by George Ringwald
I WASN'T BACK IN TOWN MORE THAN a day or two when a friend, commenting on what's new in Eureka, observed, "Well, traffic's getting worse."
For 18 months I was away in Riverside, down in Southern California, lapping up the smog and doing battle on the freeways, where the posted speed limits are to laugh at. I would watch in awe -- and frequently horror -- at the way freeway drivers zoomed past me at 80 miles an hour, switching in and out of lanes with sheer abandon. I was reminded of what columnist Dave Barry says about American drivers: They'll try to pass you in a car wash.
Trying to escape the rat race of the urban southland, tens of thousands of Angelenos, San Diegans and Orange Countians have flooded into inland Riverside County over the past decade. They came seeking peace and quiet and instead started up a new rat race.
Today nearly 50,000 Riverside County residents work in Orange County, another 44,000 in San Bernardino County to the north, almost 40,000 in Los Angeles and 7,000 in San Diego County to the south.
It's freeway hell, this land of commuters. Some of these people spend as many as three hours behind the wheel every working day.
If you get up early enough, you can see them start streaming out of suburbia for the worklands at 5 o'clock in the morning. And you have to wonder: Is this what they saw in their Field of Dreams?
So it's hard to take seriously the observation about traffic getting worse here in Humboldt County. Down south, they know what "worse" is. We only know mildly annoying.
Of course traffic has increased, and you don't have to be a trained Caltrans observer with to see the signs: Congestion in places like Eureka's Henderson Center, growing commuter runs between Eureka and Arcata, and a mild crunch in the evening rush hour.
And, almost as if we're envious of what Southern Californians have wrought, now come the Caltrans folks up here raising the speed limit on Highway 101 from Eureka to McKinleyville.
The theory, as I understand it, is that most drivers were already exceeding the 55 mph limit by five to 10 mph in that stretch, so we might as well up the official speed limit, especially since, as one traffic safety chief concludes, "most people drive in a safe and prudent manner."
Are we watching the same drivers? Most of the ones I observe are the idiots trying to beat the other guy through the car wash. Off hand, I would say that "safe" and "prudent" are two words that would never occur to the dedicated freeway driver.
How many cars do you think GM or Toyota sell by proclaiming them loaded with safety and prudence factors? No, what sells -- and kills or maims -- is speed.
We already have our speed runs in Eureka -- one-way streets like H and I -- and these are not the kinds of attractions that lured people to the North Coast to begin with, or do anything to keep them here.
Twelve years ago, when I first came to Humboldt County, I was making my initial observation of the art galleries in Ferndale, and I will never forget one woman's explanation of why she and her family decided to relocate to Ferndale. They had been living in Arcata, but when Arcata went to one-way streets, the husband decided that was the time to get out.
Makes sense to me. I don't suppose, though, that we could undo the one-way streets -- not unless we've got some political leaders with a lot more give-'em-hell gumption than I've seen around -- but we don't have to make it worse by hiking the speed limits.
People come here to escape the urban rat race, and we don't have to bring it with us the way they have in Riverside County. I am old enough to remember when Palm Springs was a village of transcendent charm. (I know, I know, there are those who think I'm also old enough to remember Hannibal crossing the Alps.) Today, it's nothing but a big blah. And the traffic along the Blue Chip Strip -- Highway 111 from Palm Springs through high-priced Rancho Mirage, Palm Desert, Indian Wells and La Quinta -- is enough to choke a dozen horses.
Okay, we're still a long way from that. Eureka's 30,000 population is a pittance compared to Riverside's near quarter of a million. And not even in the summer do we draw the outlanders that the desert resort cities do in the winter season.
I've heard people up here talk about a growing crime rate, but it's nothing to what they endure down south. Riverside and San Bernardino counties have the nation's 12th highest auto-theft rate.
And the smog? Don't even think about it. The Press-Enterprise, Riverside County's leading daily, reported May 9 that there are minuscule specks swirling in urban smog that kill 64,000 Americans annually -- one-fifth of those deaths occurring in California cities, including Riverside and San Bernardino.
I said to a longtime friend, who has lived most of his life in Riverside, that I didn't see how people could stand living in that environment.
"You get used to it," he said.
Exactly. But I didn't want to get used to it down there, and I don't want to get used to it up here. So I will thank whatever powers that be if they try to remember we don't want to turn this wondrous land of ocean, redwoods, rivers and mountains into a smog-laden freeway hell.
George Ringwald was a reporter for the Riverside Press-Enterprise from 1948-69 and Tokyo bureau chief for Business Week magazine until 1984.