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Driving Rain

Read more travel humor in my latest book:
Where Are Pat and Ernie Now?

What did you do on the day billed as the stormiest in the last 20 years in Southern California?

Stay at home with the heat cranked up? Binge-watched Netflix while noshing on leftover pizza and pinot noir?

Or maybe you just watched the news about mudslides, flooding and high winds, wondering who be stupid enough to go out on this drought-busting day.

Me, would be the answer.

See, I picked the “storm of the century Friday” to begin a 1400-mile road trip to Sierra Vista, Arizona and back to see my favorite niece, Brandy, and her family. First scheduled stop: Los Angeles. My wife was already there, having gone down on Thursday to babysit our newest grandchild. I was going to buzz on down early Friday, pick her up, and we were to head to Palm Springs for a day of balmy weather and hot springs, then on to Phoenix for desert Day 2. That was the way it laid out several weeks earlier, when weather underground was saying “sunny and warm, with a pleasant breeze.”

The first leg of my trip actually ended on Coast Village Road, a normally 12-minute drive from our place. I had been driving for almost 45-minutes behind a semi, which was the only shape I could make out on the freeway in the wind-whipped torrential downpour. I would have followed him anywhere. If he had driven into the backside of the Santa Barbara Zoo, we would have both been sharing driving stories of the past with a couple of wet elephants and a group of lemurs.
I parked in front of an empty restaurant in Montecito and texted my wife. “Thinking of turning around. Maybe you could take photos of the trip and email them to me.” No response. I decided to get back on the freeway and see if it was any better. Things had picked up. Traffic was now moving at 15 mph. I saw something weird ahead in the slow lane (slow lane, that’s a joke). It was a hulking shape that kept going in and out of focus. Finally, I caught up with – a motorcyclist! He was hunched over and gritting his teeth. I felt sorry for him. Then I turned up the heat and sped away at 17 mph.

Pat called. I pushed speaker phone. “Where are you?” she asked.

“Somewhere near the Rincon, I think. I saw some surfers. Or it might have been the wreckage of a ship.”

She suggested I be careful, so I slowed to 16 mph and turned on the radio. In-between a playlist that included “I Wish It Would Rain” and “I Can’t Stand the Rain,” they were telling people where to get shovels, sandbags and sump pumps.

Traffic settled into a rhythm, with most people following just close enough to see a shape in front of them. Not sure what the first guy was watching. Every now and then, someone would hit a huge puddle that would send waves of water high into the air. I found myself in the fast lane (fast lane, that’s a joke), not exactly sure how I got there. A car on the northbound side hit one of those flooded spots and sent a fantail of water over the little wall. It sounded like machinegun fire hitting the windshield.

“The Highway Patrol, whose officers are probably all inside today, playing cribbage and backgammon,” the radio announcer suggested “are warning drivers not to go out unless it’s absolutely necessary. Now for an old favorite, ‘It Never Rains in California.’” 

I got off at Kanan Road and got some gas at both Jack-in-the-Box (the Jalapeno Burger is not recommended for days when you cannot roll down your window) and Shell. The rain was coming sideways, so that even though the pumps were covered it made no difference. A young woman at the pump next to me was dancing. “I’m from Mississippi. I’ve been missing days like this.” I laughed, then made a mental not to go to Mississippi.

I finally arrived in Los Angeles after almost four hours -- a normally 90-minute drive. I transferred my luggage to Pat’s car and we headed for Palm Springs. “Drive slow,” I told her, as we entered the commuter-laden freeway at a now-whopping 8 mph.

Next time, I’m going to suggest Brandy come visit us.