Invisible Trajectories

Ryan in Lake Elsinore

I live in Lake Elsinore, California, which is located 70 miles southeast of Los Angeles. I have lived in the city for nearly six months and have yet to develop an adequate description of the city. This difficulty of description, at least for me, is related to the way I move through the city.

Lakeshore Drive runs along the lake and is among the few options linking Lake Elsinore’s commuters to the 15 Freeway. I drive along Lakeshore Drive almost daily, after leaving my home in a newer housing tract on the city’s outer edge. Some days I drive less than two miles— other days I drive upwards of thirty. It all depends on whether I have to travel to the grocery, bookstore, bank, or library. Lake Elsinore has a grocery store (Albertsons), bank (Bank of America), and library, yet I still regularly travel fifteen miles south to Temecula, which has a Barnes and Noble, a natural foods grocery store, a farmers’ market, a well-stocked library, and a credit union.

When I run errands or travel for leisure, I drive south on Lakeshore Drive for four miles, turn left and head east on Main Street for a mile or so, and merge onto the 15 south toward Temecula. Occasionally I visit the local movie theatre and library, or eat at Guadalajara’s Mexican Restaurant in downtown, but not much else. I mostly move through the city, never stopping long enough to take it in. I travel exclusively by car, almost always on the same route. If I want to be inefficient in my travels (to Temecula), however, I travel along Mission Trail via Main Street west to take in a view of a dwindling wetland, which has been nearly destroyed by lakeside development. This route is protracted, but it allows me to meander through the neighboring towns of Wildomar and Murrieta on the way to Temecula via Jefferson Avenue. The long and scenic route: Lakeshore-to-Main; Main-to-Mission Trail; Mission Trail-to-Jefferson; Jefferson-to-Temecula. The quick and efficient: Lakeshore-to-Main; Main-to-Interstate 15.

New housing communities, etched into the hillsides of the Cleveland National Forest, along with mid-90s housing tracts, are replacing the more traditional aesthetic of the craftsman-style bungalow found closer to downtown. I get the sense that Lake Elsinore is in transition, but something far greater is occurring in the city.

I move rapidly through Lake Elsinore, so I am uneasy in saying that I understand it. I have seen its sights, attractions, and features while in motion, but I have made only ethereal observations. Lake Elsinore is quite large, characterized as a set of concentric circles that radiate to the feet of the surrounding mountains. Like all of the city’s newest residents, I live on the periphery, which is home to most of the recent housing development. Thus it is no coincidence that I travel in circles, tracing the city’s outer boundaries in rapid fashion.

When I say that I understand the city by rapidly moving through it, I mean that I trace its geography by driving around its periphery and occasionally to its core. By driving around, I am able to grasp Lake Elsinore’s relative space while simultaneously coloring its interior with select landmarks and features. I have a vague mental picture of the city, one that is complicated by differences in travel speed, local folklore, and frequency of travel.

The physical size of the city is different depending on whether I travel by car, foot, or bicycle. Its size grows in proportion to travel times. Twice I have ridden my bicycle downtown, along Lakeshore Drive (4 miles), noticing a few subtleties along the way: rancid sewer fumes, homeless camping sites, an empty church, a gigantic police station, and how difficult it is to commute without sufficient path and space. Four miles on a bike is obviously quite different than four miles in a car. The slower I travel, the more I grasp of a particular interior environment. Thus the environment becomes larger, fuller, and complex. This is true in Lake Elsinore, especially at its core, when you travel slowly, allowing your six senses to gain access to an array of environmental data. As I said earlier, I have traveled only twice through the city on bicycle, but it is in those times that I realized that nearly every block has a distinctive smell, aesthetic, and inhabitant. I compare the experience to the slowing of a film’s visual sequence to observe the black spaces between the frames. In other words, the rate at which I am required to gather environmental data determines the ways in which I understand that environment. But sadly, the vibrant mental pictures that I formed months ago after traveling on my bike have dimmed and been replaced by an abstract tracing, as I frequently and disproportionately experience Lake Elsinore in fast, “auto-time”.

Auto travel, while obviously impersonal, obstructs much of my sensory perception. I mostly see other cars, an occasional person, or an interesting building. I frequently hear auto-sounds (horns, sirens, and screeching brakes) and I rarely hear natural sounds (conversations, bird chirps, or the wind). Auto travel, in my experience, rarely leads to an understanding of the place traveled through, but rather to an experience of the auto and its parallel environment: paths, rules, and spaces.

For many in my neighborhood, Lake Elsinore is nothing more than an exit. It is a place they sleep for the night and leave in the morning.

I nearly always travel the same route; the route which takes me quickest to my destination. I travel among many paths but the majority of my daily mileage is racked up on the I-15 Freeway. In town I prefer two streets, both of which are major thoroughfares, Lakeshore Drive and Main Street. They are quick and scenic: one travels lakeside and the other through downtown. My usual travel pattern, because I live north of the Lake is crescent shaped—running north-to-southeast—along the lake. Main Street links to the I-15 freeway, where the majority of my travel takes place. Sometimes, maybe five percent of the time, I travel along the western-side of the lake—but only if I am heading toward Irvine or San Juan Capistrano, which is rare. I do not travel equally but I do travel consistently. I travel the obvious path.

I wish to leave the Inland Empire for obvious reasons: lack of community, high stress transit environment (average highway speeds of 80 m.p.h.), and corporate sponsorship. The latter is quite evident in Lake Elsinore and Murrieta, when looking at any of the new retail developments: Home Depot teams with PetCo to fight Lowes and Petsmart for local dollars on the Central Avenue exit (in Lake Elsinore). I wish to leave Lake Elsinore because I am 25 and living at home, because I prefer walking and cycling to driving, and because I miss my sense of smell. I read recently that the junction of San Bernardino and Riverside counties has worse particulate air-pollution than Jakarta.

When I travel away from Lake Elsinore, especially on the highways, I feel isolated, like I am a resident of a roadside café. I feel this way often when leaving a familiar environment, but with more frequency in the Inland Empire. Highway travel (and auto-travel) is disassociating and is not for the faint of heart. I guess it is so difficult for me because I am conscious of the isolation it produces. Lake Elsinore is literally just an exit “off-the-highway.” But sometimes it feels like home.