Margaret Sullivan Explains Why Oh Why We Can't Have a Better Press Corps
Noted for July 23, 2013

Charles Stross: "Scenic" for Values of "Best Seen from a Small Plane"

Charlie Stross:

On the subject of driving in mountains ...

A couple of years ago I got an invite to teach at Clarion West, so planned an elaborate west coast trip involving Seattle, then a flight to SF to meet up with Feorag, side-trips elsewhere, then a scenic sleeper train ride up to Portland in time to catch my open-jaw flight home.

Unfortunately at the time I did this, I was on a medication that was slowly chewing holes in my short-term memory. I kept forgetting things, would find myself in the kitchen or bathroom half a dozen times a day with no clear memory of why I was there, and I would actually have difficulty remembering a date when flipping tabs in my web browser between Google Calendar and an airline booking website.

Which is how I screwed up my dates thuswise:

  • Keynote speech at USENIX Security in downtown San Francisco: Wednesday morning.
  • Reading at Powell's City of Books in Portland, Friday evening.
  • Long-haul flight home to UK from Portland, Saturday morning.

I was traveling with long-haul business-level baggage, so a domestic flight from SFO-PDX would have cost an arm and a leg (two extra checked suitcases, ten kilos more weight than the regular economy maximum). Not to worry: we'd get a sleeper compartment on the Starlight Express. Except ... memory trouble! When I finally remembered to book our train seats, it turned out that all the actual compartments had gone. We could put up with 22 hours in reclining chairs (in which I cannot sleep), or we'd have to drive.

So I finally bit the bullet on car rental in the United States. 650 miles in two days ought to be do-able quite easily, with two drivers, right? Even though one only passed her driving test 12 months earlier and hates automatic transmissions, and the other has a phobia of driving on the right hand side of the road and has peripheral retinopathy in his right eye reducing his field of vision on that side by around 50%.

Then I made a truly fatal error and posted a question about routes on my livejournal. "What's the best way to get from SF to Portland by road, given my time constraints?" I asked. "Take Highway One! It's really scenic and gorgeous!" Came the unanimous response.

The big day comes. I give my speech at USENIX, then we go up the road to collect our car from Avis. Bad news: they were out of the mid-size saloon I'd requested. "Would you like a free upgrade?" They asked. Being an idiot ignorant of the ways of American car hire companies, I said "yes".

Which is why we ended up taking a Lincoln Town Car up Highway One.

How to describe our reaction to the aforementioned vehicle...?

I don't do automatics; I'm used to driving, on the other side of the road, what passes for a big-ass car in the UK with a manual transmission. The Town Car could have carried my Volvo 850 as a lifeboat. And the controls ... I had to go back to the office and ask if anyone could show me where they were. I recognized the steering wheel, but mistook the gearshift for the indicators (turn signals) and had no idea where the hand brake was. Then I hit the first challenge: driving through downtown San Francisco in a land yacht. After I picked up Feorag and our luggage, which clumped forlornly in one corner of the boot, I proceeded to follow the satnav directions out of town, and somehow didn't crash and burn on the way: an hour or so later, we found ourselves on Highway One.

Dear State of California, a Highway is not a strip of tarmac two car-widths wide with a dotted line down the middle, clinging to the side of a cliff, with copious numbers of inclined switchbacks and an advisory speed limit of 15 miles per hour. Claims to the contrary constitute false advertising and you should be ashamed of yourselves.

Take a driver with little/no peripheral vision on the right, a vehicle nearly as broad as an eighteen-wheeler on a road so narrow that if it drives to the right of the central divider it'll scrape off its wing mirrors on the sheer cliff wall, and add hairpins? This is not funny. I think Feorag aged 10 years in as many miles. (But that was okay, because she had half an hour to do it in.)

To add to the fun and hijinks, the car's drivetrain was doing nothing to reassure me of the acceptability of automatic transmissions. Take two or three tons of steel, add a five litre V8 able to pump out about 300 horsepower -- it should behave consistently, right? But the designers had stuck a three-speed slushbox in it. So on most of the hairpins, the car laboured mightily as it wheezed uphill, slowing and slowing in second gear... until it kicked down into first, growled mightily, and deployed all of those horses in an attempt to fling itself over the edge of the cliff.

We made about forty miles that first day, in six hours of driving. Yes, it was scenic. But I was too busy trying not to die, and Feorag was too busy alternately whimpering with fear and screaming at me not to drive too close to the cliff face or the oncoming pickup trucks straddling the centre of the road to pay much attention.

We holed up in a motel overnight, checked the satnav, and, as we recovered from the terror, agreed to switch to what looked like a bigger, faster, road: Highway 101, which would ultimately take us to the interstate.

Now, Highway 101 was a bit more like it: it was a real road, almost as wide as the A68 through the Scottish borders (a road I consider unfit for any form of transport with more than two wheels), if somewhat twistier: it actually had what looked like a cycle lane on either side of the two lanes, except that these disappeared whenever the road twisted to avoid a tree. Trees? Yep, this was redwood forest central, and some of those trees were wider than the road, which diverted to by-pass their roots.

It was a lovely morning, and I suddenly realized I was nearly out of gas. We had, it seemed, been averaging 18 miles to the gallon. So we stopped at a sleepy garage, and I filled up the tank, and got the bill, and began to laugh hysterically at how cheap it was. Back in the car: more driving, more beams of sunlight filtered through the canopy of a spectacular forest. "This is really lovely," said Feorag, "how about we stop soon and go for a walk in the woods?"

"Yes," I said, absent-mindedly keeping one eye on the pick-up truck impatiently tail-gating me as I kept to a 35mph cruise, "that'd be nice --"

Which is when the brown bear ran across the road right in front of me.

Reader, I left two sets of skid marks. The pick-up truck suddenly started to hang a long way back. And all thought of a nice walk in the woods was shelved. And I was still shaking ten minutes later when we drove through a sleepy little town and I passed a unicyclist going along the other side of the highway.

An hour or two later, by way of a rather good diner, we hit the interstate and I drove another 470 miles that afternoon and Feorag hosed me out of the driver's seat and took over for the last 200 miles to Portland the following morning. Because the map lied about the distance. And if not for that doubtless well-intentioned advice to take Highway One we might have had time to drive up to Crater Lake, or to see more of the mountains than the unwinding of the gas gauge while keeping one eye on the cruise control and another peeled for trucks wheezing their way up the hard shoulder, dammit.

But in summary, this tale has a very simple moral:

  1. Do not, under any circumstances, attempt to take a Lincoln Town Car up Highway One through Northern California.
  2. Also, brown bears have right of way.

Back again - Charlie's Diary:

Last Wednesday I did a keynote speech at USENIX Security; I'll blog the original text in a day or two. My wife and I needed to be in Portland by Friday evening, and due to a scheduling cock-up I left it too late to book a sleeper berth on the train: so we hired a car and drove. Note: this was the first time in 18 years that I'd attempted to drive on the wrong side of the road.

Things I learned:

  1. California State Route 1 is a scenic route, for values of "best enjoyed from a helicopter or light plane". I would, however, characterise it as somewhat more exciting than one wants if the objective is to get from SF to Portland within a fixed time frame. It reminded me of the Italian alps in the 1970s, only with added landslides, holes in the crash barriers on cliff-edge hairpin bends, and lots of detours around trees. For added fun, try driving it in a vehicle about the size of a Ford Transit (the European variety) while sitting on the wrong side, so that you keep instinctively steering towards the cliff edge.

  2. A Lincoln Town Car is not the right vehicle in which to enjoy Highway One. Next time, I'm going to turn down the free rental upgrade. (In my defense, we don't have Lincoln Town Cars in the UK. In fact, my knowledge of US automobiles is so totally lacking that all I can tell them apart by is their general category. And I wasn't expecting quite such an exciting drive.)

  3. The combination of charming cliffside switchbacks and a five litre V8 results in gas mileage such that it's a good thing for my wallet that fuel is so cheap in California. About the rural gas station where they only take cash and amuse themselves with a banjo between customers we'll say no more.

  4. Dear brown bear, please learn to look both ways before bounding across the road twenty metres in front of a wheeled avatar of Father Darwin. This will enhance your life expectancy, not to mention that of the folks in the car. (I left skidmarks. Where, I'm not saying. At least the anti-lock brakes worked. On the other hand, the sudden appearance of Mr Bear put a damper on our ideas about a pleasant lunchtime walk among the redwoods ... where we come from, the wildlife is somewhat less alarming.)

  5. Highways 101 and 199 were better than Highway 1, and still scenic (for values of "where did that three metre wide tree jump out from?") but had rather fewer 15mph sudden-death hairpins with crash barriers missing in action due to landslides.

  6. A Lincoln Town Car is the right vehicle for pounding up the interstate we eventually decided to divert onto. Still, no love — as I discovered after I accidentally did 450 miles on the second day then nearly collapsed.

In the 750 miles we drove I just about doubled my cumulative lifetime miles of driving on the wrong side of the road. Be afraid; be very afraid — next time I'm going to try and rent a Hummer. (Those crazy cheap Californian gas prices are too low to resist.)