280

i am driving a lot these days. on weekend afternoons, or on weekdays when just the idea of another zoom call makes me nauseous, i get in my car and get on the highway and just drive and drive. as with others lucky enough to be automobile owners in these pandemic times, my car has become a sort of moving haven, both ship and private harbor, a way to take phone calls and play music without headphones and, most importantly, get out of my goddamn house.

as everyone knows, california is a car state, though nearly everything about its “car culture” seems pegged to the specific experience of driving in the greater los angeles area. so much has been written about driving in LA that even random new yorkers understand the horror of gridlock on the 405, whereas northern california rarely gets more than a passing mention, usually in a fun aside about highway naming conventions (we don't say the “the”!).

the bay area does have its own highway network, though, and it’s impossible to live here — especially in the suburban sprawl of the south bay, where i grew up — without spending lots of time driving it. my mom moved here in the ’90s and learned the roads by heart; one of my earliest memories is of her unfolding a big paper map on the kitchen table and pointing out to me 280: 二八零, 680: 六八零, 880: 八八零, now which one takes you home?

i was awful at this exercise until i started driving myself, but now i know 85 to mountain view, steady and probably clogged with traffic; 101 to san francisco, lined with dark-windowed tech shuttles; 17 to santa cruz, fast and turn-filled and harrowing in the dark. there’s 680, skirting the shadow of mt. diablo; 92, descending the santa cruz mountains and over the wide body of the bay; and 280 — 280! — which takes me home.

280 is the jewel of the bay area road system (highway 1 transcends regional categorization; doesn’t count). it begins somewhere in the belly of san jose and runs up the peninsula before depositing you suddenly, a little rudely, right onto 5th and king in san francisco. it runs roughly parallel to 101, but while 101 passes through the developed core along the bay, covering the same well-worn route as the caltrain and historic el camino real, 280 carves its way through the hills ten miles to the west, far from the strip malls and tech campuses, tracing the edge of the san andreas fault. there are stretches of 280 where you won't see a single building.

i feel more at home on 280 than nearly anywhere else. from childhood to now, almost every place i’ve lived, worked, or gone to school has been only a few minutes from a 280 exit. 280 is my entire baby life compressed into four lanes — my path to independence, my reliable commute, my refuge in restlessness and heartache. i know which exits are easy and where the bottlenecks are, where the speeds open up and where the lanelines fade out; i love watching the fog roll over the western ridge, the sunset turning the hills to gold. i love how as you head north, the landscape shifts from coast live oak to monterey cypress, and how around daly city, the road dips in and out of a tangle of trees and fog before emerging in san francisco, in brilliant sunshine, overlooking the bay.

time and space fall away on 280; the limit is 65 but the lanes are so wide and the road so even that most people go 80, and it’s easy to get up to 85, 90 miles per hour without even noticing. you put on some music and enter a kind of flow state. i think of baudrillard’s line (sorry) that “speed creates pure objects,” although i can’t find the nihilism in me to read that purity as empty — in maybe exact contrast, i feel a deep aliveness in motion, in kinesis and soft acceleration, and a certain calm and fullness in meeting speed on its own moving ground. maybe on straight-line desert highways you might lose yourself to a vacuum, but on 280 it’s impossible to not be present and tactile, feeling your body weight shift just slightly on each gentle curve.

it’s a luxurious experience, and like all luxury in california, like the luxury of california itself, it’s also inextricably attached to a constant, aching awareness of all the ways the dream goes sour. 280 has few buildings because in towns of four-million-dollar homes with hillside views, you don’t build near the road. traffic gets worse each year because everyone lives in palo alto and works in san francisco, or maybe they live in san francisco and work in palo alto, but either way no one wants to take the train. east of cupertino, 280 enters a vast suburbia of office parks, where it’s unclear if the rows of evergreens along the road do more to protect workers from hearing the cars or to protect drivers from seeing the endless bland and glassy offices. like most bay area residents, i could go on and on; it’s so easy to take it for granted or even hate it all — and yet how can you live in a place you hate?

how depressing it would be to see the road as just a commute, to put on a podcast about scaling b2b saas companies while constantly wondering when to move to new york. to despair about rent and homelessness and monoculture without looking up and seeing the oceanic fog on the horizon, or the way the air itself glows pink and gold. i drive 280 and maybe it’s the pure speed of it, the pure object, but on the road it becomes perfectly possible to see and feel it all in simultaneity: the wild hype of silicon valley technocapitalism, the growing pressure of brutal inequities, the open-sky mythology of the american west, the soft textures in the light and the land. for an hour or two, i feel the lightness and weight and soaring motion of every fiber of this place my home, and then i slow back down to earth, pull onto my street, turn off the engine, and let it all dissolve away.