It hit me, not for the first time but with a sudden clarity, as I was following the long, slowly descending arc of an on-ramp from the 133 to the 405 north: while already of necessity adapted, the human body-mind has not yet fully evolved to the extent that it is capable of driving the freeways without experiencing--most frequently at the unconscious level--some significant psychic damage.
I had reached that point along the arc from which I look down on a long stretch of the freeway reaching out in front of me. Each one of the six lanes--including the merging lane and the carpool lane--was nose-to-tail with multicolored speeding vehicles, none traveling less than fifty-five miles per hour and most barreling along at seventy or eighty. (I was reminded of the Hot Wheels little two-and-a-half year-old Luka already loves to play with; or, more dramatically, of Chris Burden's "Metropolis" at the L.A. County Museum, with its crammed arteries and the unremitting buzz of tiny, racing autos.) From this vantage point, my task seemed hair-raising: to accelerate across those speeding lines of traffic, one by one, and edge into the next entry into carpool lane, a quarter mile ahead.
Crazy, when you stop to think about it. Like most of us, I suspect, I don't often stop to think about it, and might drive myself literally crazy if I did. You just go ahead and do it, and trust that all your fellow drivers share the skills that you possess. It's not that complicated, adjusting your speed to that of the cars in the adjacent lane and waiting for that half-second's break in the stream of traffic to apply just the right additional pressure to the accelerator and make your move. What's astonishing is that most of us are skilled enough to manage this process with little disruption to the flow.
But when you do stop to think about it--preferably not until after the fact!--you can't help but realize what a toll it takes. Seen in the perspective of our long evolution as a species, these past few decades of our adaption to the motor vehicle are but a millisecond. It's not long since we were driving oxcarts along muddy tracks, or at best taking the carriage or riding horses from one town to the next. A journey of sixty miles would have been a major undertaking. Now we do it, barring accidents, in less than an hour.
Still, what we generally take for granted does take a toll. The brain and the reflexes, I think, adapt more readily than the human body-mind, which is still not ready to rest easy in the experience of speeding along at seventy-eighty miles per hour encased in a ton of metal, in the immediate proximity of dozens of other, similarly careening coffins, many of them of far greater size and tonnage. We pay for the convenience in the often unnoticed stress on a brain that, aside from all its other tasks, must process millions of bits of information per second as we drive the freeway; and a body-mind that is constantly, whether we're aware of it or not, on survival alert.
As it has evolved thus far, the human body is also ill-suited to the task of sitting for hours on end in pretty much the same position. With their long periods entrapped in the sedentary position, whether in automobiles or airplanes, our twenty-first century lives would have been unthinkable two hundred years ago. These days, an hour's drive is enough to lock my aging knees into a state of acute discomfit and send pain shooting down my legs. Having reached my destination, I unbend from my seat in spasms of agony that last until I've had the opportunity to warm up the lower extremities with some welcome movement.
All in all, I'd be happy never to have to climb into the driver's seat again, let alone board an airplane for a ten-hour flight. But there you go. Would I choose not to visit my grandchildren, in England? No. The wonder is, that it's possible to do it. And that it's possible to drive down from Los Angeles to our cottage in Laguna Beach in the space of a single hour. It's just that the doing of it drives a person crazy.