Every time I drive the Sepulveda Pass on the 405.
The moment that I first felt the freeway moving under me, not me over it, I knew that those roads cast a spell over us and that Didion had forever captured this LA icon and the emptiness of the city.
I never drive up an onramp without thinking of her portrayal of the kind of mindless driving I used to do on Sunday afternoons when I was young and single and was sure I was going nowhere fast.
I will get off at Highland and take Wilshire to Downtown to avoid going across four lanes at the interchange of the Hollywood and Harbor. No wonder her character slept well after her first perfect crossing.
Today I googled the image and found out it was a seminal one in the novel and that I wasn't the only one who continued to think of it decades after I'd finished the book.
In the first hot month of the fall after the summer she left Carter (the summer Carter left her, the summer Carter stopped living in the house in Beverly Hills), Maria drove the freeway. She dressed every morning with a greater sense of purpose than she had felt in some time, a cotton skirt, a jersey, sandals she could kick off when she wanted the touch of the accelerator, and she dressed very fast, running a brush through her hair once or twice and tying it back with a ribbon, for it was essential (to pause was to throw herself into unspeakable peril) that she be on the freeway by ten o’clock.
Not somewhere on Hollywood Boulevard, not on her way to the freeway, but actually on the freeway. If she was not she lost the day’s rhythm, its precariously imposed momentum. Once she was on the freeway and had maneuvered her way to a fast lane she turned on the radio at high volume and she drove. She drove the San Diego to the Harbor, the Harbor up to the Hollywood, the Hollywood to the Golden State, the Santa Monica, the Santa Ana, the Pasadena, the Ventura.
She drove it as a riverman runs a river, every day more attuned to its currents, its deceptions, and just as a riverman feels the pull of the rapids in the lull between sleeping and waking, so Maria lay at night in the still of Beverly Hills and saw the great signs soar overhead at seventy miles an hour. Normandie 1/4 Vermont 3/4 Harbor Fwy I.
Again and again she returned to an intricate stretch just south of the interchange where successful passage from the Hollywood onto the Harbor required a diagonal move across four lanes of traffic. On the afternoon she finally did it without once braking or once losing the beat on the radio she was exhilarated, and that night slept dreamlessly.
~ Joan Didion, Play It As It Lays