Speed limits

The hint had been dropped, with all the subtlety of Gallagher relating to a watermelon: Mom wasn’t feeling so swell, and an overdue visit from No. 1 Son would be an excellent idea.

So be it. Time to hit the highway to Big Momma’s House, over on the central California coast. Not an unpleasant place to visit, to be sure, situated as she is about 20 minutes away from Mr. Hearst’s notoriously immodest super-shack. Estimated drive time: 8 hours.

Feeling parsimonious, I opt to drive over in my ’03 Prius. What the hell, I figure, let’s get that little beast out on the open road and blow the sludge off its battery pack. Besides, I’d like to not stop for gas, even once. By driving my zippy little hybrid, I reckon I got a shot at doing just that. After the $30 fill-up, I enter the ever-whooshing slipstream of I-80 and head west.

The real dog-ass section of the journey begins when I hit that long stretch of I-5 on the west side of the San Joaquin Valley that runs for about 150 miles from Tracy to the outer zone of Bakersfield. That’s when people like me gotta just reach down and suck it up.

“People like me” meaning people who would like to drive at a nice, old-fashioned, 20th-century rate of 65 miles an hour. I mean, I’m driving a Toyota Prius here, a car that’s maybe all of a three-banger. Three cylinders of submissive, gas-sipping politeness. A vehicle that is to muscle cars what tie-dyed tank tops are to Dick Cheney. A car that simply wants to be allowed to use the freeway and survive its time there without being squashed like a roach.

Many of the Californians on this savage road, though, seem annoyed at my presence, irritated that the law prevents them from running a car like mine into the nearest culvert. I sense they think that would be a perfectly acceptable way to deal with anyone who, by driving less than 80, requires them to brake, thereby ruining their cruise control setting. That, in turn, means that somewhere within the next 10 to 20 seconds, they will have to expend the one-one hundredth of a calorie it will take to reset.

These Lexonic, Chevian and Benzite bastards continually breathe down my tailpipe every time I dare to get into the left lane to get around a dawdling 18-wheeler (interesting to note that the truckers seem to have figured out that they can save a lot of gas money by not driving 83 mph into a 20 mph headwind.) By the time I get to the rest stop just before the exit to Paso Robles, I’m plumb wore out, trapezoids knotted up tighter than Barry Bonds’ medicine chest. This three-hour slice of hellgrind is enough to make a misanthrope out of a Miss America finalist.

My payoff comes upon arrival in Cambria: The Prius made it to Mom’s on 9 gallons, or 46 mpg. A small yet savorable satisfaction.