Still, the road and its mind-boggling grandeur overwhelm any complaints about having to stop for broken-down cars and stuck SUVs. (Strangely, people are getting stuck on the side of the road as they stop to take pictures--not actually on the pavement, which is plowed and dry.) When Los Angeles finally rears its hazy head below, it's like returning from the moon; everything below is brown and green and covered in shrubbery. Litter dots the foliage as we merge back onto the freeway.
Thanks to the perpetual traffic, we're severely behind schedule. As we roll back through San Bernardino and crawl down I-10 again, the clock ticks ever closer toward evening; by the time the MX-5's wheels hit Los Angeles proper, it's almost four o'clock in the afternoon. To make matters worse, leaving the snow-capped mountains for the dry and dusty inland has hit me with something like Seasonal Affective Disorder in reverse--sun and beaches sound depressing, and all I want to do is climb back up into the hills and take a nap.
The deeper we get into the evening rush, the more the sun sinks and the more clogged I-10 becomes. By this point, the Mazda--covered in sand and salt marks and reeking of winter--stands out in traffic, so much so that kids in adjacent cars are pointing and making faces. In desperation, and coupled with an intense, fulfill-the-quest need to hit the beach before dinner, Alex announces that he's taking over. We trade places, and he crawls the Mazda toward the next exit, dismounting us from the freeway. Lacking true direction, he points the car at the sun--which, he reasons, sets on the water, which is to the west, which is where the beach is. (Naturally. Why didn't I think of that?)
An hour later, after an endless series of 'round-the-block turns and panicky detours in order to avoid both traffic and a trudge back onto I-10, Alex finally announces that we're in Venice. Venice, he proclaims, has a beach. I look past his head and catch a glimpse of water. The Mazda's clock reads 5:22 p.m.
For a midwesterner, Venice Beach is something of a surprise. It is everything and nothing you expect, a poster child for a California you thought existed only in movies. Women wearing next to nothing (Alex: "Tea cozies!") swing by on Rollerblades, and open-topped Ferraris drive by nonchalantly, piloted by girls who look younger than Dakota Fanning. An Aston Martin Vanquish sits at a stoplight with a grandmother at the wheel. Surreal.
As fascinating as the scenery is, we waste little time staring. I jump out of the car, toss the keys at a valet, grab a beer from a sidewalk caf, and stroll off in the direction of the sand. Tall palms sway overhead, framing a sunset-filled orange sky. Traffic memories melt away, leaving little in my head but the lingering smell of the ocean. I think for a moment about everyone I know at home, immersed in the funk of a midwestern winter, and begin to wonder if maybe I should haul out the laptop and write an e-mail or two. Maybe find the answers to a couple of new questions.
I mean, really--if a guy sold everything he owned, how much do you think it would cost to move to California? And what's a good, cheap roadster go for these days, anyway?