Leaving Hollywood at the height of the morning rush hour, the sheer size of my task immediately becomes apparent to me--from the moment photographer Alex P and I pull out of our hotel on Sunset Boulevard, we're surrounded by a sea of immobile cars. It takes half an hour before we become ungridlocked and climb on the southbound US-101. By the time we reach I-10 east--the main interstate that will carry us to the other side of the L.A. Basin--we've already used up forty-five minutes and traveled only eight miles. It's a quarter to nine in the morning.
Things are not looking good.
You notice a lot of things when you're stuck in traffic. One of those things is that our MX-5 (a six-speed automatic model, chosen because Mazda's press fleet was oddly devoid of manual-transmission cars) handles stop-and-go chores surprisingly poorly. Pedal placement and a narrow footwell mean that your thighs are painfully unsupported if you're on the throttle or brake pedals. After five or ten minutes, your hips begin to ache and your left knee throbs from rubbing up against the awkwardly placed, door-mounted cupholder.
Another thing you notice is that the mountains--on days clear enough for you to see them--are everywhere. The largely flat, smoggy, and brown Los Angeles Basin is bordered by a range of broad-shouldered, imposingly green peaks, and they're often blue-hazed and capped with snow. It serves only to emphasize how much Southern California is a land of contrasts.
As if to illustrate my point, right as this thought crosses my mind, a man in a Hummer cruises by with a Save the Whales bumper sticker. A Toyota Prius flies past in the commuter lane doing a hundred-plus, and some dude in a slammed Honda gives me the finger for no reason at all. It's 9:30, and in spite of traffic lifting as we move farther east, we're still seventy-five miles from Big Bear City--the closest major ski town on the map, and directly behind the last mountain peak visible on the horizon.
Thankfully, we soon carve our way down I-10 through the remaining maze of cars and reach our exit at the base of the mountain range. The MX-5's top--raised as we got on the freeway because Alex's bald British head was cold (it's a balmy sixty-two degrees)--comes down with a pleasing clunk, neatly folding itself in front of the borrowed snowboard lashed to the luggage rack.
As we climb up the San Bernardino foothills on Highway 38, the view out the windshield doesn't seem to change much. Desert scrub soon gives way to more desert scrub, and at first, the road just seems to go around the mountains without really going up. At 10:15 on a Tuesday morning, traffic is nonexistent. Nonexistent, that is, until the Hyundai appears. It comes barreling out of a fold in the landscape like some sort of possessed Korean fastball, painted white and veering briefly into our lane. Right as it passes us, a poster-sized chunk of paint flakes off, revealing a gray-colored hood underneath. The white chunk flies through the air, hits the MX-5's hood, and explodes into a million powdery pieces. They scatter around the windshield, and one of them lands on the back of my neck with a cold little whuff.