an overturned RV or a lane-splitting motorcycle, I exit from one of the 405’s three leftmost lanes, fling self into a final short spin on the 73, and plunge onward toward work.

The whole trip of about 50 miles takes anywhere from one and a half to three hours. It’s both as boring as it sounds and yet also life-threatening and full of drama. In addition, it gives you plenty of time to brood on your failures and disappointments and how little you’ve achieved in life and how little time is left for you and how you are wasting your few remaining years (if you don’t crash in the next 10 minutes) in a slow-moving, carbon-spewing pointless exercise in late capitalism, climate destruction, and poor urban planning. This is the place where people tell you always to have a full tank so you can get out in case of an earthquake. No one is getting out.

Friends from elsewhere laugh when Angelenos describe these transportational sagas, but that’s how life is lived here, unless you’re a screenwriter and can stay home all day, just popping out to Starbucks for an occasional public tussle with your laptop.

It’s tough out there on the asphalt. You’re trapped. And you feel trapped.

Sometimes, while rereading the license plate ahead of me for the 100th time and thinking about the futility of switching lanes, I call to mind an aborted alternate terror plan of the San Bernardino Christmas-party shooters. They had an idea that they would launch an attack on the 91 with pipe bombs and machine guns. Obviously not that familiar with this particular road, they included an unnecessary first step: They would drop tire-ripping glass shards and nails from an overpass to stop traffic before beginning the assault. Dumb. The 91 never moves. Probably there are commuters on there who’ve been trying to get home for years. No need for the glass and nails.

And as if it weren’t bad enough to be locked in traffic thinking about terrorist attacks, freeway catastrophists (a group larger than the Democratic Party in Southern California) must add fire to the list of possible obstructions, possible fates. I have actually driven, in another fire season, past and toward and through fires that threatened the roads. In 2003, I covered a Simi Valley fire for a book I was writing. Fires licked at the edges of the 118 and we all sort of shimmied together toward the center barrier of the road to stay away; you can see this behavior in videos from the fires now.

Dickens or Tana French may be on the audio system, but fire is igniting my imagination. To think of myself as fuel for a mad inferno, stuck in my stupid car, is too awful to contemplate, and yet I am contemplating it. And, yes, I know that the fact that I am here to contemplate it means I’m lucky. So far, the Camp and Woolsey Fires have killed at least 59 people; at least seven were found burned in their car.

In overpopulated Southern California, cars are sad. A car often feels, as it doesn’t move toward a destination it can’t get to, like your final resting place. Cars here are a reminder of the region’s civic and urban failures rather than symbols of freedom and the rights of the individual, as they once were. L.A. is based on cars (we call it “car culture”); its geography is a combustion-engine geography. The city’s developers drew its broad map never imagining or trying to imagine the fate of cars.

The fate of cars here now is not to go, but to stop. Not to free, but to imprison. And not to evacuate a population, but to trap it in fire and smoke.