Texas and the Collective Vehicular Deathwish

Finally, I’m south. After much travel, aggravation, inspiration, and diner food consumption, the move is officially over. I’m now a resident of Arlington, Texas, and my feelings about this, while generally positive, are mixed. I’ve had a couple weeks to settle in (I apologize for the lack of updates—it’s been a busy time) and have gotten to know my neighborhood somewhat. The Dallas/Fort Worth area reminds me of LA. There’s a lot of traffic, it’s all rather dirty, and the roads are overabundant and confusing to the uninitiated. But for all that, it’s just another metropolitan area, little different from any other in the daily movements of its countless citizens.

The roads and drivers upon them, however, have become something of a morbid fascination for me since I got here.

The highway and road signage is oddly non-functional when compared to my home state of California, and it’s led to some interesting mix-ups. A sign with an arrow telling me to exit had another sign up and to the left of it with no arrow, and somehow in Texas this means that I was to take that exit for both junctions, not get off for one and stay straight for the other. This landed me in the projects. Also, I’ve come across four freeway entrances so far that lacked any sort of sign to explain that you’d be getting onto a freeway at all, much less which freeway that might happen to be. Freeway designations along the sides of the highways themselves are unusually sparse, making it take far longer than it should to figure out where you are if you get lost, and stop signs don’t seem generally to be coupled with white lines along the ground, making it much harder to tell at a glance if you’re at a four-way stop or need to be watching for cross traffic. Don’t even try to drive in Pecos at night, and be sure to watch your exits closely when traveling on any highways.

My gripes about exit-only markers here come four for the price of one:

1. I ran across a marker that’s placed so poorly over the lanes you can’t actually tell at which lane it’s pointing.

2. I’ve seen exit-only lanes that don’t actually have a marker to tell you that’s what they are, bringing you rapidly to your impending, unwanted exit while nobody will let you over (see below).

3. I found a sign declaring that two lanes are exit-only just to have the next one tell me (after I’d already scrambled to get over) that the leftmost of the two actually isn’t.

4. There’s a sign that declares the approach of an upcoming exit-only lane, with another sign a few feet up reminding you again of its exit-only status, and all this just before you come to the exit itself, which ends up not even being the advertised turnoff (which is still further down the road) but an entirely different one for a city street that is, in fact, not exit-only.

Most of these things have been more amusing than anything else, but clearly something has gone amiss in the administration of this great state.

Either way, I find the biggest disparity between here and home to be the actual driving. While Californians have always been the butt of jokes about bad driving, I now firmly believe this to be a misconception propagated by people who have never actually driven in California. Californians do drive fast. I did this for years and enjoyed every minute of it without the slightest hint of remorse. Did this make me a bad driver? Some would say so, but I always maintained that driving fast in situations where it was perfectly safe to do so was the least of all possible vehicular offenses. Upon getting to Texas, this belief has been reinforced a hundredfold. Texans, by and large, don’t drive half as fast on average as Californians. In talking to locals, this appears to be because they used to drive fast all the time, so much so that there’s now a massive push by police agencies here to enforce speed limits. Yet while they may not drive as fast now on average as the people back home, they do seem to have this sort of dark, collective vehicular deathwish that pulls them all relentlessly toward a black hole of obliviousness and aggression. Few seem to have the first clue why their cars have turn signals, and those that do don’t seem to have been informed of when they’re supposed to be used. The general belief seems to be that letting another car over one lane is tantamount to a kind of personal failure. Driving further than five feet behind the car in front of you is also considered a discourtesy, as that driver might see a vast expanse of road in his rearview mirror and suddenly get confused about whether he’s coming or going. “Yield” here means “if you put your foot down, you can beat that jerk in the other lane”. Oh, and if you really find yourself in a bind, it’s perfectly okay to cross through a triangular median to get to the freeway exit you missed. Even if you’re a school bus full of children. (And no, I’m afraid that isn’t a fabrication—I actually watched a school bus do this, after watching another person in an SUV do it not five minutes prior, and neither of those was the first time I’d seen that maneuver in the two days I’d been here.) I’m currently considering having spikes and rocket launchers added to my car to further put off what on some nights seems like an all but inevitable fate.

People in Texas tell me they’ve seen much worse day to day driving in other states, and this seems to have been confirmed by a number of trusted associates, thus I think there can be no mystery as to why we suffer from all the fatal automobile accidents we do in this country. I do remember almost getting run over by rogue taxicabs in New Orleans some years back, as they felt little conviction about stopping for red lights. So I guess what I’m trying to say is give the bloody Californians a break. There are some damned irritating people who live there, to be sure, and more than a few hippy stoners who wouldn’t know what to do with real life if it hit them square in the face, but as far as driving goes, I don’t think they’re nearly as bad as they’ve been made out to be. Even the idiots in LA.

There are other differences between here and there, but mostly minor. Some cities don’t have garbage cans of any kind for individual homes (or they’re an optional thing), thus garbage ends up tossed right on the front lawn for pick-up, and there’s a decided lack of recycling here compared to what I’m used to. An alarming number of people seem to consider it an inconvenience not worth their time. The place has more restaurants per mile than any other area I’ve ever been, and while this means you’re never wanting for culinary options, it can be hell trying to decide where you actually want to go. And Texans love Texas. This isn’t news, but it makes quite the impression when you see it up close. The shape of both the state and the legendary Lone Star are emblazoned upon virtually everything. Some friends of mine have a giant framed map of Texas in their living room and a star in the den above their pool table. And this is very normal behavior. It’s in stark contrast to California, where few people have any patriotic state sensibilities whatever. I suppose that begs the question, Why would they? The leadership has been running it further and further into the ground for decades. Regardless, I don’t get the appeal of Texas. Okay, it’s big, and has a better housing market, maybe more jobs. It’s also giant, brown, and filled with unending suburban monotony.

So these are the passing differences one can notice at a glance, which are themselves different from the other myriad variations we saw while driving through Arizona and New Mexico to get here. Much of the trip was spent in areas that were sparsely populated and ruggedly beautiful, and the differences in terrain types was striking. Too, it was a shock to go from the empty, vast expanses of New Mexico to the stomach-turning vistas of El Paso, the single most putrescent American city I have had the sincere misfortune of visiting.

If anything truly made an impression upon of me during the trip, it was El Paso. The fields of shantytown houses go as far as the eye can see into the horizon into Jaurez, a dark layer of grime covers the streets, and one feels the weight of the air. This is certainly a place I feel the need to go back to, to explore and absorb and maybe put into a book. If I could work up the courage to go back.

All in all, I’m enjoying Texas for what it is, and despite some of my earlier comments, I don’t feel at odds with the place. It took a little adjusting, and there were a few emotional valleys I had to drive through to get here, but I feel comfortable enough now and am looking forward to the opportunities the next few months will bring. Every place has its quirks and its strengths, and for me and Texas, I think I had to get used to the former to more fully appreciate the latter. I could say a great deal more, such as how it’s been over 80 degrees every day this week and is expected to hit 90 on Saturday, how even when it was overcast I managed to get a sunburn after spending a whopping half an hour sitting on the driveway, and how thanks to the musings of a friend we now refer to my new home as the Great Brown Expanse; but we’ll reserve those for another time, shall we? For now, humor aside, I’m enjoying the place and eager to see more.

[This post originally appeared at theflyingmonkeyapparatus.com.]

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