We Dream of the Cloverleaf

By Jess Hundley

Illustration by Brook Power 

Illustration by Brook Power 

“The freeway system … is the only secular communion Los Angeles has. Mere driving on the freeway is in no way the same as participating in it. Anyone can ‘drive’ on the freeway, and many people with no vocation for it do, hesitating here and resisting there, losing the rhythm of the lane change, thinking about where they came from and where they are going. Actual participants think only about where they are. Actual participation requires a total surrender, a concentration so intense as to seem a kind of narcosis, a rapture-of-the-freeway. The mind goes clean. The rhythm takes over.” 

Joan Didion,The White Album


I come from a place of cow paths mutated to asphalt, where long ago bovine whimsy now dictates direction. I come from a place of pock-marked country roads lined with piles of ancient stone, rocks tattooed by the sweat of century-dead Yankee farmers.                    

Where I’m from, a “street” is a place lined with salt-stained siding, sprinkler hiss and lawnmower drone guarding never-used front entries, kids in the back and mom opening the side screen door to shake out crumbs from the table cloth. 

At night, headlights carve close through blackness and echo, across darkened leaf.

But here...

Here, the way is free, and the sky is open. 

Here - in Didion’s Los Angeles, the city is shoe-laced together, its farthest edges pulled up and close by a thin and graceful ribbon of pavement. The road here is long and true, it shoots arrows of cement through clusters of adobe and palm, burrows under humped mounds of dirt and deer grass to emerge back again into a bleached daylight. It swoops down, around and over, a hawk’s path through smog and jasmine. 

Here, we dream of the cloverleaf. We look down from the tin can airplane, homesick for the grid.  

I think of Didion’s secular communion. Didion caressing the 405 in her 1969 Daytona yellow T-top Corvette Stingray, wearing something long and silk and flowing, a cigarette pressed between her lips. Didion in total surrender, her mind clean, her eyes clear and filled with a sublime reverence. 

It was Didion’s Los Angeles that called me West. Didion’s Los Angeles, in the time before the screens. Before the barrage. Before the bits and the pixels and the data. 

The communion then was just you and your machine. You, alone inside your glistening steel husk, gliding over the shimmer of rising heat. Vinyl licking the curve beneath the knee. The glare of Pacific hovering over hood.  The head empty – the windows down, the only sound - engine whine under the static of AM radio. “All the leaves are brown”, it sings, as you fly through the blue-green blur of California. 

Today, the rapture is numbed by the digital. The disconnect never complete, the cord never cut. Stuck fast, unmoving, the pavement turned to quicksand, we wait out traffic with distraction. Our lips flutter into microphone, speakers beat deep in our gut and our minds are full to bursting. 

The communion is still there, yes. Our highway, the great unifier. Together we stand, united we drive. 

An actress stabs her lid with mascara, late for an audition. The Santa Anas blow bits of yellowed grass from the back of a gardener’s truck. An exec worries over his hairline, while in another car beside him a woman sits alone and weeps, chest shuddering, her cries drowned out by the blast of the air conditioner.  

And sometimes, on the rare days when clogged arteries give way to flow, when the sun glows Daytona Yellow over a clear, clean line of moving cars, the rapture returns too. 

I put the top down. I turn the volume up. “All the leaves are brown”, it sings. I press pedal gently to the floor. I glide. I caress. There is no resistance. No hesitation. Everything goes perfectly blank, the asphalt beneath me now a golden thread from the spinning wheel. Empty, elated, wind hot on the skin, I worship. 

I kneel to the holy trinity of car and road and California.   

And I think of Didion. Of the self-possessed woman, hands light on the wheel, turning into the curve with elegance and intuition. Of Didion, wearing something long and flowing, cigarette to lips, mind clean, as she surrenders to the moment, to herself. 

I think of Didion, calling me West, calling me HERE – to where the sky is open, and the way is free.