Because Utah, Idaho and Montana have real winter weather, unlike the balmy, equatorial-like conditions we often have in Southern California during our “winter” months, I did not want my University of Montana student son to drive back to school from Christmas break (uh-oh, politically incorrect term alert!) by himself. Experienced driver that he may be, sub-zero temperatures, 60 mph winds and roads thick with black ice can make for a harrowing – if not downright dangerous – journey. If there was any chance my son would find himself careening off Interstate 15 somewhere near the Continental Divide and stuck in a snowbank not to be found until April or May, I wanted to accompany him so he’d at least have someone to talk to while dying of thirst and starvation. I’m funny like that.
We left La Crescenta at 2:15 a.m. last Friday, heading out the almost empty 210 Freeway. We were already through Las Vegas as the sun came up and stopped for a still-early breakfast in St. George, Utah. In those short few hours after leaving home, it felt as though we had already traveled to another country. To begin with, not only did the price of a gallon of gas drop dramatically as soon as we crossed into Nevada, it was even lower still in Utah. But more than that, whether it was in talking with the minimum-wage-earning attendants at gas stations, or the wait-staff at various restaurants along the way, my son and I both noticed how friendly, talkative and relaxed every local we came in contact with seemed to be. That same friendly and unstressed atmosphere became more pronounced as we drove north through Utah and crossed over the border into Idaho.
For the most part, we noticed that drivers didn’t cut us off, flip us the bird, tailgate or make sudden turns without at least using their turn signals.
Now, I’m not saying that bluebirds of happiness escorted us wherever we drove, but the further we got away from the hustle and bustle and stress of Southern California pavement, the more relaxed and courteous the people seemed to become. Who knows – maybe it’s because they don’t pay the bulk of their income for gasoline.
This isn’t the first time I’ve noticed how much differently Southern Californians drive and behave. A good friend of mine was born and raised here and then moved his family to Colorado. The first time he came back to visit, he was shocked at how much faster-paced and more aggressive our roads had become in the few years he’d been away. (And that was before Clark Magnet School even existed! But I won’t go there.) My oldest son who moved to Oahu, Hawaii five years ago remarks every time he’s back on the mainland at how stressful it is to drive on our streets. He’s afraid he’ll be mowed down if he hesitates even a second or doesn’t drive way over the speed limit.
On our trip to Montana last weekend, my son and I noticed other differences like the number of large American flags we saw proudly raised on flagpoles and buildings throughout the towns we passed through. Billboards proclaiming faith in God or encouraging prayer for our country and its leaders were also very much in evidence. I couldn’t help but contrast that with the numerous outdoor boards for so-called “Gentlemen’s Clubs” and the eXXXotica Expo 2011 soon to be at the L.A. Convention Center that we passed Friday morning on the way out of California.
With the exception of the few times we were blown sideways on the highway somewhere in Southern Montana (imprints of my fingernails are now forever in my son’s dashboard), we arrived safely at his dorm early Saturday afternoon. I flew back later that evening and have – for the most part – already readjusted to the pace of life here in Southern California.
But I’m determined to keep using my turn signal.
I’ll see you ‘round town.