If disaster cuts off your route, patience is a good companion

Times Staff Writer

What do you do if the only way you know to get from Place A to Place B is suddenly blocked? Thousands of frustrated Los Angeles area drivers, rolling home from a weekend in Las Vegas, faced that dilemma when wildfires shut Interstate 15, the main route to Southern California, on a recent Sunday.

Some returning revelers received quite a geography lesson while navigating nine or more hours of detours. Some gave up and bunked in Barstow. Others got hopelessly lost on improvised shortcuts.

Here's what not to do: Recklessly barrel along the shoulder of a jammed highway, then peel off onto a mysterious dirt road that turns into sand, get stuck and summon 911 with these directions: "I'm on a bumpy dirt road with four big rock piles."

That's the call the California Highway Patrol fielded that Sunday from a party of three lost somewhere south of California 58 between Barstow and the U.S. 395 junction, said Sgt. Daniel Laza. (Hours later, he said, the three extricated themselves.)

What not to do, however, is easier to figure than what to do when traffic accidents, fires, snowstorms or other unexpected events thwart your intended way. "It was mass confusion," Sherman Oaks resident Miguel Rojas said of the scene when he and others were diverted from I-15 that Sunday.

There are no sure-fire solutions in such a crisis, but there are some guidelines for handling it, experts say. Among them:

* Like the Boy Scouts, be prepared: "You need to look at your travel plans before you leave the house," AAA spokesman Jerry Cheske said. "That's the key."

Even if you drive the same route several times a year, as many visitors to Vegas do, and it's a straight shot, you can't predict when troubles might cause delays or you'll need to go a different way. For any big trip, head out with a full tank of gas, blankets and water. With those simple precautions, "you can survive for days," Laza said.

It's not enough to know your route. Plot an alternate and highlight it on a map.

You are taking a map, aren't you?

"I've watched people who are totally lost and refused to pay $4 for a map," CHP's Laza said -- and then, without giving it a thought, spent that much on snacks. AAA members, of course, can get free maps.

Before leaving the house, especially during an ongoing crisis such as the wildfires, flip on the TV or radio or log on to an Internet news site for updates that might affect your trip.

In California, the state Department of Transportation issues notices on road closures by toll-free phone, (800) 427-7623 (a voice-activated recorded menu), and on its Web site at www.dot.ca.gov/cgi-bin/roadupdt.

Caltrans updates the information twice a day, but it focuses mostly on planned, not emergency, closures, said spokeswoman Jeanne Bonfilio. For the most current information in a crisis, news outlets are your best bet, she added. It's wise to have a working car radio.

If you have a cellphone, take that too, and program it with Caltrans, AAA and other emergency numbers.

* Beware of back roads: After hours spent staring into taillights, you may decide that any road, no matter how narrow or poorly signed, must be better than the one you're on. Maybe yes, maybe no.

"People who decide to wing it could be in for some very serious trouble," AAA's Cheske said. Remember the Donner party?

The fire, flood or snow that is backing up your highway may be more troublesome, even life-threatening, in areas away from the highway. Or by detouring, you may get lost or encounter fresh problems. The wayward California 58 travelers who called 911, for instance, were not only mired in sand, Laza said, but also were apparently quite near Edwards Air Force Base bombing ranges.

The general rule: Don't detour if you don't know where you're going.

Caltrans tries to post reliable detours on signs along blocked roads, Bonfilio said. News outlets also receive this information from agencies and regularly broadcast it. Following that advice may not forestall frustration -- the detours too may be backed up for miles -- but at least you should be safe and headed in the right direction. Speaking of which: Taking a compass is a good idea.

* Reach out and touch someone: Friendly locals can rescue you. After all, they know the region's roads, their perils and promises. Failing that, a former local will do. Rojas employed both to find his way back from Vegas to Sherman Oaks with two friends during the wildfires.

"No one knew how bad it was until they saw the red cloud" near Victorville, he said. After Rojas exited I-15, he stopped at a gas station and approached a Caltrans worker, who told him about a back road to California 138. Rojas got more routing advice by using his cellphone to contact a friend who once lived in Las Vegas. (A note: Your cellphone may not work in remote locations, but it's worth a try.)

The trip wasn't easy. Rojas figures he spent six hours just getting from Victorville to Palmdale, a distance of less than 60 miles. But he made it safely home that day, which was more than one friend did. She spent the night in Barstow.

Those driving vehicles with global positioning satellite equipment that pinpoints location may find it useful for plotting an escape route -- or not.

Some users report problems getting alternate routes from automated systems. Another system, OnStar, used by GM and six other carmakers, combines GPS with cellphone technology. Drivers push a button to contact a live operator who is conversant with maps and services but may not know about current road conditions, OnStar spokesman Robert Herta said.

Your most important buddy when you find your way blocked, however, is a simple virtue. "Remember to pack your patience," Laza said.

Jane Engle welcomes comments and suggestions but cannot respond individually to letters and calls. Write Travel Insider, Los Angeles Times, 202 W. 1st St., Los Angeles, CA 90012, or e-mail jane.engle@latimes.com.

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