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Thursday, April 2, 2009

Poppies and Freeways

The other day I was driving home from a meeting in a town over an hour away and I had to take a bunch of freeways I wasn’t used to driving. I listen to the traffic news a lot so I’m familiar with the numbers and the names but not always sure which name goes with which number. In Los Angeles the freeways have names, like The Golden State, or The San Bernadino. The newscasters also refer to specific areas on the freeways, like the Orange Crush, and the East L.A. Interchange. I don’t always know where these places are because I don’t drive them.

Another point about the freeway system is that my “Eastern” friends, i.e.; anyone past Nevada, are always making fun of us Californians for saying “the” before a freeway number. Well, I discovered there is a reason for that, and I quote from Grant Geyer’s article in “American Speech.” 

“In about 1941, just before the completion of the first of the famous freeways, intercity traffic came into Los Angeles on the north-south axis on U.S. 99, U.S. 101, or California Route 1.... Before the freeways were built, locals generally preferred the old, time-honored street or road names instead of numbers in conversation. So for ‘U.S. 99’ they said San Fernando Road because the highway followed that particular named street, as far as the distant end of “town.” Likewise, ‘U.S. 101’ was Ventura Boulevard and ‘Route 1’ was Pacific Coast Highway....Route 1 or Route 101 was not used in town.
When the federal interstate system grew up, the southern California area got its share of funding and road numbers.... However, for the first 20 years of the interstate system, no one used the numerical designations.... The interstate routes around Los Angeles were called the 
Ventura Freeway, the Hollywood Freeway, the Santa Ana Freeway, the Golden State Freeway, the San Bernardino Freeway, the Pasadena Freeway, the Glendale Freeway, the San Diego Freeway, the Santa Monica Freeway, the Harbor Freeway, the Riverside Freeway, and the Long Beach Freeway.

....The strange-sounding usage of the plus number, as in the 118, was the natural result of an amazing proliferation of new, minor interstate cutovers, extensions, and bypasses that began about 1975.... [It] was even more pronounced when new major Los Angeles interstates sprang up without having any precursors and without being extensions of earlier, nonnumerical freeways. The first one I remember in this category was the 605 Freeway.” (“The” Freeway in Southern California, by Grant Geyer, American Speech, Summer 2001)

So, fancy that, a legitimate reason for our “funny” way of referring to the freeway system.

Along my drive I had to take “the” 10 West to “the” 57 North and right there at this colossal interchange (not the East L.A. interchange) there were wild poppies growing along the side of the road. It was beautiful! I was surprised by the cluster of nature that created a small haven of beauty on an urban freeway. It pleased me. Maybe I was already happy from having had a wonderful day and evening by myself (sans children and spouse) with little demands, or maybe it really was just an appreciation for an enigma among spoils.


Poppies, by the way, are one of my most favorite flowers. Maybe a true Californian at heart, but mostly their presence in late winter and early spring in the desert where I live signals new life and color in an otherwise drab environment. Unfortunately when the blooms disappear they look like messy weeds and their roots like pale carrots. While they bloom along roadsides, on the hillsides, and yes, apparently even along freeway interchanges, I am awestruck at their cheerfulness.