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Leaving Los Angeles: Why I Just Moved from California to Michigan

Spoiler alert: A big reason has to do with cars.

Arthur St. AntoineWriterTim MarrsIllustrator

Three decades ago, when I told friends and acquaintances I was moving from Southeastern Michigan to Los Angeles, I was met with almost unanimous "Wow! Cool!" comments and even a few near-hostile expressions of envy. But last November, when my wife and I moved from L.A. back to Michigan (specifically, Ann Arbor, where I started in this business), the ratio was more on the order of 10 percent, "Hey, I don't blame you," to 90 percent, "What??? Did you accidentally get hit in the head by the film reels for Cats??!"

Truth is, there are many reasons for my recent departure from the City of Angels, a place where I've lived most of my life, a place where I found my wife of 20-plus years, a place that will forever occupy a sacred and memories-rich plentitude of my soul. Many of those are straightforward, such as L.A. 's increasingly nonsensical cost of living (e.g., the lunch we ate at a modest diner that cost $50—before tip!). Also, our daughter is now in school out east, and Ann Arbor brings us some 2,000 miles closer. Yet I'd be lying if I didn't also share that, for me, one of the main motivations for leaving L.A. is the same thing that brought me there in the first place: cars.

By the early 1990s, Los Angeles had long been the butt of "traffic" and "smog" jokes, among countless others. (Munchkin-land, anyone?) Yet the city that greeted me as I moved into a place above the Sunset Strip was more "bustling" than "gridlocked." Sure, commuting could be a challenge. But there were workarounds: drive outside the major-crush hours, take a secret shortcut, skip work entirely and go to El Matador beach instead.

What's more—and I'll admit I'm looking back through glasses colored rose—driving back then was more fun, the congestion far more manageable, the cool cars more approachable. Sure, you'd see plenty of classic Ferraris tooling about, and West L.A. roads in general looked nothing like the Midwest's. As actor Robert Redford once noted, "If you stay in Beverly Hills too long, you become a Mercedes." But alongside the occasional Lamborghini Jalpa, you'd see a kid in a cherry '69 Mustang 302 or a pretty girl in an old Triumph Spitfire or a carful of chill dudes strutting by real slow so you could appreciate the sweat and skills that had gone into crafting their gleaming lowrider. Drivers had their windows down more often, too—and we'd talk at stoplights. "How do you like your Grand National?" I'd shout to the Buick driver waiting alongside. "Oh, we tweaked her a bit," he'd reply with a grin. "She's good for about 350 horsepower now. 'Course, that's nothing compared with yours."

"Just a loaner," I'd shoot back, shaking my head as I patted the door of the bright-red Dodge Viper I was testing that week. "Turns into a pumpkin at midnight."

"Well, happy Halloween!" And with that the GNX driver would smoke away in a cloud of rubber dust and Old Spice.

Mostly, L.A. driving isn't like that anymore. And for this sad turn I point to two factors: the massive influx of cubic dollars and the rise of the smartphone. The stupid money has several consequences: First, most folks can't afford to live in L.A. anymore, so they move to the suburbs or even farther out. The result is insanity-inducing gridlock. On a recent predawn drive north out to Willow Springs Raceway, I witnessed inbound traffic from the Mojave that stretched unbroken for nearly 30 miles. Second, there is never a time of the day when the madness truly lifts. OK, maybe between 4 and 4:20 a.m. Third, there's so much money on flaunt, people who really don't know or care about cars regularly buy the best cars on earth. After all, if your bro drives a Porsche 911 GT3 RS, you'd better pick up a McLaren 720S. West L.A. 's streets now resemble a waterless Monaco Yacht Show.

As for the smartphone…it's pretty much ruined driving as we used to know it. Nobody can take the shortcut now because, thanks to Waze, everybody's taking the shortcut. Side windows are up, the world is shut out, driver faces are glued to their screens at every stoplight—and frequently at speed, too. Ann Arbor is hardly immune from the blight, but in the megalopolis called L.A.—which was already at a tipping point—the fascinations of the smartphone have heaved driving into the abyss.

So I've downshifted a few gears, but I'm OK with that. In my years in Angels-land, I wrung about everything I ever wanted out of Los Angeles. I'll always have the sweet scent of night-blooming jasmine lingering in my nostrils. Not that I'll know, of course. From now on, half the year my nose will probably be frozen.