Many years ago, while driving from Southern California to Northern California, I had just passed the Grapevine when I felt myself getting sleepy. While driving through the Grapevine, roughly 40 miles of dense California highway, I doggedly fought tiredness. I had to get back to the Bay Area, where I was then living, because I needed to be at work the following morning. My friend and I had gone to a Lakers game, and afterward grabbed something to eat. Before heading to the freeway, I had dropped her off at her car. It was probably 10:00 at night by then. The drive from SoCal to Northern California is over 300 miles. Back in the day I was quite daring. I am struck by that daredevil life today, seeing with 20/20 vision how reckless I once lived.
After passing through the Grapevine, I began to speed. Back then, at least, California Highway Patrol was notorious for giving out speeding tickets along the Grapevine. Generally, whenever I drove down to L.A., I’d make up the time I’d lost going the speed limit through the Grapevine by speeding once I was on the open road of the 5. There was a better chance of slowing down on the northern end of the Grapevine because CHP was often parked in plain sight.
I’ve thought about this moment in my life a number of times over the years. There have been occasions when my mind was idle and this specific incident flashed through my psyche. I only wish I knew in which ways did it change the way I walk in the world. There have been moments when I felt as if Life had finally won over on me because the very depth of my experiences, at the time, seemed so unfair. At those times I can always bring to mind a random miracle. When I was much younger, I never once thought of that night on the 5 as haunting. But as I got older and stuff started accumulating in my life, I came to realize that particular night, along a solemn, quiet freeway, was quite indelible.
Perhaps five or so miles past the Grapevine, I fell asleep at the wheel. Literally. At some point my eyes closed and didn’t pop back open. I recall waking up, somewhat disoriented, and wondered how long had my eyes been closed. The thought messed with me for several miles. When I came to an exit in which there were gas stations and 24-hour fast food restaurants, I got off. When I went inside the gas station I asked for the key to the bathroom. Probably aghast, I stood in the gas station bathroom that reminded me of high-school–drawings of hearts with initials of naive lovers inside them, and various mean messages calling people the B-word. For a few minutes I simply took in what I’d experienced on the 5. I wasn’t able to shake the possibility of having fallen asleep for longer than a few seconds. I don’t recall back then what I was honestly feeling, but I was definitely feeling something–I forgot to pee! When I mentioned the experience quite casually to the gas station attendant, he said something about God being on my side. I received those words lightly, laughing it off.
A few months later, on another drive to Southern California, I decided I would work this thing out in my head. What had stayed with me for several months was not knowing exactly how long I’d dozed off. So leaving L.A. and returning back to Northern California a few days later, I was exceptionally mindful of each exit after the Grapevine. It was still daylight so I could see much better than if it were nightfall. I wanted–I think I needed–to know how far I’d driven while my eyes were closed.
By my calculation, I was in a light sleep for just shy of two freeway exists!