The Mystery Drive

January 18, 2010

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I never knew what to call it. For me, getting in my car and driving aimlessly has always been an instinctual, obvious relaxation technique. If I receive bad news, if I am stressed out by my job or a problem in my personal life, or if I’ve just become bored with the mundane minutiae of everyday life, I often am compelled to go…somewhere. This has one of two effects: it can clear my thoughts, or it can provide me with time and silence enough to work through whatever issue is in need of attention. I guess sometimes it can do both, but in my experience that is rare. My car has been my therapist’s couch for over eight years now. Together we’ve spent as little as ten seconds together (I once decided to drive next door to my neighbor’s pool in the middle of summer), and as much as six weeks together (an epic cross-country excursion following graduation from college). Yet, it wasn’t until last year when my friend Pat, commiserating about something or other, blew my mind with his simple definition of the event.

The unfairly elementary, logical term for driving nowhere in particular on a given day for the purpose of self-improvement and exploration is “Mystery Drive”. You might end up someplace familiar, or you could end up hundreds of miles from home in the middle of who-the-fuck-knows-where. The Mystery Drive can be a spiritually rewarding trip, or an epic failure. In high school, I would often end up at my grandmother’s old apartment complex on the border of Livingston and Short Hills, or at the IKEA parking lot near Newark Airport. I was young and naive then, and had not yet truly embraced the power of a true Mystery Drive. Things improved in college, with late night drives across state lines helping to clear my thoughts about a failing relationship, or just because I was tired of eating at Wegmans every night only to come home, smoke some pot, play MVP Baseball for Nintendo GameCube, and watch Adult Swim until I passed out.

Living in a new state, in a rich environment like Southern California, has afforded me some classic Mystery Drives. Sometimes I wonder if my innate enjoyment of spending time in my car is in some way responsible for my move to Los Angeles. Even after two years, I don’t know the highway system all that well. Nor do I know the placement of weird off-the-beaten-path areas ripe for discovery. I’ve been under a lot of stress for the past two weeks, dealing with frustrating and depressing issues on both the East and West coasts. Remember that time I spent 41 seconds in a State Prison? This is the story of that Mystery Drive.

traffic at the i-5n entrance

I started up the 101-North towards Ventura. Once you cross over into North Hollywood, the highway divides into two sections, one continues towards Ventura, and one (I-170N) heads for Sacramento. I chose the latter, because I’ve driven pretty far up the 101 before, and wanted to challenge myself. Unfortunately, this led to my almost immediately getting on I-5, which is usually a horrible, traffic-ridden highway, so I exited onto a city street and started heading towards the mountains. At one point I passed what must have been a huge, gaping landfill, but it was surrounded by a very thick layer of trees so one could not really see inside except for a few slivers of space between the wall of green. When I reached the foothills, the road curved and I soon found myself driving parallel to another highway. It was the 210-West. Of course, a few miles down the road I was again dumped onto I-5 North, so I took the first exit for CA-14N (towards Mojave) and freed myself from the horrors of Interstate Highway traffic.

The last thing I wanted was a repeat of my last California highway experience driving to Pearblossom (more on that another time), so I decided I would just keep driving North as long as I could stand to do so. I soon saw a road sign for a state park, so I exited near Agua Dulce, California. I followed signs for Vazquez Rocks Park, which sounded like a very cool, blissed-out place to spend an afternoon. The uncovering of a little secluded park provided me my first chance to curse myself for leaving my MiniDisc recorder at home.There was zero highway noise pollution in Agua Dulce, just beautiful natural sounds. Unfortunately, as I was rolling up to the entrance there was a park employee locking the gate and signaling that it was closed for the day. Still, I drove through the winding residential streets in the area looking for interesting photo opportunities (JPG). I found a few weird side streets with scenic landscapes (JPG), and private drives that offered nice views (JPG) of the area, but I was soon ready to continue my drive into the great unknown areas north of the Angeles National Forest.

Back on the highway, several miles north, a road sign pointing to a vista. Here I sat for a few minutes, hanging my feet over the wooden fence overlooking the California Aqueduct and Lake Palmdale (JPG). Several other cars were parked near me, but those travelers all stayed inside their cars. It was a warm day, but the heat of the sun felt somehow refreshing. When wanderlust called on me to keep moving, I obliged.

After driving through Palmdale, and the Antelope Valley Mall area, I stayed on the path North. I started to see signs of a Casino 12 miles north of Lancaster, and I thought…wouldn’t it be a perfectly fitting conclusion to this Mystery Drive if I traveled 100 miles to lose a few bucks at a casino? Or whatever if I went to the casino, didn’t even gamble, but stopped to use the restroom. A 100 mile Mystery Drive to use a bathroom sounded like a delightfully uplifting story that would make all my close friends laugh and would definitely subdue the blues I was feeling before I began my drive. I decided to go through with it, but then another road sign caught my attention and completely changed my plans. And that right there is the beauty of a Mystery Drive. When  something has no purpose, we instinctively try to extract purpose from it. On a Mystery Drive, when one’s adventure becomes clear, the best possible thing that can occur to us is the introduction of something else that is totally unexpected. That’s the moment that the Mystery Drive transforms itself from simply a guy in a car going nowhere, to a guy in a car out to discover a thrilling place he never knew existed. So when I saw that sign for the Mira Loma State Prison (URL), I knew something great awaited me in the barren nothingness west of Lancaster.

I exited onto a road called Avenue J. The speed limit slowed considerably, so the distance to the prison seemed limitless. When I finally saw what I thought was a prison yard ahead of me, I readied my camera for some great drive-by photos. Then I drew even with the property, and realized it was a schoolyard, not a prison yard. Not more than 100 or 200 yards up the road, I reached the prison (JPG).

Now, the last time I tried to photograph a prison was in high school. I had a project for my Photo-1 class as a freshman, and my mother thought it would be interesting to drive to the state prison in Newark, NJ. This incident ended with an interrogation, confiscated film, and worst of all, hurt feelings (mine). Not wanting to repeat this horrible memory, I simply snapped as many pictures as I could in the time it took me to drive slowly from one end of the facility to the other. It was a rather underwhelming way to reach the pinnacle of my Mystery Drive. As I thought about circling around and returning to the highway to relive my dream of using a casino bathroom 100 miles from the one in my apartment, I caught sight of another road sign. This one said 5 miles ahead of me was the California Poppy Reserve. The sweet, floral scent of victory filled the car. Screw the casino, I was going to photograph some lush poppy fields!

I drove for what felt like much more than 5 miles, never seeing another road sign pointing me towards the State Park. There were times it felt like I was in the absolute middle of nowhere (JPG). I found myself stopping (JPG) along the way to capture more interesting photographs (JPG). I finally saw a small marker for the Poppy Reserve, and I pulled into the driveway. It was a narrow road, with “No Parking” signs littering the path to the park entrance. There was a pay station, but as I drew to a stop I realized the shades were drawn and there were no signs of life inside. I honked my horn as gently as possible, and after thirty seconds of silence I started to roll forward into the parking lot, which was, surprisingly, vacant. There were signs of life whatsoever yesterday at the California Poppy Reserve. Also absent from this park…poppies. I started to walk a trail and then I realized that there were signs everywhere stating closed paths due to “plant rehabilitation.” Did all the poppies die? Was this park even open to the public? I walked to the information center but its contents too were hidden behind drawn shades. The bathrooms were locked. There were newspaper clippings taped to a window proudly displaying that venomous rattlesnakes were becoming more common in Southern California’s state parks, chiefly at the Vazquez Rocks Park and the California Poppy Reserve. So, in essence, I went to two state parks — both closed — featuring potential poisonous rattlesnake sightings, I forgot my MiniDisc recorder and microphone, and the only photo opportunities here included shots of dead grasslands and empty, clearly-approaching-the-desert countryside. Was it really worth the risk of walking all those miles in the hopes of spotting a deadly snake alone when clearly there was nobody around for miles in any direction? Fuck it, I could always go back there another day.

What does one do when a Mystery Drive turns sour? Well, typically you would turn around and go home. But I don’t think this was a failed Mystery Drive. On the contrary, it was filled with new and exciting places I can return to soon, hopefully better prepared for what I will find there. Another great reward of any Mystery Drive is the unraveling of the original mystery. What was before unknown is inevitably becomes known. A successful Mystery Drive is one that begins shrouded in intrigue, and concludes with the driver having discovered something either about the geography surrounding his home, or about himself. I think I accomplished both of those feats yesterday. I rewarded myself handsomely with three beers from a BevMo! in Lancaster, and a yummy dinner (an “Aroma Wrap”) from Aroma Cafe in Studio City.

I doubt I am alone when it comes to Mystery Drives. You might even have a different name for it. I encourage you to share your own experiences or ideas for life-enriching relaxation techniques in the comments section. Until next time…Go forth and drive, Swan Fungus readers!


  1. Theogirl

    You should check out the new 17 Pygmies release. There’s a song called Agua Dulce.

  2. |

    Over here in Belgium I do the same, but I walk (normally I take a bus or train first) or take my bike. Very relaxing. Spring may come.

  3. |

    I remember when i was ten years old I used to take my First Communion bike and cycle away from home, as far as I dared to go (which meant: I kept cruising until I wasn’t sure anymore that I’d find the way back, which was about 2 hours / 4 villages from home). That was really nice.

  4. |

    […] for the first time. You were the most amazing guide I could ever have asked for on our countless mystery drives. You’ve led me off-the-beaten path in Joshua Tree more times than I can count without so much […]

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