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A Highway Phobic Meets Her Demon: Merging Traffic


May 17, 2000, Wednesday

OAKLAND, Calif. -- LIKE the gold rush past and present -- the open road is part of the mythology of California. Thus it was with mortal terror that I, a 45-year-old highway phobic, received the news that we would be moving to the San Francisco Bay Area, a place where highways are hoisted in midair and quake-ridden bridges collapse on national television.

Since acquiring my driver's license at age 16 -- a fluke, I always thought -- I had become brilliant at not driving. In college, with rare exceptions, I didn't drive. I then cunningly spent the next 23 years in New York City, the only place in America where it's O.K. to be a grown-up who does not drive. On the occasions when I did drive -- on assignment somewhere unpopulated, like Cody, Wyo. -- I perfected the William Least Heat-Moon school of driving, plotting my route on back-country roads, no matter how convoluted and time-consuming, to avoid the highway.

I'm still not sure where this deep fear comes from; I only know that it has followed me like a shadow, looming a little larger with each passing year. The image that comes to mind is of wiping out on a surfboard. Though I could romanticize the road in theory, the reality was that the proverbial ribbon of highway seemed possible for everyone but me.

Imagine how serene I felt about moving to San Francisco: land of fog, earthquakes, precipitous inclines, slippery cable-car tracks, militant bikers, the busiest toll bridge in the world and the dreaded ''Maze'' -- a twisted intersection of three major freeways approaching the Bay Bridge from Oakland, where I now live. A place where parking is a national pastime and mothers drive their children a half-block to school. It seemed to me I had two choices: to spend the year in a therapist's office dissecting my fear, or to bite the bullet and hit the road.

Fate intervened when I heard about Judy Ann Lundblad, a feminist driving coach (only in California) who helps anxious adults become fearless drivers (her Web site is Judy's subspecialties are Bay Bridge phobics and panic-stricken New Yorkers. Her average student is a 44-year-old woman, though she has had plenty of men break into tears on the Bay Bridge.

Judy has many theories about women and driving, based on six years of dealing with wussies: ''Can you imagine a man looking into the rear-view mirror and saying: 'Am I going too slow? Do you think he's mad at me?' '' she said one day recently as I was driving us over the Bay Bridge for the second time in an hour. ''A lot of times women think of the road as something that's not theirs, that men own it. But you can be out there, girl!'' A former Federal Express driver who regularly delivered packages to George Lucas as well as to Charles Manson (in prison), Judy has gotten calls from women on the verge of going into labor, and from women who need help driving to their divorce lawyer.

"'What I hear from women is, 'He did all the driving' or 'My mother didn't drive,' '' she explained. ''It's not the same playing field when someone has to take you somewhere.''

I am not proud that I have been dependent on the kindness of friends, cabbies, colleagues and, especially, my husband. I am even less proud that I wimped out when I had to go the 30 or so miles to Palo Alto recently and took the Caltrain commuter line, humiliating myself even further by schlepping an overstuffed briefcase in the pouring rain.

Judy and I began in October (at $100 for a three-hour session). In my mind, she was Thelma; I, Louise. In preparation for this delayed rite of puberty, I bought a pair of violet sunglasses.

We didn't tackle the highway at first, beginning instead in the city of San Francisco. I not only needed to get comfortable behind the wheel; I also needed to get comfortable with this strange, steep place where weather differs from block to block and commuting is often done via the ''casual carpool.'' This is a bizarre morning ritual in which you get into a stranger's car and drive into the city, listening to NPR instead of talking.

My challenge, however, despite the notorious hills, was not San Francisco. It was, and is, the East Bay, my home turf, where getting anywhere that is not local requires getting on a freeway, and not just any freeway, either -- three major Interstates, ferrying thousands of trucks and twisting around one another like a concrete knot. In the words of a colleague who was trying to help, merging in the Maze is ''like merging in the Indy 500 if the drivers were talking on their cell phones and doing day trading on their Palm Pilots.'' Thanks, pal.

DRIVING in the East Bay requires a gladiator mentality. I suppose Berkeleyites are genetically equipped for it. Having survived the 1960's, they must negotiate rabid gridlock in parking lots of gourmet ghettos like the Berkeley Bowl, an encyclopedic grocery store, all for the glory of 16 varieties of yams.

Judy and I started on a small stretch of I-580 that was off limits to trucks. I had originally thought my fear had mainly to do with speed. I soon realized, to my surprise, that it was not going 60 miles an hour or above that panicked me, but rather the presence of trucks and the act of merging and being merged with. When I sensed someone coming toward my car, even in the next lane, I instinctively wanted to brake. It felt like pushing in labor.

I was pretty sure that Judy, with her dual controls, would keep me from getting killed. By early November, however, she was urging me to try the nontruck stretch of 580 alone.

I needed motivation: food. I decided my destination should be a Mexican bakery in Fruitvale, an Oakland neighborhood about five miles down 580 from my house. One morning, I vowed to try it, sweating sprockets as I approached the ramp. I heard Judy's voice saying: ''Keep your speed. Don't brake.'' I felt sick. I kept going. I made it to the bakery, clutching the pastry tongs for dear life.

A few weeks later, I drove 580 again to go to the Department of Motor Vehicles to renew my driver's license, which required passing a written test.

I passed, with Judy's coaching. But the accomplishment was eclipsed by the horrendous sense of loss I felt in giving up my New York license for a California one. Would it mean I would never again walk to the dry cleaner's? Take the subway? Stroll down beloved crooked Brooklyn bluestone sidewalks? What was I doing in a place with clean sidewalks, the center of the car culture? I missed my legs.

I drowned my sorrows the old-fashioned way: I shopped. Eventually, I even bought a car, my first. I have bonded with the car, which has a groovy California moon roof and a great stereo. Too bad I have to drive it.

To make me feel better, Judy would tell me about fellow clients in far worse shape than I was. Among them was Paula Wolfert, a famous chef and cookbook author who moved to San Francisco from New York four years ago.

Ms. Wolfert, it turns out, merely wants to be able to drive from her house in Sonoma to the market and back, a trip of approximately three miles. She has been having trouble getting her license, even though she is the mother of a stunt-car driver.

Judy, who is 51, grew up on a farm in Minnesota, where she drove a tractor. She learned how to drive a car from her father, who screamed. He screamed, she eventually figured out, because he was fearful; her father was illiterate and ashamed about getting lost because he could not read the traffic signs.

Teaching people how to overcome their fears of driving ''changes lives, and that's a big deal,'' she told me. The highlight of her career was getting a message on her answering machine from a client who had experienced the worst horror: her husband and child had been killed in a crash in which she was at the wheel. After years of avoiding driving, followed by two years of excruciating work -- ''We cried a lot'' -- she left the following message, which Judy has never erased from her voice mail: ''You wouldn't believe it, but I went for a joy ride today.''

During January and February, it rained so fiercely that I was afraid to try the highway. Every morning brought reports of multicar pileups and objects falling from skidding trucks onto lanes of the Bay Bridge. When the rain finally stopped, I gathered my courage to start small. I made it my goal to master Highway 13, a gorgeous short stretch of four-lane highway near my house that would be idyllic were it not on the Hayward Fault.

I have since driven Highway 13 alone many times -- not happily, perhaps, but not hysterically, either. About a month ago, I went west on 580, a much bigger road, to take my son to the zoo. (Having a nervous breakdown in front of a 6-year-old, I decided, would not be cool.)

Two weeks ago, I went out with Judy and drove round trip from Oakland to San Francisco on the Bay Bridge twice in a row, figuring out a route that felt comfortable. ''Plan ahead,'' she said on the bridge, ''and leave yourself an out. You're trying to build your confidence. Someday you'll feel up to the challenge -- you'll know it's the right time to try it yourself.'' I felt as if I had been in a war.

Recently, I sensed the time had come to try driving to San Francisco myself. I left before 9, when fewer cars would be on the road. My destination was the Saturday-morning farmers' market on the Embarcadero, a bountiful hodgepodge of everything that is wonderful about California -- fried asparagus, chair massages and signs above the vegetables warning, ''Wild arugula: not for wimps.''

The last time I talked to Judy, she observed, ''Your skill level and your confidence level are not in the same place.'' I realized this was true of many things besides my driving.

I put on the Beatles, trying not to panic over the lime-green Peterbilt I ended up passing on the Bay Bridge. To keep on an even keel, I tried not to get too cosmic about my having moved to a place that, though stunningly beautiful, does not yet feel remotely like home.

In a miracle of near-biblical proportions, a parking space presented itself right next to the market. I spent an hour loading up the car with English peas and white asparagus, then took the route home that I had planned with Judy -- a momentous trip that took about 15 minutes.

What I want is this, my California credo: To fit in. To drive without endangering myself or my family. To follow my curiosity, without fear, wherever it leads me -- down to Half Moon Bay, maybe, or up to Burney, a town about 260 miles of road north, with a half-dozen blue-ribbon trout streams.

I know the way to San Jose. It's I-880, my ultimate nightmare. Maybe someday I'll drive it.

Copyright 2002 The New York Times Company

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