The road from Tacoma, WA to Altadena, CA is scary

Meet Kelly, the van.

I’ve gone between Tacoma and Altadena a bunch of times, mostly in college when I still went home for Christmas.

In the early 90s, my boyfriend had a 1974 Volkswagen van that was held together with hope and duct tape. The mechanic down the street from mom’s had gotten it running; hilariously, it had a starter button back by the engine…someone had to stand in the back and press the button before you could go. He drove us on that trip in that van several times, and every time was white-knuckle in a slightly different way!

When we drove up to move in together, he learned how to drive while driving north. That trip was more of a caravan, we had not only us and all our stuff, but the aforementioned mechanic, his wife, and a random hippie kid who was a friend of my boyfriend’s (and who had nothing better to do that summer). We mostly took 101 that time, in order to have a slightly more leisurely journey. The most memorable bit: we were somewhere in central CA, I was dozing in the back seat, and he took an offramp a little…no, make that way too fast, and tipped the van up onto the right two wheels. I woke up to the view of the pavement, terrified. Amazingly enough, the van righted itself, and we stopped by the side of some random country road, while R ran out into a field screaming at the top of his lungs FREAKING OUT.

That Christmas, he just barely managed to have it repaired by a friend (which leads to its own VERY long story) right before we headed south. For some reason, I suggested not just Hwy 101, but Hwy 1. In December. What was I thinking?! (I think I was remembering a childhood vacation in a Volkswagen van, going to SF then up 1 for a bit.) In Oregon, we did a 180 on the icy highway on a Sunday morning: one moment we were burbling along, singing along to a Beatles tape, the next we were facing the other way, having gently bounced against the railing…that led down into an icy slough. We didn’t go into the slough, and there wasn’t anyone else on the road. (Hmmmm, I wonder why…)

Further south, when we headed off to Hwy 1, that whole section — hours and hours of driving — was white-knuckle, taking that van up around crazy turns, staring down at cliffs that broke directly into the sea. And have I mentioned that R was not exactly a great driver? Enthusiastic, certainly, but somewhat hair-raising.

On the way back, we decided to take I5 and at the Gorman Pass, some belt or another broke, and we were broken down on the side of the road. I was so freaked out that I don’t remember exactly how that got resolved, but we did have to come back home briefly, which I found mortifying beyond belief. Finally we got back on the road, to drive slower than pretty much everything else in the under-powered van, shivering under blankets because the heat went kaput.

About a week later, one of the highways we’d driven on collapsed in the Northridge earthquake. Something about that seemed appropriate somehow.