While some of my friends binge on their second safaris, cruise European canals or time-share in Hawaii, I consider a trip to downtown Palo Alto an equally grand adventure. For someone living in south Palo Alto, a crosstown sojourn requires strategic planning. Snail-like speed limits, packed parking and a rotating landscape of shops and restaurants present pioneer-like obstacles: The time it takes mirrors the forty-niners' trek West; the lengthening queues of cars lined up at lights make their own modern wagon train.
With who-knows-what lanes of Alma Street often under construction, I opted for Middlefield Road, still four lanes and deliciously drivable. New library crowds for sure, but few drivers actually crawling at 25 mph; new stoplights but only a few short miles to University Avenue. Ah, the proverbial straight shot. Or not! With the new tidal wave of traffic, expect the unexpected. I forgot that living in Silicon Valley does not guarantee synchronized lights or sensors that save gas, time and tempers.
Signals between Charleston Road and Oregon Expressway flashed like pinball machines — the green, amber, red in quick succession before East Meadow Drive. Still optimistic, however, I sailed along smoothly past the Winter Lodge and sprinted by Safeway until ... my sudden brake and balk at the stop-start-slow-stop-go-stop through Midtown. I'd made it halfway!
Not until after Oregon Expressway did the real squeeze begin.
Old Palo Alto, new traffic pattern! I should have packed snacks to sustain me. And jammies, in case I nodded off along the narrowing track and found it necessary to bed down among the lawn-bowlers.
Approaching the To-Be-Named-Later Middle School, fortress-style white stanchions guarded the sanctity of the shrunken and empty curb lane for ... kids? On bikes? Only if they're part of Cirque du Soleil! Though due to pinched lanes and clogged cars at the signal before California, not much moved anyway — I was stuck, but I was safe. And by now, famished. If the road onward imposed an impasse, downtown remained a dream. Eureka! I'd call AAA for a sandwich and coffee. I figured they owed me since my aging Toyota had never required a road fix.
Again inching along, wary of a close encounter with oncoming cars, I noticed frenzied homeowners frantically waving for some kind of reprieve from the steady traffic in order to escape from their own driveways — and this on a weekday. What else could I do but order more sandwiches and hope no one was vegan or kept kosher. It's a good thing our town is aging. Many Middlefielders are a mature and resourceful audience, able to wait out the daily commute, student deluge, day-long parkers. They must stay healthy should their rewrought roadway impede trucks or ambulances in case of fire, falls or emergencies. I feel especially sorry for the holiday latecomers who can't get through to Christmas Tree Lane until spring.
I made it downtown before dark, stalked someone walking to the Bryant Street garage and then wandered around seeking the old and scouting the new. Thank you Bell's Books for being where you belong; hello, welcoming West Elm; boo-hoo the demise of iconic Sport Shop and Toy World. May Lemonade last, cold metal benches and all, but where the heck was Sam's Chowder House — didn't that just open? How much did I age en route; everyone on the street seemed so very young, except the homeless.
My new mantra? Ohm ... change ... ohm ... Daily I breathe yogic-ly to tackle my regular routes closer to home that careen southwest along San Antonio Road and weave toward the hills via Charleston. The holy grail of Interstate 280 remains the closest we'll get to the wide open spaces of an earlier (1960s?) California.
Even complicated roundabouts and those scary, neon-green bike lanes that suddenly stretch mid-street cannot match the congestion, confusion, fear and fascination of constant construction and insidious road diets at my end of town. Nope, can't blame it all on Mountain View! It cost me thousands in eye surgery to even attempt navigating the slings and arrows on Arastradero Road — and I wonder how many drivers dare veer the mandated 3 feet away from bikers as lanes suddenly disappear, new signals appear and a scrappy teenager passes on someone's lawn to beat the bell at Gunn.
Didn't my taxes pay for the wonderfully wide lanes on East Charleston now mashed together with that enticing but off-limits center? The Machiavellian transportation engineers, who probably steer clear of these silly street changes themselves, endlessly alter the light patterns just to keep drivers in the dark. I'm convinced they collude with Caltrain to catalogue my personal car trips in order to catch me precisely when those white bars clang down at the railroad crossing.
Ohm ... there's more on the way. Instead of road rage, we'll progress to car rage, mowing down those little driverless steel gumdrops with roof bulbs for brains. I can also imagine Tesla Man helicoptering up by his battery-powered beanie to ride sky-high above the clogged congestion of earthbound Everyman. Just picture, however, the mid-air collisions of briefcase-wielding bodies madly whooshing along without any lanes, lights or stop signs. Imagine when they collide with the ever-lower flying commuter planes! The more things will change ...
... the more we'll remain stuck. I bow to the plethora of people, cars and jobs in burgeoning Silicon Valley that make my home a costly castle. Given the inevitability of increased traffic — above and below — I just hope we old-timers won't have to pull up the drawbridge or circle our SUVs to keep out all those impending Prime subscribers soon to be delivered to by Amazon drones.
Evelyn Preston is a former Palo Alto teacher and a 25-year investment adviser who now writes.