Driving the Fury Road

“I exist in this wasteland, a man reduced to a single instinct: survive.”

-Max Rockatansky, Mad Max: Fury Road

I’ve recently been on a run of watching George Miller’s Mad Max films. I identify with the title character’s isolation and paranoia. This is especially true post-pandemic, but also because in the last couple of months I’ve spent an unusual amount of time behind the wheel.

My mechanic advised me to get two new tires for my vehicle before making the drive from Oakland, California to Mesa, Arizona. This was an important trip for me; I was going to see my elderly father, who I’d only seen once since the covid apocalypse. I really didn’t want to spend the money for the tires; lately money has been evaporating from my bank account at an alarming rate. However, because I was looking at a journey of twelve-plus hours and over 750 miles one way, much of it through the desert, I decided not to take any chances.

A few days later I squeezed into a local tire shop less than a half-hour before closing time. I decided to make a fast walk to the post office several blocks away to check my neglected and frequently empty P.O. box. On my way back to the shop, a short round woman came around a corner on my side of the street. She was trailed by an adolescent girl, and was following at a quick step behind a rapidly toddling little boy. The woman reached out too late to successfully snatch him by the hand; he ran down the sidewalk toward me past several parked cars, arrived at a driveway, then banked a hard left into the middle of the street just as a sedan sped around the corner.

My feet launched me into a run through a fog of superglue. Even at my physical peak, many years past, I would never have made it in time. Somewhere in the dusty back corners of my consciousness I braced myself for the crunch and the blood and the screaming.

Fortunately, the woman driving the sedan spotted the kid and avoided turning him into a stain. As a reward for his exuberance and survival, mom caught up with him in the street, then reached back to the outer rings of Saturn to plant a wallop on his backside. The blacktop may not have gotten its blood sacrifice, but it got a child-beating as a consolation prize.

I have lived my entire life in the presence of major freeways. My hometown lies at the intersection of two. I lived in L.A. for over a decade, a city built of freeways. I now live in Oakland, along a two-mile corridor between I-580 and I-880, where I can hear the traffic noise from both. The songs of the wind and the finches are always accompanied by the distant, tidal drone of engines combusting and tires rolling on asphalt.

L.A. drivers are rude and aggressive as a rule, but most of the time there’s too much traffic congestion to carry out the kind of stunts I see regularly here in East Oakland. There’s a whole contingent of the local population with a carefree disregard for any rules of the road. I’ve seen people swerve into oncoming traffic to pass slower vehicles. I’ve seen buses nearly run people off the street. Every third vehicle is a pickup truck of ludicrous size. People speed through narrow streets, habitually crashing into parked cars. I never go through a green light without swiveling my head to check for rough-riders, corner-benders, or high-speed chases.

Hardly a day goes by without the screech of tires as cars spin donuts, the chainsaw-buzz of dirt bikes and ATVs, the window-rattling roar of custom Harleys and American muscle cars, the eye-watering boom of souped-up stereos, the piercing sirens, the air-chopping helicopters, the metal-scraping trains. And always, just below the surface, the hum of collective insanity.

The influence of Hollywood on the culture of my neighborhood is obvious and troubling. Right around the time the drag-racing crew of The Fast & The Furious went from being a family of eye-candy outlaws to being a government-sponsored squad of criminal-hunting class traitors, the entire film franchise became one big, expensive commercial for the Dodge Charger—now one of the most popular vehicles among young adult males around here.

When I lived in L.A. I made the drive back home to the Bay Area at least four or five times a year, both to visit my mother and to temporarily escape the concrete desert into a more vibrant landscape (fun fact: Los Angeles has the lowest amount of per capita green space of any city in the country). The noxious stench of the massive cattle-murder fields outside of Coalinga along I-5 is forever etched into my memory. Equally disturbing were the frequent incidents of rabbits bounding onto the freeway at night to be flattened, and the infinite splatters of insects murdered by my windshield, and therefore by me.

I hadn’t made the drive down I-5 since early 2019. That was in winter, a time when rabbits and bugs are usually laying low. As a result, on that trip I would have had no reason to take note of something that creeped into my neck hairs during this recent voyage: I did not see a single rabbit, and the insect splatters were so reduced in number that cleaning them off with a squeegee at some fluorescent truck stop was barely worth the effort.

For the astute city dweller, this is what industrial mass extinction looks like in real time, over the course of a mere two decades.

Life is hard here at the tail end of our high-tech fuck-parade. The vampire overlords hoard all the wealth they get from converting the living into the dead, and the rest of us feel the results trickling down our necks, the smell of ammonia wafting from our dripping, screen-addled heads. Struggle is stressful, and stressed out people tend to get more aggressive and more violent. Domestic abuse rates shot up during the pandemic. Murder rates spiked.

And yet, for a while there, there was a notable drop in mass shootings. I found this curious; there were still plenty of essential workers and essential consumers roaming around in public, enough for a decent mass murder. A friend of mine has a theory that mass shootings vanished during the pandemic because the type of demented, sadistic man (they’re always men) who is willing to dispense indiscriminate murder was able to reach his quota of anti-life jollies simply by going into public without a mask.

Stressed, angry people also get more aggressive on the road. Driving has become more hectic; many times I’ve been cruising along the freeway at 70+ mph and watched cars whiz by me like I was parked, weaving erratically between lanes and avoiding collisions by inches. I find it useful on the road to imagine that I’m in The Matrix; at any moment, any one of these drivers could turn into Agent Smith and try to kill me with their car. Defensive driving is a form of wise and acute paranoia.

I’ve spent all of my adult life striving to minimize the amount of time I sacrifice to wage labor. So, despite having a degree from a Prestigious University™, I’ve mostly worked in the service industry. Working in bars and restaurants allows for a flexible schedule, if one is willing to live hand-to-mouth and without company-sponsored health insurance. A side benefit of this arrangement is that I’ve rarely had to drive during regular commute hours; the few times I would find myself shifting between first and second gear in miles of gridlock were for me occasions to contemplate the tremendous, pointless crime against humanity that is commuting. These people do this five days a week. Even the thought of it gives me a twinge of The Fear.

Now, I work graveyard shifts as a thug-for-hire, and twice a week I finish when all the early-bird squares are on their way to work. I’m now part of the Freeway Commute and it is terrifying. I would estimate that a good 20% of commuters here in the Bay Area display a fury bordering on total madness. They charge at slower vehicles and skim within inches before weaving into another lane to repeat the act.

The standard narrative would write these deathbomb pilots off as mere assholes; which, while true, obscures the necessity of aggressive drivers as a crucial component of traffic flow. The Machine is a cybernetic organism with many specialized cells—the DMV bureaucrat, the migrant laborer, the aggro driver. Anxiety and aggression fuel the road speed; hurry up or else—a mechanical imperative. Efficiency is the universal overseer.

At 11pm on a Monday night, I loaded the last of my travel gear into my vehicle and began my all-night drive to Arizona. Driving long distances at high speeds ought to send shivers through all sensible hearts. I prefer driving late at night simply because there are less cars on the road, and therefore less danger.

I took I-5 south, merged onto I-210 through Pasadena, then onto I-10 out to Phoenix. Many miles of my route were besieged by construction, either on the highway itself, or on tract-housing sprawl. Heavy traffic coming into Palm Springs just after sunrise, most of it consisting of utility trucks—construction workers hauling gear.

Somewhere between Blythe and Indio, I passed the charred, burned-out husk of a semi’s cab, its trailer still attached.

Across the state border, and I might as well be in a different nation. Here, almost nobody wears a mask, the state has recently made all mask and vaccine mandates illegal, and compulsory pregnancy is widely popular. This is John McCain country; the landscape is just as unforgiving as that deceased lizard-man… though far, far more beautiful. The subtle hues of rock, mountain, sand, and brush laying indolent under the hazy blue sky evokes a sense of majesty; the desert’s presence announces itself in the rising heat of dawn and the moisture it steals from your skin. Here is the power of the Big Sky, the seemingly desolate, the infinite distance from the shadows of cement high-rises. Even with all the metal electrical towers and scattered trash, there is magic here.

I never go more than a few minutes without passing long-haulers. Hundreds of huge diesel trucks, shipping the worldly commodities of our consumer dystopia. As I pass them I ruminate on my frustration with most environmentalist writing I’ve read; while it consistently makes a point that should now be obvious to all but the most nefariously stupid—that the only hope for life on earth is to cease burning fossil fuels—rarely does it explore just what a dramatic restructuring of our entire way of life such an act would entail. These trucks ain’t gonna run on lovingkindness. All of our lives depend an entire infrastructure that simply cannot function without fossil fuels, and is therefore doomed.

For our society to shift its focus to transforming this situation before it became a hopeless crisis would have been a great idea, oh, thirty years ago. Instead we got NAFTA and Homeland Security. We got fracking, more pipelines, and a gaggle of new wars, all to keep the mechanical shit-show running. Yay for civilization.

If I seem flippant about this tragic turn of affairs, consider it a coping strategy, the alternative being a collapse into crippling despair. Of course I would love nothing more than for the droid masses to come to their senses and start solving these problems… if they remain solvable.

But the truth is, George Miller’s not-so-futuristic vision of a lawless outback of highways—swarming with heavily armed fascist motor gangs that murder for fuel, water, & fun—strikes me as a more likely scenario.

Malik Diamond is a hip hop artist, cartoonist, author, educator, and martial arts instructor. Born and raised in the San Francisco Bay Area, he is the descendant of kidnapped Africans, conquered Natives, and rural laborers of the Scots-Irish, Swiss, and German varieties. He currently lives in Oakland, California, with two brown humans and a white cat. E-mail: malikdiamond (at) hotmail (dot) com