Thursday, September 13, 2007

Driving to School

On Main Street, heading due east early this morning, I pointed out to the girls that once we got up onto the freeway, we'd likely have a lovely view of the way the rays of the sun were shining through the clouds that morning. Looking under the overpass, what I could see of the eastern sky looked like the gods had just put up one of those clear plastic shower curtains.

Larissa asked if the little hill that raised I-5 so that Main Street runs under it had always been there, or was it made. I said it was made. She imagined that it must take a long time to make a hill. I said yes, the dirt has to be piled and pounded and packed and piled and packed and pounded till it was all very solid. She asked how was it pounded. I said with big heavy tractors. Some mornings my knowledge is limitless.

Sure enough, as we rose up the ramp onto the freeway, we were greeted by a splendid vista of sunbeams and silver and gray clouds. A dark mass of clouds stretched from over our heads to not quite the eastern horizon. At the horizon silver streaks of clouds stretched across the sky. And through the gap between these two cloud banks streamed the sunbeams, like an impossibly large curtain hung behind the distant city of Sacramento.

Larissa asked if we'd go all the way to where those beams were. I wondered too. It's hard to tell by looking how far away the edges of the clouds are. Our route takes us almost due east. It would be due east, but we drift a little south the whole time we're headed east.

We were going up another piled, packed, and pounded hill, where the freeway arches up and over Sacramento River, when we saw two men on the side of the road. One of them clutched a white plastic garbage bag. The bag struggled mightily to be free and fly in the wind of the hundreds of vehicles roaring past at 70mph. But the man kept a firm grip. My first concern was that the bag would escape and become a potentially deadly hazard on someone's windshield. That concern gave way to the two men, so close to the cars, hurrying along the freeway with their heads down, picking things up off the side of the road. They weren't wearing neon vests or carrying the familiar orange bags of a roadside clean-up crew. Why would someone decide to be a freelance garbage patrol on this freeway, at this time, in this spot? As we passed them, I could see they were frantically, desperately, hopelessly scrambling to pick up plastic bottles and thrust them into their billowing bag. Whoosh, they were behind us. As we climbed up the freeway's bridge, we saw hundreds and hundreds of empty plastic containers huddled against the guardrails on the sides of the bridge. They'd lost their load of recyclables and they wanted to clean it up. Oh those poor men. Plastic containers crowded the edge of the freeway all the way to the peak of the bridge.

We passed the airport and then we came to one of the southern drifts on our trip. I-5 is a north/south freeway, running through California from Mexico and on up the west coast through the US to Canada. Our journey on it happens to begin just as it makes a little east/west bend to cross the wetlands west of Sacramento that lie on either side of the Sacramento River and eventually become the Delta.

As we round the bend, traffic generally slows to accommodate the influx of cars from Yuba City and other points on Highway 99 and today was no exception. We slowed to a crawl and Larissa went into high alert to watch for the chicken. Their dad had mentioned to us long ago that more than once, on the occasions when he'd driven to Sacramento, he'd seen chickens pecking along the median, heedless of the the cars and trucks whooshing past them. So we've been keeping our eyes peeled ever since we began commuting along the same route. And we did see one once, but it's so hard to believe that a chicken could live there, we'd begun to doubt ourselves.

About half a mile ahead, I saw a small bird-like figure with a stately tail on the left-hand side of the road. It wasn't a pigeon, not a crow...could it be? "Is that a chicken?" I posed the question to the car-at-large. Lana was completely absorbed in her book, but Larissa craned her neck around my seat to get a better look.

"Yes! There she is!" It was indeed a chicken. Busily pecking at the dirt and pebbles close to the roadway with two little finchy-sparrowy looking characters following but not following behind. Lana even pulled her nose out of her book. It looked to me like the same bird we'd seen, and then only imagined we'd seen, a few weeks before. Chris, the girls' dad, had said he'd seen more than one when he originally mentioned spotting the fowl sometime last year. Questions were raised. Larissa felt certain that, based on the minimal comb on this chicken's head, it was a hen. Lana said rooster, citing the proud tail. Lana also repeated what she'd repeated at our last sighting: a chicken will die without another chicken. Is that chicken out there alone? We just didn't know.

Meanwhile, our minivan, carried along in the traffic, picked up speed and headed for the ramp to I-80 East. Still heading south on I-5, Larissa looked to the eastern sky and marveled at how close we now were to the sunbeams. The dark cloud's edge was overhead now. As we merged onto I-80, the sky ahead of us was blue. "Look back," I said, checking my review mirror.

"Ooooooooh!" Both girls looked out the back window. Behind us the sky was deep, steely grey. The cars and trees and roads were all illuminated by the eastern brightness, in sharp contrast to the dark cloud arching over the route we'd traveled. Larissa speculated that we must be in a sunbeam now.

In the afternoon I drove the same route again to pick the girls up from school. On I-5 going over the river, the bridge was scraped clean.

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