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Toll Road

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Because triple-digit temperatures are baking this pit stop along Interstate 15 between Barstow and Las Vegas, California Highway Patrol Officer Matt Sais warns motorists about the hazards of desert driving.

Check your radiator fluid level. Check the belts. Check the tires. Check your gas. Carry drinking water in case your car conks out and you are stuck in the middle of the big, hot desert.

On a recent afternoon, he didn’t realize how intimate he would become with the subject.

As the landmark digital thermometer--the world’s tallest--in front of the Bun Boy Restaurant pushed the 120-degree mark, dozens of vehicles were pulled over onto the freeway shoulder between here and the Nevada border. Their vehicles were overheated, had sprung an oil leak, or had been seized by some other mechanical demon.

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Yes, these mountain grades, combined with the unforgiving summer heat, take their toll on vehicles streaking across the desert like so many road runners, Sais warned a passenger.

No wonder, he said, that car manufacturers challenge the endurance of their newest prototypes each summer by tackling the Baker Grade--almost as steep as the notorious Grapevine on Interstate 5, but decidedly hotter.

Carry cash, Sais advised, in case you need a tow. It is almost certain to cost $400 to be towed to Las Vegas--about the cost of four tickets to Siegfried and Roy.

Sais was saying this in the comfort of his black and white Chevrolet Caprice Classic patrol car, its air conditioner keeping his passengers comfortable.

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As he drove up the grade toward Las Vegas giving this advice, the interior of his patrol car suddenly turned hot and stuffy, and the telltale smell of engine smoke spilled inside.

That wasn’t good. But it sure drove home the point.

Sais’ CHP car had just broken down. Something to do with the air-conditioning clutch.

“I can’t believe this,” he muttered with a nervous laugh. He nursed his patrol car--it was making an awful grinding sound--to a garage at Halloran Summit, the 4,500-foot high point of the Baker Grade.

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A backup patrol car was delivered 30 minutes later from a nearby substation.

“Some problems,” Sais said, continuing his lecture without missing a beat, “can’t be anticipated.”

Indeed, summertime has arrived along the Baker Grade, showing that no one is immune to its vengeance.

And for each poor motorist who falls victim, there’s a tow truck driver for hire in Baker, population about 1,000, give or take a stranded motorist or three.

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During the first seven days of July, the CHP handled 316 calls from drivers in distress along the 50-mile stretch between Baker and the Nevada border. That figure does not include motorists who sought help without involving the CHP.

On this day, some motorists will wait up to three hours for a tow, like the family heading home to Texas, their GMC van on the shoulder.

“God dang, what a pain,” the driver said, dropping to the blistering pavement to inspect the undercarriage. He sees oil dripping. “I think it’s the transmission. Whadya call it, the differential?”

For most motorists, the biggest problem is an overheated engine, usually brought on by an overworked air conditioner.

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“People just don’t learn to turn down, or off, their AC,” said Don Smith at Baker Truck Service. “It seems like everyone in Southern California is driving a new car so they think they won’t have any problems. They don’t think they should turn down their AC on the grade. Their cars come with AC so, dammit, they’re gonna use it.”

On summer weekends, there is almost always a wait for a tow, said Jan Dunkin, whose towing firm dispatches eight trucks on behalf of AAA and other companies. On a busy Sunday, each of her trucks might handle 10 or more calls each, she said. Other towing companies are similarly busy.

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Motorists may be ill-prepared for the cross-desert trek because they have other things on their minds.

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“It’s one thing for someone to drive into Death Valley,” said Caltrans spokesman Jim Drago. “They have visions of cattle carcasses withering away in the blazing sun. So they prepare for it.

“But along I-15, if they’re heading for Vegas, they only see the glitter of the Strip awaiting them and, if they’re coming back home, they only have visions of the shimmering sea of the Pacific.”

It’s that in-between part that’s a pain, though, offering perhaps the most compelling reason to fly to Las Vegas in the summer.

The interstate between Barstow and Las Vegas is as busy as any rural stretch of freeway in California, Caltrans officials note. Coupling that with weekend congestion, heat--and the uphill grades--and motorists soon find out what their cars are made of.

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Motorists heading from Baker to Las Vegas climb 3,100 feet in 20 miles. And motorists heading from the state line toward Baker face a steeper grade--climbing 2,000 feet in the first 11 miles.

By comparison, the cooler Grapevine north of Los Angeles rises 1,700 feet in five miles.

Compounding the problem near Baker, tow truck operators say, is that motorists who break down in the desert can’t always accurately describe their location.

Using a highway emergency call box will give the CHP dispatcher an exact location. “But a lot of people call us on their cell phone and they say things like, ‘We’re between Baker and state line,’ ” Dunkin said.

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“Well, if you don’t know where you are, how do you expect us to know where you are?”

Unless the motorist is covered by a roadside emergency service plan, the rescue will cost $100 an hour. The clock starts ticking from the time the truck leaves Baker until the time it returns.

Woe be the motorists who leave Las Vegas broke. If they can’t pay for the tow, their cars are impounded until they can come up with the money, Dunkin said.

“The biggest problem is, people don’t have the money and they don’t have credit cards,” she said. “It’s amazing--people cross 100 miles of desert with no money.”

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So how do they get home? “There’s a bus station in town,” she said. “Or, they can call friends.”

Tow truck operators are unapologetic about the cost of a tow out here. “It’s probably a little cheaper in L.A.,” said Larry Duffner, owner of Paso Alto Towing at Halloran Summit. “But I’m not working in the L.A. market.”

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Other things aren’t cheap around here, either. The garage at Halloran Summit charges $2 for a gallon of water--whether it’s to drink or to pour into a radiator.

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“People don’t realize that we don’t have any wells up here,” said Jerry Mrihimelright. “The water we have up here, we have to truck up here in water tanks. People think we’re ripping ‘em off, but we’re not. Some people get so mad, they wanna shoot you.”

All of this reinforces what Sais, the CHP officer, says over and over again: be prepared. Indeed, he spent most of his shift hopscotching from one disabled vehicle to another to make sure the motorists were able to call a tow truck company for help.

Some said they have no money and Sais could only offer his sympathy. “I can’t help ‘em,” he said.

During this afternoon, he had time for only three traffic violation stops--one driver for not wearing a seat belt, and two for speeding. Radar clocked one driver at 99 mph, another at 93 mph.

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The last call of his shift was the most spectacular: A motorist heading for Las Vegas steered his 1979 Buick Park Avenue onto the freeway center median after a tire blew out.

The heat of the car’s undercarriage ignited brush, which then engulfed his vehicle. Sais learned of the fire by monitoring truckers’ CB radio chatter, and it was all he could do to rush to the scene and divert motorists around the blaze before a volunteer firefighter from Jean, Nev., showed up 15 minutes later.

In the ensuing traffic backup, yet another car--no surprise--broke down, delaying two young sailors heading back to San Diego from a weekend in Las Vegas.

Sais told the two fellows he could empathize.

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After midnight, when a tow truck finally had time, Sais’ original patrol car was finally towed to Baker.


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