A few weeks ago, I was reflecting on my international travels and it occurred to me that, since 1995, I have spent at least some part of every calendar year outside of the United States. Some years I spent living and working abroad. Other years, I took shorter trips outside the country.
With 2014 winding down, I came to realize that my 19-year international travel streak was likely going to come to an end. It’s been a busy year domestically, and I hadn’t had time to leave the country at all. Looking ahead to the last month of the year, I was out of vacation days and busy just about every weekend … except this past Saturday.
But there was no way I could leave the country and return in a day, right? I mulled it over and did some quick Google mapping. I found out that my house in Petaluma was about 550 miles from the Mexico border. Maybe there was a way …
On Friday night, I made the decision to go for it. It was so spontaneous, I didn’t even have time to download any podcasts or curate a collection of music. I would be at the mercy of Heartland radio, and my own thoughts. I got a few hours of sleep on Friday night and awoke after midnight. I made a sandwich and a tall thermos of coffee, grabbed my passport and jumped into my 1998 Toyota Camry.
I pulled out of my driveway at 1:46 a.m., took D Street to Petaluma Boulevard South, and then got on southbound Highway 101. There were still plenty of cars on the freeway at this hour, probably people heading home from their Friday night as my Saturday morning was just getting started.
I crossed the Richmond Bridge and continued on 580 through the East Bay and up over the Altamont Pass, reaching the Central Valley just after 3 a.m. With a 70 mph speed limit on Interstate 5, I set the cruise control to 75 and zoned out. Nothing but blackness, straight, flat freeway and a few semi-trucks to punctuate the monotony.
I hit the Grapevine, the windy stretch of I-5 over the Southern California mountains, at dawn and could see that the mountains got a nice dusting of snow in the recent storm. I watched a beautiful sunrise over the Tejon Pass, then dropped into the San Fernando Valley just after 7 a.m.
I hit my first patch of traffic just past downtown Los Angeles. It was 7:30 a.m. on a Saturday morning and the freeway was gridlocked. It made me glad to live in Sonoma County. With all the complaining we do about the Sonoma-Marin Narrows bottleneck, it’s nothing compared to what Southern Californians deal with every day.
I made my first stop in Commerce City, a gas and bathroom break, then back on the freeway through Orange County, past Disneyland, and into the ever shrinking gap between the Los Angeles and San Diego metro areas. A quick bathroom break in Oceanside, and I was speeding through San Diego, quickly running out of America.
At 9:55 a.m., 8 hours and 9 minutes and 547.1 miles after leaving home, I pulled into the parking area about 100 feet from the Mexico border. I walked across the border and into Mexico. I did a bit of Christmas shopping, buying some beautiful handicrafts for people in my life, then I walked back to the border and found a line of people a half mile long all waiting to cross into America. This was going to be a problem, I could tell.
After half an hour in line, I had barely moved 20 feet. I imagined that everyone in this line was seeking to take advantage of President Obama’s relaxed immigration policy. When the line would stop moving for 20 minute stretches, I imagined that Congress, which was debating a $1.1 trillion spending bill as I languished in line, had voted to defund Obama’s immigration policy, forcing the border to close and stranding me in Mexico indefinitely. These were ridiculous thoughts, I know, but they seemed perfectly rational when you’re stuck in a line that is seemingly stationary.
Finally, two hours later, I made it to the front of the line, flashed my passport for the Customs and Border Patrol agent and reentered the U.S. Dreading the 8-hour drive ahead of me, I got back to my car at 12:52 p.m. with plenty of daylight left.
I zipped back through San Diego, hit some inevitable traffic in Los Angeles, and then back over the Grapevine and into the Central Valley at dusk. Four hours from home and I started feeling fatigue setting in. I searched for some music to keep me awake and found myself singing out loud to Joe Walsh’s Life’s Been Good. “My Maserati does 185 / I lost my license, now I don’t drive.”
A quick stop for gas, the second fill up of the day ($2.49/gallon, sweet!) and I was in the home stretch. Hitting the 580 and leaving the boring I-5 behind, I got my second wind. Now the driving was fun again, winding up over the Altamont Pass and through the East Bay. I started doing the math and I thought I could probably beat my time on the return.
I hit Highway 101 with 20 miles to go, and I knew I could make it. No traffic at 8:30 p.m. through the Narrows. I got off the freeway at Petaluma Boulevard South, navigated the city streets and pulled up to my house just as the clock hit 8:52 p.m., exactly 8 hours since leaving the border and just over 19 hours since leaving home that morning. More amazingly, the return trip was 547.1 miles, exactly the same as on the way down, even with different stops and off ramps on the two legs of the trip.
So, I proved that it is possible to drive from Petaluma to Mexico and back in a day. I don’t recommend it, however. But I did keep intact my international travel streak, now 20 years and counting. I think I’ll plan a more meaningful trip next year.