Can’t Get There From Here

First, a bit of explanation for those who don’t live ’round here.

California is mountainous. Lots of valleys and coastal plains, separated by mountain ranges. Transportation between the various plains and valleys go though mountain passes, otherwise known as “bottlenecks.” Often these are known by the name of the mountain passes they go through. For example, between the LA Basin (LAX, Santa Monica, Century City, downtown Los Angeles, Long Beach, Orange County, etc) and the San Fernando Valley (about a million-plus commuters) is the dreaded Sepulveda Pass along the 405 Freeway. Between the San Fernando Valley and the Simi Valley (another 300,000+ commuters) is the Santa Suzanna Pass which contains the 118 Freeway.

The reason this is critical is because massive numbers of people move along a single freeway with very, very few other options available. When the 405 Freeway had to be shut down for 72 hours for a major repair it was “Carmageddon” and they warned everyone for two months in advance about it. If you needed to get from Santa Monica to Encino with the 405 shut down, it was 25 or 30 miles out of your way to go around over to the next mountain pass with a freeway through it, or you could try to squeeze through the handful of two-lane residential streets that creep through the canyons over the mountains. Remember, you’re doing this with hundreds of thousands of other people trying to skirt around the problem, plus the hundreds of thousands of other people who are using those routes as part of their normal routine.

Got it?

From my office in the San Fernando Valley I had to get to Lancaster in the Antelope Valley, which means going through the Santa Clarita Valley. Roughly speaking, that’s two trips through mountain passes on freeways, about 60 miles.

No worries! I timed it so I moved around rush hour and the freeways should be wide open. Just before I left I double checked a couple of phone apps. All clear! Green all the way!

48 to 50 minutes each way. I’ll be back in two hours!

Twenty-five minutes into the trip, crossing the Santa Clarita Valley and heading up into the mountains toward the Antelope Valley, we screeched to a halt. Crawled. We were clueless about what the problem was until CalTrans was nice enough to deploy a couple of those trucks with the big flashy signs on the back to park along the shoulder and give us updates.

A small brush fire several miles ahead. Three right lanes blocked by fire equipment.

That section of the freeway only has three lanes, so aren’t the three left lanes closed as well, sort of by definition?


IF I could somehow get off the freeway (there is absolutely no way to get off the freeway), I could turn around an go back to the office and try again on Monday. I could try to swing north up the 5 Freeway about 40 miles and then over through Tehachipi, another 40 miles or so. I could try to swing south across the Angeles Crest Highway (two lanes, twisty, not designed for lots of traffic) for about 50 miles and then down into Antelope Valley. I could swing way out to the east, almost 100 miles on the 10 Freeway to Wrightwood, then back about 45 miles over the Angeles Forest Highway into the back side of Antelope Valley. Or I could turn on some bitchin’ tunes and chill.

They knocked down the fire quickly and started re-opening lanes, so I was only held up an hour or so. And the trip back south was quick when I was done in Lancaster.

Except that I had spent so much time idling on the way up that I came THIS close to running out of gas on the way back down through that mountain pass, where there weren’t a lot of options other than calling AAA if you ran out. How thin were the fumes I was running on? The manual says Hissy has a ten-gallon tank. I put 10.8 gallons in, so now I have a good idea how much that filler tube holds…

Some days, you can’t get there from here!


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