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HOW WE DRIVE; Facing Fear and Finding Freedom on the Road

By PATRICIA LEIGH BROWN

HITTING the road. It's a venerable American instinct, the full tank as ticket to nirvana. But for me, a struggling highway phobic who moved from New York City to California two years ago, hitting the road has been an elusive goal. To be afraid to drive in the home of the hot rod and the freeway was to be unable to speak the language in a foreign land.

Several weeks ago, after a year and a half of intermittently tackling my longtime fear with help from my driving teacher, Judy Ann Lundblad, the time had come -- I'm embarrassed to say at age 46 -- to try my first solo road trip. I planned it for weeks, plotting a route that would help me feel more comfortable in this strange new skin called California and challenge me, but not completely panic me, as a driver.

Two days before I was scheduled to leave, my real home, the one I had spent 23 years blissfully not driving in, was devastated by terrorists. Daily life, consumed with peanut-butter sandwiches and unpacking moving boxes in our new house, felt like a distant memory. The prospect of heading up alone to redwood country, more than 250 miles from Piedmont, the community near Oakland where we now live, suddenly seemed selfish, completely crazy, in fact.

Yet it also seemed like a good moment to conquer fear. To be honest, the idea of being on the road heading somewhere beautiful, with nothing to do except drive and think, was appealing. But there was also something deeper going on. After a year and a half of excuses, of letting my husband drive, I could no longer put off trying to confront my own demons.

And so, feeling guilty about leaving behind Dan Rather and Peter Jennings, I did what Americans do: hit the road. My destination was Highway 101 north, the Redwood Highway, a road I felt would be imbued with enough California romance to make me feel more bonded to my new turf. Ever since I was a girl in suburban Chicago, I have been attracted to northern places, a primordial pull that began in the North Woods of Wisconsin, where I caught my first fish. Here were California's woods.

My guide was an article in a somewhat obscure magazine, the Society for Commercial Archaeology Journal, a publication dedicated to roadside architecture, Exhibit Z in the never-ending disconnect between my affinity for roadside America and my ridiculous inability to get to it.

At 9:28 a.m., I pull out of the driveway. I feel exhausted. Like everyone else, I have been up late, glued to the news, going to bed anxious, my circuits overloaded. I do not feel brave. So, as I have done many times before, I wimp out and take local roads through Berkeley to avoid the Maze, a notorious juncture of two major freeways and a bruiser interstate constantly choked with tractor-trailers, my nemeses. As I approach Gilman Street, the entrance to the dreaded I-580, my veins fill with anxiety. At 9:45 a truck on 580 passes me on the right. What the hell am I doing on the highway, I ask myself. I should be locked up in a Zen meditation center.

I have made some progress with Judy over the last year and a half. I now drive across the Bay Bridge to San Francisco, though never without thinking about that car teetering over the crack in the 1989 earthquake. I have driven to Silicon Valley, once, on a scenic highway. On confident days, I drive to Marin County. But I have not yet ventured north of good-life country, the Bay area, above what I think of as the spa line.

My goal is to get up to the redwoods with enough daylight to explore the Avenue of the Giants, a two-lane, 33-mile spur off 101 that cuts through Humboldt Redwoods State Park. The park, the state's largest collection of old-growth redwoods and calypso orchids, has been called the Fort Knox of the plant world. I have planned a two-and-a-half-day trip, the first night in Scotia, a small lumber-company town with redwood buildings, and the next night in Philo, a dot on the map near Boonville, where the Mendocino County Fair and Apple Show is taking place. Judy's parting words were, If you get tired, stop! I had planned the itinerary not only to allow for frequent stops but also to avoid driving home into the Bay Area during Friday night rush hour.

I stop in Healdsburg, a boutiquey wine town, briefly. I have decided to pay no attention to the mileage signs that say, Eureka: 240, but I know they're out there.

I head toward Willits, known as the gateway to the redwoods. The landscape suddenly seems carbonated, with hills bubbling up unpredictably. It's so unusual it's difficult to concentrate. I was here once, en route to an assignment; my colleague, Peter, a photographer, drove. I had been so preoccupied with my mission -- finding old hippies who were living off the power grid -- that the otherworldy terrain had not registered.

NOW I finally begin to relax. I put on John Lee Hooker. I am less panicked driving in pretty places than in ugly ones.

I have never thought of myself as a left-lane gal. But here I am, going 70-plus past Ukiah, intent on making time. After three hours in the car, the Saab I bought after much research because it felt the safest, I am feeling bolder. But I pay for my speed and curse when I miss an exit sign that says antiques.

I begin to forget about driving. I forget about it even going up a steep grade with concrete construction barriers, which I normally dread for fear the car will ricochet. I am torn between listening to the news and listening to music.

I choose news. Somewhere between Willits and Laytonville, I start to feel overwhelmed by what has happened in New York, by dads and moms from my old neighborhood missing. I feel untethered. I am in a car in the middle of nowhere. I want desperately to be in New York.

Then the road intervenes. I am cheered by two sights -- a roadkill that appears to be a feral pig, and a Christian Community Church in a geodesic dome. Sometimes California makes me gasp out loud.

At $3 a car, the Chandelier Drive Thru Tree Park in Leggett -- my first bona fide redwood icon -- is a steal. As I drive through its dank, graffiti-etched innards, I am delighted to note that the hollowed portion of the trunk, 6 feet wide and 6 feet 7 inches high, is perfectly aligned with both the Pepsi machine and the souvenir shop. I buy a refrigerator magnet and pass up (to my later regret) the Chandelier Tree Drive Thru Tree Park Since 400 B.C. place mat.

I drive -- this being California -- over to the picnic table. The innocent spirit of the Chandelier tree, a classic 30's tourist attraction named for its splaying branches, makes me wistful. That America, the one in which motorists planned cross-country road trips for the sheer joy of driving through a tree, has never seemed more precious or further away. I want to hug it.

Back on the Redwood Highway, I pass on the Grandfather Tree and the World Famous Tree House, though I can't resist the luxuriantly tacky Legend of Bigfoot chainsaw carving shop, a redwood Vegas with a cedar chip and dirt floor and a net to catch pine needles.

At 3:38, I cross the Eel River into Humboldt County. A cause for celebration: I put on Ray Charles. Beyond Garberville, I enter the troll-like darkness of the redwoods, open the windows to bathe in their dappled coolness.

The road is lithe and narrow, the car quickly enveloped in a forest denser and more mysterious than my beloved Adirondacks. The redwood groves all have names, which give them a human quality, an adopt-a-grove tradition begun in the 20's by the Save-the-Redwoods League. The forest is difficult to drive in -- too dark for sunglasses in most places -- and the car drifts through fractured flickers of intense light, like an old-time movie.

In Founders Grove, the felled trees surrounded by soaring ones make me think again of New York. I breathe in the calm. Young shoots are springing up everywhere on the mossy trunks, every inch of wood alive with green. New York's roots are deep. Like the forest, it will regenerate.

By the time I reach Scotia, at nightfall, delirium sets in. I have driven 258 miles. The steam from the mills of the Pacific Lumber Company drifts into the fog. Scotia (population 1,200) is a company town endangered by a different kind of force -- a corporate parent whose commitment to its future is uncertain.

The next morning the mill's whistle sounds at 6:30. I am eager to hit the road. My plan is to cut over to Highway 1 on the coast, drive through Fort Bragg and Mendocino and travel east on Route 128 to Boonville.

But I want a little more time among the redwoods. So I get some coffee and set out for Hearthgrove, a rustic, four-sided outdoor fireplace designed by the architect Julia Morgan deep within The Women's Federation Grove, established by the California Federation of Women's Clubs in 1932.

It is the sanctuary I have yearned for. The silence reverberates; I am the only one here. Etched in stone above four hearths are words to lift anguished souls; a stone fountain nearby covered with moss carries this message: Traveler go thy way refreshed. I am, deeply.

On the road it is just me, school buses and logging trucks. I am beginning to discover that it's hard to drive in places of profound beauty. You want to brake when you see the sun's rays casting through the fog, creating a crown of light -- not a cool move when you're in front of a logging truck.

When I get to Highway 1, I get cranky, perhaps a sign that I am becoming a true driver. It is a slow, curvy road over the coastal mountains, and there is a lot of construction. Soon there are beach condos and traffic. I have re-entered civilization. Yuck.

I call my answering machine. My editor in New York wants me to report an article over the weekend. I decide to cut the trip short and return home that night.

Still, I have a few more hours to soak up what's around the bend. The Friday farmers' market in Mendocino is in full swing, and I suddenly become aware of a crucial advantage of driving -- cargo space. Every farmers' market is different, and this one, to my New Yorker's eyes, feels exotic. One sign says, ''Raspberries Picked By Moonlight.'' Someone else is selling sustainably harvested sea vegetables. Buying my bull-kelp fronds (Sweet and salty! Livens up any dish!), I feel a deep rush of affection for California.

South of town, I encounter my first hellaciously windy road with fog and a sheer drop-off, and my driving anxiety returns. Fortunately, I am about to head east. Route 128, less heralded than Route 1, is an incredible surprise for its beauty; I relax again. The road plunges into another redwood forest along the Navarro River before breaking into the Anderson Valley, where rolling vistas of dun-colored hills are dominated by vineyards and Mediterranean-style palazzos. I free-associate, wondering whether the California Highway Patrol has studied the effect of tasting rooms.

THE Mendocino County Fair and Apple Show, where I do not linger, concerned about driving home in the dark, is an unspoiled piece of Americana. It is difficult not to have one's faith restored by the sight of shampooed lambs and blue-ribbon apples twirling on a dais. I buy two apple pies, several pounds of apples, a dozen ears of corn and a salsa recipe book, deeply blessed to own a station wagon.

I wind up behind a logging truck for a long stretch of treacherous curves. I'm tired now; I am no longer fantasizing that I am Charles Kuralt. I have three hours to go and heading into Friday night rush hour.

I am blitzed by the time I get to 101. The traffic is building. I pass a watermelon truck and a nonfat frozen yogurt hut on wheels. Around Novato, a truck starts tailgating me in the middle lane. I decide not to budge -- a first for me. I hear Judy's voice: You pay taxes! You have the same right to be here as anybody else, girl!

Finally, I cross the Richmond Bridge -- never a picnic -- to the dreaded 580. I'm speeding. Gilman Street, my escape hatch in Berkeley that gets me off the freeway, looms. I decide that after driving over 500 miles in two days it would be inappropriate to bail out now. My car has become my sidekick, my Thelma. How bad could the Maze be?

I arrive at my house at 7:25, having driven exactly 541 miles. It seems miraculous, surely only to me. I feel connected to the landscape of redwoods and moonlit raspberries, as if the roads were ropes, securing me to new moorings.

There may be nothing more restorative than the sight of America, jaunty and unbridled and wild, unfolding along the highway. I call Judy. ''It's your road now,'' she says. ''You claimed it.''

Back home, I listen to President Bush talk about the war between freedom and fear. Later on, I think about driving. I know it's profoundly insignificant in the vast scheme of things. But I take heart in knowing that in a dark, tiny, fearful corner of myself, freedom might have finally won.

Copyright 2003 The New York Times Company


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