Driving In LA Is A Lot Like Surfing
If you have ever driven in Los Angeles then you have likely experienced the bizarre and unique reality that resides here. I was raised in Florida, and I spent about 4 years in New York before I came West. And when I arrived I was astounded to find that the roads seemed to have been designed and constructed with little to no comprehension of driving. Hidden signs lead you to the freeway, or in some instances hidden signs warn you that the street you’re on is about to become a freeway on ramp. To put it most simply, if you’re not intimately familiar with what lies ahead on your route, your travels will be much more difficult.
For those who have experienced the seeming chaos of Los Angeles’ roads there is no peace or solace at the wheel. The roads are a turbulent place where human lives are tossed aside in the blink of an eye, as chaos, tragedy, and fire, tumble and gnash beneath the thin and pliable frames of the hundreds of thousands of vehicles that form this seething cauldron of traffic. But, if you can look further than the people at the wheel this cauldron starts to seem less like a boiling pot of troublesome idiots, and more like the sea breaking at the shore.
The beach is a liminal place. It is somewhere between nature and society. It is a place where nature and society mix in ways that are both natural and social. The beach is a fringe in every possible sense. It’s where things end, and mix, and begin anew. And there is one sect of Southern California’s beaches that offers a particularly poignant take on traffic: Surfers. At the beach surfers mix capitalism, with native traditions, rebellious American individualism, athletic feats, a heightened connection with local climate and weather, and a host of other social, cultural, and natural traditions. Surfers do all of this in service of a single act: riding a wave. What we see is a surfer perched upon a rolling crest of water that is vibrating at just the right frequency.
In order to get up on top of that wave that surfer had to internalize a lot of cultural information, and create an index that allows that information to merge with a wealth of information about the natural surroundings. You gotta know where to find the waves, and you gotta know what to do with the waves. In order to look for the waves you have to understand the circumstances that produce them. In order to know what to do with a given wave you have to have a deep knowledge of what other people do with waves. Driving in Los Angeles is really not so different.
When you get in your car in LA you’re either gonna be the surfer, or you’re gonna be the wave. The more you know about the roads, and the people driving on them the easier it is for you to be the surfer. Nobody with any sense of urgency wants to be the wave. But, if you know what’s ahead in the roads, you have a strong grasp on who’s driving around you, you know what other drivers are likely to do, and how they’re likely to react to what you do, then you can be the surfer and ride the wave. Riding the wave merely means navigating the constant gridlock and backups with a degree of efficiency that transcends the constraints presented by the system. Human beings are not designed to move how surfers move, but surfers have found the means to transcend the limits posed by a body of water.
Surfers use their knowledge of their local geography and climate to have fun at the beach. I use my knowledge of Los Angeles’ complicated and congested road system to get where I’m going more effectively. I know where the nasty potholes are. I know where the super short merges are. I know where the lights are timed just too short, and you have to run a red in order to stay in the flow. I know where the exit lane actually runs for another mile unobstructed while everyone is gridlocked on the left. After a lot of driving and a lot of watching and thinking I finally get it. If there’s an incline people will come to a dead halt. If there’s an interchange people will come to a dead halt a few miles out. If you know the roads, and you know the drives you can just go for the most part. It’s some real LOCALS ONLY shit, because if you don’t know the roads and the drivers you’re gonna be stuck in the mix. You’re gonna be the wave.