Santa Cruz Good Times

August 2004

By Bruce Willey

Before the Freeway Blogger became the infamous, anonymous man that he is, posting over 2,000 politically charged cardboard signs all over freeway overpasses in California, he was just your average guy, frustrated and angry about the war in Iraq. So he did what a lot of frustrated and angry people do and submitted a letter to his local paper, the L.A. Times. (He lives in Orange County.) “Nobody died when Clinton lied,” he wrote and signed his name, a name he won´t give out anymore because he´s had several death threats.

Suffice to say, the Times didn´t publish his letter to the editor.

“So I said, ‘screw you then, I´ll publish it myself,´” he says from behind the wheel of his Toyota pick-up truck as we drive through downtown Santa Cruz. The Blogger is a UC Santa Cruz graduate, and was in town on blogging business last week. “How many subscribers does your Podunk paper (L.A. Times) have? A couple of million? Ah, I can beat that number on the 405 freeway alone.”

Thus began the Freeway Blogger´s not-so underground career that in two years has evolved into a non-paying, full-time job that he can´t seem to quit. (He supports himself on an inheritance.) In the next few weeks he plans on hitting some states that will more than likely play a bigger role in the election, swing states like Arizona, New Mexico and Colorado.

He also has a Web site ( on the information superhighway, better known as the Internet. His site has received about 300,000 hits thus far. Ironically, that number is far less than the countless drivers who´ve seen his signs on the asphalt highways—from Sacramento to San Diego and points in-between. (For the non-geek, blogs are Internet message boards where people, or bloggers as they´re called, can post their unfettered opinions.) And like any self-respecting guerilla activist, the Freeway Blogger has a publicist who has a real name and a phone number.

“Way back when you could take what you had to say to the town square and people would gather around and listen,” says his publicist, attorney Sev Williams. “But these days where people congregate is on the freeways, the town squares of today. He´s out there expressing himself in a way that is reaching millions of people and he´s making people think about the issues.”

Reaching those millions, though, requires a few skills one could perfect in a few hours and a trip to the hardware store. In the back of his truck are all the tools of the Freeway Blogger´s trade. Opening the camper shell lid reveals his menagerie of bungee cords, hammer and nails, spring clamps, duct tape, coat hangers and of course the cardboard signs, over 70 of them stacked to the roof of the camper shell. There´s also a skateboard for a quick get-away, the most costly addition to his mobile tool shed, which the 42-year-old blogger was slightly embarrassed to purchase despite looking like he could pass as man in his early thirties.

He paints the signs on discarded water heater boxes using an overhead projector to neatly paint the messages in a New Times Roman font, messages that he hopes will rouse a captive audience of drivers. The signs run the gamut from the cleverly subtle like “We´re All Wearing the Blue Dress Now,” “Osama + Saddam = Easter Bunny” and “Rumsfailed” to overt missives like “Bush Lied,” “Osama Bin Forgotten” and “Real Soldiers Are Dying in Their Hummers So You Can Play Soldier in Yours.”

On the condition I call him “Scarlet Pimpernel,” the Freeway Blogger allows me to tag along on a sign-hanging spree throughout Santa Cruz County. Our first target of opportunity is the pedestrian bridge over Highway 1 near the Holy Cross Church. We park in the church parking lot and Scarlet preps a sign for display, attaching four coat hangers with white duct tape to the 10-foot-long sign that reads “Douglas MacArthur Was a Sissy” and a smaller sign, “World War II Veterans for Truth.”

Scarlet dons large plastic shades and tucks the signs under his arm, strolling up to the bridge nonchalantly. Sometimes he wears an orange vest to look like a Caltrans worker, the same people that usually take down his signs. The vest gives him a certain authority and allows him to work without looking over his shoulder. But today he´s going casual: T-shirt, jeans, sprigs of sandy-blond hair peeking out from below a bandana, and disco-era sunglasses. In less than 20 seconds the two signs are up, clipped to the chain link fence that covers the bridge, and we´re out of there. “As long as I´m quick about it, nobody can punch me,” he says. “That´s very important.”

We pull into the rush hour traffic and drive under the Freeway Blogger´s latest offering to the overcrowded freeways. Scarlet has a discernable core of impish good humor and he laughs easily. “I´m embarrassed at how often I crack up at what I´ve done,” he says as we head south on Highway 1 towards Aptos.

  Then he lights a cigarette. “One of these days I´m going to quit (smoking) and that´s when the signs are going to get really big and really crazy.”

It´s hard to say how many people have seen his signs since he began freeway blogging, but Scarlet estimates it´s in the millions. On one freeway alone, such as the choked, 14-lane San Diego Freeway in Los Angeles, he says Caltrans counted 130,000 cars during daylight hours where he´d hung a sign inside a closed pedestrian bridge. The sign, a “Bush Lied” and “We´re All Wearing The Blue Dress Now” combo, stayed up for days, a rarity in the Blogger´s business. “Once I realized how many people I could reach with just 10-cents worth of cardboard, paint and bungee cord, I couldn´t help thinking that I was on to something.”

The Highway Blogger´s signs rarely stay up for more than an hour before someone, usually Caltrans, scuttles them away. Though there´s not a state law specifically prohibiting homemade signs on the freeway, Caltrans considers them a “visual hazard” and takes them down regardless of content, according to department policy. The Freeway Blogger argues that as long as there are commercial signs like billboards, he has every right to keep posting his signs.

The lawsuit Brown v. Caltrans shaped Caltrans´ policy. Cassandra Brown and Amy Courtney of North Santa Cruz County sued Caltrans after they hung an anti-war banner beside an existing American flag on a Scotts Valley overpass in 2001. In less than 10 minutes a Scotts Valley policeman took down the women´s anti-war message, but left the flag. The lawsuit contended that Cal Trans discriminated against their views. A federal district court judge ruled that Caltrans cannot discriminate between messages—either all non-Caltrans signs posted on overpasses get to stay up, or they all come down. Caltrans chose the latter.

Scarlet is well versed in the Brown case. “If I was more of a fighter I would put up a fight when they take down my signs,” he says. “However it did make me a little upset when I saw the Santa Cruz Police take down one of my signs. It was like, ‘What province in North Korea are you from?´”

So what motivates a man to drop his real name and drive around posting political messages, not to mention the long hours spent in his garage painting them? The answer is complicated, one that takes a few hours to get out of him. For one, driving seems to be in his gene pool. His father is cited in the Guinness Book of World Records for driving through every county in the United States. This love of travel was passed on, obviously, but the Freeway Blogger took a slightly different direction and headed south to Mexico not long after he graduated from UCSC.

However, what started as hereditary wanderlust soon turned into a one-man relief organization. Scarlet would pile donated clothes and blankets into (what else?) a VW van and find the roughest, most remote road the van could handle and drive until he was utterly lost. Eventually he would run into a village where he passed the goods out to the people, many of whom, he says, were wearing rags. In all, he made nearly 40 trips to Mexico. “It was easily the most useful thing I had ever done in my life,” he says. “The lesson I learned is one person can do a whole hell of a lot.”

Dashing charismatic ideologies aside, Scarlet has paid a heavy price, one that makes him cry as he parks the truck behind a strip mall in Aptos overlooking the roiling freeway. Last year his wife gave him an ultimatum: freeway blogging, or her and their one-year-old daughter.

His daughter is a year older now, living with her mother in Northern California. He visits as much as he is allowed, posting his signs along the way. “I feel like giving up every day,” he says. “The only way I can justify this sacrifice is I think of all those guys in Iraq who don´t get to drive 500 miles to see their kid, and some who may never see their kids again.”

Rubbing his eyes, he gets out of the truck and flips through his quiver of signs. Deciding on two, he preps them with duct tape and wire and walks around the fence to the railroad tracks crossing the freeway. He hangs one sign facing the northbound lanes and another facing the southbound. I look over the side of the graffiti-colored bridge at the cars rushing under us to see if anyone is looking up. It feels delightfully criminal and sanctimonious to be in the presence of a free speech offensive. A few cars honk their approval.

His deed done, the Freeway Blogger walks casually back to the truck and gets in. Within a few seconds we blend right back into the mundane traffic on Soquel Drive as if nothing happened. “Voting once every four years is no longer sufficient,” he says once we are back on the freeway, driving north to see if his first two signs are still hanging (they aren´t) and so he can drop me off. “It´s not going to keep the beast at bay. If people could just realize they had a voice I wouldn´t have to do this anymore.”