Navigating L.A.'s freeways at 15 miles per hour

A Volkswagon Beetle limps along as 18-wheelers blast past indignantly.

Volkswagen Beetles on parade in Sri Lanka.

The carpeted space behind the Volkswagen Beetle's back seat was a perfect place for our baby, who would sleep as long as the engine was running right underneath him. He must have thought he was still in his mother's womb and the engine was her heartbeat.

One Sunday, still new to southern California, we drove all the way up to Big Bear just to see a body of water larger than a swimming pool. All the freeways going north, south, east, and west came together in a Gordian knot called "The Interchange." Like Tarzan, I swung from freeway to freeway – over to the right in order to turn left and over to the left in order to turn right – trying to read direction signs as we whirled around and over and up and down and miraculously came out on the way to San Bernardino.

It was a vast relief to turn onto a two-lane road out of the smoggy pandemonium and into the soothing greenery of nature. We were delighted that such beauty could survive in that megalopo-lis spreading its tentacles all over Los Angeles County, north into Ventura County, east into Riverside County, and south into Orange County.

We drove around the lake and parked for a picnic in a picturesque spot. The baby woke up when I shut off the engine but went back to sleep after being fed, burped, diapered, and wrapped in a blanket. After a while, with a cool breeze rippling the lake and stirring the fragrant pine needles, it was time to go home. Then the trouble began.

The engine started right up, but I couldn't shift into gear. The steel cable running from clutch to transmission had snapped. There was no place to get it fixed on a Sunday – and probably no place up in the mountains to get it fixed even on Monday.

My wife – who still believed I could do anything – waited for me to solve the problem. The baby remained quiet, but we knew it was only a matter of time before he started that terrible crying which has such an effect on parents' nerves.

It occurred to me that I could get the car into low gear even without the clutch. Then when I turned the ignition key the little Bug lurched forward and the faithful engine started. But there was no way to shift into a higher gear. Our top speed was around 15 miles per hour, with the engine roaring as if we were racing for the Grand Prix.

Going back down the mountain was easy. But then I had to get back into the maze of freeways and crawl along while the other vehicles, including all the monstrous 18-wheel trucks that crisscross the continent, were hitting 60 to 70 m.p.h. and tooting their horns in righteous indignation. I would see them coming up behind and filling the entire rear window. The drivers obviously thought I was a Caspar Milquetoast out enjoying a Sunday ride with his little family.

Eighty divided by 15 is a little more than five – that is, 80 miles at 15 m.p.h. meant five or six hours to get home, some of it in the dark. And ahead of me lay the dreaded interchange, which seemed to be the creation of some mad engineering genius.

To make matters worse, our baby woke up and started crying. Unless you have had the experience of driving through the interchange at 15 m.p.h. in low gear with a crying baby, you haven't really seen L.A.

After dark the freeways seemed ever more like the Mesozoic world where the largest creatures ruled and the little ones scampered for safety between their legs.

Eventually we became stoical. And then we started laughing. After all, we were all together, weren't we? Each time a vehicle passed with the occupants swiveling their heads to stare at us in incredulous disapproval, we would start laughing again.

We managed to get through the surface streets to our bungalow – although at every stop sign I had to jam the gearshift into neutral and turn off the engine so that I would be able to shift back into low and lurch into slow motion again. It was a primitive mode of transportation, like riding in one of the first cars ever invented.

The clutch was easy to fix the next morning. The simplicity of those intrepid little cars was one of the most charming things about them. Many are still puttering along California's streets and highways. Ours, however, has long since left us. In a fit of practicality we traded it in for a Buick four-door sedan.

But when I am out walking and see a vintage VW Beetle parked beside the curb, I will sometimes stop and wonder if ours is still running, carrying some other couple's baby in the snug, warm nook behind the back seat right over the noisy little engine.

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