From Desert to O.C.: 170-Mile Harbinger of Future Commutes


David Letterman's last joke of the night is just a couple of hours old when the alarm clock sounds in Leslie and Gary Smedley's bedroom.

At 3:30 a.m. every weekday, Leslie gets ready for work. In a little more than an hour, she'll be on her way from the narrow gravel and asphalt lanes that make up the high desert settlement of Phelan, just 13 minutes from the ski lifts in Wrightwood, to her job as a phone operator at Pacific Bell in Garden Grove. She spends more than four hours on the road most days, covering 170 miles round trip.

That marathon commute is hardly unusual in sprawling, car-clogged Southern California. Soaring housing prices in coastal areas like Orange County have forced many workers to move to less-pricey inland locales, ushering in an era of ever-longer commutes across the Southland. Others, like the Smedleys, have chosen to take on the long commute so they can enjoy the country life style.

The result has been a shift in the foibles and habits of the motoring public. Long-distance commuters are now leaving home earlier than ever before in their efforts to make it to work on time, transportation experts say. The morning rush hour lasts more than three hours these days, with some freeways reaching gridlock as early as 5:30 a.m., according to California Department of Transportation officials.

Afternoons are even worse, with intense congestion typically clogging the freeways of Orange County from about 2 p.m. to 7 p.m. on workdays.

"It's mind-boggling," said Joe El-Harake, Caltrans's commuter lanes coordinator in Orange County. "People are resorting to getting up early just to get to work on time. Suddenly, they're traveling at awful hours . . . and they're trapped in this situation."

Unfortunately, it doesn't promise to get much better. The number of motorists driving into the region from Riverside and San Bernardino counties, for instance, is expected to explode.

Traffic on the Riverside Freeway, which handles the bulk of the inland motorists surging into the county, has doubled in less than a decade, jumping from 106,000 motorists a day in 1980 to more than 220,000 in 1988. By the year 2010, transportation experts predict, more than 400,000 motorists will be using the freeway each day.

About 80,000 people already commute to Orange County from Los Angeles and another 4,400 from San Diego County, according to federal experts. And more than 300 brave souls meander all the way down from Ventura County to reach jobs in places such as Irvine and Santa Ana.

But few folks travel quite as far as Leslie and Gary Smedley.

Most mornings, Gary gets up with his wife, and both make their killer commute, with him traveling even farther to his construction job in Mission Viejo. But during inclement weather, Gary's jobs are usually postponed until the skies clear, and he gets to sleep in.

On this day, there's a half-foot of snow around the Smedley house--"future mud," as Leslie calls it--with rain in the forecast. Today, Leslie, 36, will be going it alone.

The town of Phelan is surrounded by wide open spaces. There's no mall, and a visit to the beach or Disneyland requires a day's planning. But there is Phelan's Sunshine Market, and when you don't want to drive 20 minutes to Victorville or the local ski areas, you can gaze at the snow-capped peaks through your picture window.

The Smedleys' 2 1/2-acre lot rivals the fourplex they called home in Tustin, which is one of the reasons they moved. "My husband's a farm boy at heart," says Leslie. "And we felt Orange County was just too congested, so we made the move out here. It's rural living, we love it. Our two teen-age boys hate it."

There's a phone in Gary's truck--the family's link to civilization. "My relatives think we're anti-social since we never, as we say, 'go down the hill' into Orange County to see them. But after five days of driving down there, after racking up 850 miles, you just want to relax and enjoy your home."

With clouds filling the night sky, Leslie pulls out her ice scraper and attacks the cold film that covers her windshield. "If you had asked me what an ice scraper was before we moved here, I wouldn't have known what you were talking about."

Her 1985 Olds Cutlass Ciera (which had 124,000 miles, new tires and brakes in mid-January) rolls onto the dirt path that leads to Phelan Road, which is the community's only paved street.

"Twice I've slid on the ice on Phelan Road. I've just turned around and called work to tell them I wasn't going to be in. It was too dangerous."

Occasionally, rabbits and coyotes will peer at her headlights, but on mornings like these, it's just Leslie, her car and her stereo. "I listen to K-EARTH. It's one of the few stations that I can get from home all the way to work."

She says that when Gary rides with her, it helps their marriage. Being confined in a steel box on a lonely highway for a couple of hours without the distractions of television or children has allowed them the time to talk about their property, their house, their boys, life.

Reaching Highway 395, Leslie heads south and takes it down to Interstate 15 and through the Cajon Pass. It's here that many travelers have been stuck in snow from freak winter storms, or their cars have broken down when they couldn't take the grade.

"My husband always stops for women who need help along the road. I've been blessed it hasn't happened to me. But I want to see call boxes all along that stretch."

Her route is precisely timed. It has to be. Losing a few minutes here or there before she hits the commuter traffic on the 71 (officially called the "Corona Expressway") could cost her half an hour. If she hasn't gone through the Cajon Pass by the time the announcer says it's 5:24, Leslie knows she's in trouble.

When she gets to Norco, traffic gets heavier, and Leslie bypasses the freeway with her "secret" shortcut. "I call it passing through the 'dairy preserve.' But unfortunately, a lot of other commuters are also finding it."

After zipping past the cows, she reaches the Corona. She hopes to hook up with the westbound Riverside Freeway at Prado Dam before 5:45, and it's 6:10 on a good day when she touches the eastern edge of Orange County--on a great day it's 6.

From there it's like putting the Olds on automatic pilot. The Costa Mesa Freeway South comes into view at around 6:20, the Garden Grove West is picked up at around 6:25, then it's off at Euclid Street and into Pacific Bell at around 6:35. "It's a great drive in the morning. In the afternoon it can be a different story."

Like almost every other commuter, Leslie faces the worst of her drive on the way home.

Her workday ends at 3 p.m., or sometimes 2:30, and with luck, because she's leaving at just the beginning of rush hour, she can be home by 5.

It can take longer.

Like the day before Thanksgiving, 1988, when she spent three hours on the freeway just to get to Corona, where she was meeting Gary for the drive home.

"He was waiting and waiting. Then he started calling all of the relatives to see if I had called for help." Gary got in the Olds and they both crawled north with the deluge of drivers headed for Vegas and parts beyond. "This year I took that whole week (of Thanksgiving) off."

Other than traffic, there are natural obstacles to overcome, such as being on the 15--the Barstow Freeway--during high winds, and watching big rigs topple over like a child's building blocks. "Gary said it looked like one big truck graveyard."

But the great moment in commuter history for Leslie was when bright lights approached behind her. Expecting her first ticket, she began to pull over, but the lights went up and over her car.

Instead of the CHP, it was a small plane that landed in front of her. She pulled over to see if the pilot was hurt. "He walked away from it as if nothing had happened. It made quite a story when I got home. 'Guess what happened to me!' "

Why does she endure this commute?

"It's easy," Leslie explains. "I've just got three more years, two months and a handful of days before retirement."

Time, once again, drives her on.

Times staff writer Eric Bailey contributed to this report.


3:30 a.m.: Leslie Smedley wakes up in Phelan, a high desert community with open spaces and horses, 13 minutes from the ski lifts in Wrightwood. There is either mud, rain, fog, sleet or snow to contend with on most days. 4:45 a.m.: Leslie starts her commute down a two-lane dirt road, past rabbits and coyotes, Joshua, yucca and oaks trees, to Phelan Road, the community's only paved street. Twice she had slid on the ice on the road and she's returned home, not wanting to risk the drive to work. She heads south on Hwy. 395 down to the 15 (sometimes facing high winds, where big rigs topple over "like a big truck graveyard"). A plane once crashed down in front of her here. 5:24 a.m.: She navigates through the Cajon Pass (if she's not through it by now, she'll meet traffic that will delay her 30 minutes on the 71 Expressway). Other drivers have been stranded here because of freak snow storms or stalled cars that couldn't take the grade. There are no call boxes along the route. She travels toward Ontario, past the 10 and 60 to a "secret short cut" through dairy farms in Norco, to the 71 Expressway. 5:45 a.m.: She meets the westbound 91 at Prado Dam, with its traffic jams and accidents. 6:10 a.m.: She reaches the Orange County border. 6:20 a.m.: She takes the Newport Freeway South. 6:25 a.m.: She heads west on the Garden Grove Freeway. 6:35 a.m.: Leslie finally arrives at Pacific Bell on Euclid in Garden Grove.

GOING BY TRAIN-- Despite inconveniences, rail commuters say they've found camaraderie and escape from freeway aggravation. Life

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