Mellow Out, Mendo Drivers

by Tim Stelloh, September 9, 2009

To Whom It May Concern:

Here’s the first thing you need to know: I’m a lot like you when it comes to driving in Mendocino County.

I, too, drive often between the coast and Ukiah, Willits and Anderson Valley. And I, too, become instantly furious when trapped behind one of the many incompetents who find their way to Mendo’s roads during the summer.

I, too, will not hesitate to blast my horn a few times when said incompetents refuse to yield. I, too, roll down my window and shout obscenities into the wind when the punch of a cheap horn fails to communicate my sense of purpose. And I, too, suffer pernicious thoughts when, after all that shouting, my voice acquires the gravely affect of Tom Waits.

Before I get to where we differ, I’ll tell you the second thing you need to know. It’s an anecdote, and it’s not unlike the video you slept through in high school — the one about the football star who, after the big game, has a single beer at the party, is feeling a little drowsy but decides to drive home anyway. He falls asleep, broadsides a tree, is paralyzed for life from the neck down.

This particular anecdote takes place far from the big game, but you should recognize the characters — or at least their driving habits. They, too, are a lot like you.

It was a muggy summer day, and I was sitting in a traffic jam on Highway 200 — a steep, battered two-lane road in the tiny state of Colima, on Mexico’s Pacific Coast. Much like Mendocino County’s inland-to-coast highways, heavy traffic is common on roads such as Highway 200, which, to translate from Mexican auto lingo, is a “free road”— an un-maintained stretch of pavement that’s probably in the opposite condition of Mexico’s shiny, extortionate new network of multi-lane toll roads. All of which is to say I wasn’t surprised to find myself in a traffic jam. But I was expecting your run-of-the-mill overturned tractor trailer. Or a six-car fender-bender.

The priest zooming by in his priest-mobile was the first sign that that delicate balance at the heart of the Mexican driving experience — a mix of luck, instinct and recklessness — had collapsed. When drivers began abandoning their cars and trudging up the hill on foot to see what had happened, I knew we were in for something gruesome — something along the lines of, say, what’s splashed across the front pages of Mexico’s daily tabloids: a blood soaked dead woman dangling from a driver’s side door, perhaps, her skull crushed from the head-on impact of a tractor trailer.

An hour-and-a-half later, the men who’d plodded up Highway 200 were jogging back to their vehicles — back to the pick-up trucks packed with farm workers; back to the 18-wheelers overflowing with vegetables; back to the shiny new sedans and SUVs. The wait was over.

A truck rumbled by with the smaller of the two vehicles involved the accident: It was as flat as a box spring. Shards of its hood, of its front doors, of its roof rustled in the wind. A few hundred feet away, the other vehicle — a bus — sat nearly unscathed. It had lost only its front bumper and grill after thundering over that poor peanut of a car.

I recall this anecdote because you share many driving habits with our southern neighbors, for whom road-side grave markers are as common as the “no passing” signs most Mexicans are impervious to: You pass on blind curves and hills. You pass when there’s enough space to fit little more than your dope-growing little brother’s jacked-up Chevy. You tailgate so close I could stick a wet finger in your ear.

Which brings me to the third thing you need to know. As I mentioned, I’m a lot like you. I loathe the RV driver who waddles out in front of me, the up-from-the-city and out-of-state vacationers who putt along at 35-miles-an-hour, who seem to look at everything except the many, many signs imploring them to pull over.

However.

While I love Mexico, the stress demons shave a few months off my life every time I drive there. Which is why I’ve come to appreciate driving in the US a whole lot more: There’s a certain comfort in knowing what, say, a double-yellow line means, of not having to anticipate that around that next corner your enraged little brother might be zooming across that double-yellow line to overtake the 80-year-old Winnebago-pusher, that his supersized Chevy could turn me (and my peanut of a Toyota) into a little metal box spring.

There’s a crucial line between being an aggressive, sometimes hostile, driver — a category in which I will readily include myself — and driving like a bleeping maniac. So please, do us all a favor. Take your Xanax. Smoke your ganja. As they say in Mendo, do whatever the hell it is you have to do to find your mellow vibes, man.

Your Friend,

Tim

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