The Road They All Dread
Travis Johnson put his 2-year-old daughter, Hope, into her car seat and sat down next to her in the back of the Toyota. His friend Patrick Cole was at the wheel, and another friend, Amber Courtney, was in the passenger seat.
The Mojave Desert sun was just starting its ascent as the car carrying the baby and the three friends -- all from Ridgecrest -- turned south on U.S. Highway 395 on a Sunday last August, heading to a motorcycle show.
An hour later, 23-year-old Cole was dead, thrown from the car when it was broadsided by a motor home filled with vacationers. Courtney, 19, also was dead. Johnson, 20, was in critical condition, with severe head trauma.
Paramedics found Hope still strapped into the baby seat, barely alive. Her skull had been wrenched from her spine by the force of the collision.
For weeks, Hope lay in a morphine-induced coma at Loma Linda University Medical Center near San Bernardino.
People in her hometown grieved. But nobody was surprised.
Since 1992, the earliest year for which the state has records, there have been more than 2,000 crashes on the 90-mile stretch of 395 that runs north from Interstate 15 to the turnoff for Ridgecrest.
More than 1,500 people have been injured on the two-lane highway, and about 150 have died. Three teenagers were killed just last weekend, when their car collided with a truck hauling two trailers at an intersection in Hesperia.
“When I got the phone call about Hope, and they said it happened on 395, I thought, ‘Of course,’ ” said Jackie Harris, Hope’s mother. By the time she graduated from high school, Harris already had lost her godmother and two friends in accidents on U.S. 395.
The road through this part of the Mojave is scenic. Dotted with Joshua trees and framed in places by nubby, blue-brown hills, it is listed on registries of beautiful drives in California.
But it is treacherous.
It winds swiftly uphill and plunges downhill again, running like a roller coaster over blind dips that locals call “whoop-de-dos.” On some stretches, there is little or no shoulder.
The toll of injury and death on U.S. 395 has touched many in Ridgecrest, a town of 25,000 that grew up to serve the nearby China Lake Naval Air Weapons Station, and tinges the most ordinary activities with anxiety.
Parents worry about every out-of-town field trip and football game. They teach their teenagers to drive hugging the right-hand side of the road to avoid swerving cars and trucks. Some residents refuse to drive on U.S. 395 at all, traveling miles out of their way to shop or visit relatives.
For many in Ridgecrest, the sweet, soft face of Hope Johnson, now 3, has come to symbolize the critical importance of improving U.S. 395.
A year after the towheaded toddler’s accident, Hope’s bright blue eyes can still see, but her brain has difficulty processing the images. After months of immobility, she is beginning to try to stand, but she can’t yet walk.
Her mother and stepfather work with her every day, moving her limbs and plying her with kisses when she smiles or laughs or tries to do something new.
With proper medical care, her doctors say, Hope may be able to regain 85% of her abilities.
Darla Baker, Hope’s step-grandmother, is an editor at the town newspaper, the Ridgecrest Daily Independent, which has published five articles on the little girl since the collision.
Baker wrote some of the stories herself, describing Hope’s recovery in an intimate, folksy style.
In this small city, the story of the girl whose life was forever altered has been something of a wake-up call.
“Hope’s accident changed my life,” Baker said. “I decided it was time for something to happen.”
When a reporter visited recently to talk about U.S. 395, Baker put a notice in the Daily Independent, and more than two dozen people came to City Hall. One couple, who had moved, drove more than two hours to talk about the loved ones they had lost.
It was a bleak accounting:
Police Chief Michael Avery lost his 22-year-old son, David Ozanne.
Sharon Hartley lost her mother, Billie Van Der Pool.
The local newspaper lost its chief news editor, Jill Andaloza, and its page designer, Will Higgen.
Deputy Mayor Richard “Duke” Martin has lost so many friends that he lists them by the decade.
“In the 1970s, I lost Bert French, the owner of French’s Liquor Store,” he said. “In the 1980s, I lost Paul Nelson, a high school classmate. In the 1990s, I lost Mr. and Mrs. Dick Johnson. In the 2000s, I lost two friends, Bill Cunningham and Clyde Irvine.”
U.S. 395 is not the most dangerous road in California. That dubious honor goes to a section of Angeles Crest Highway in Los Angeles County. But it is one of just 12 narrow, older roads identified in 2000 by state transportation planners as dangerous and in need of improvement.
Like other rural routes, it was built as a two-lane link between small towns. Now it carries an average of 15,800 vehicles per day -- more than twice as many as 20 years ago, and is an increasingly important trucking route.
Long isolated from the congestion that plagues more urban parts of the state, the towns around U.S. 395 are now bursting with development. But as in many rapidly urbanizing areas, increased development has not been followed by significant roadway improvements.
Rose Melgoza, a spokeswoman for the California Department of Transportation, said -- and people in Ridgecrest know it’s true -- that many of the accidents are caused by driver errors.
Patrick Cole, for example, may have been trying to make a U-turn on the road when the motor home slammed into him. And four teenagers who were killed two years ago may have drifted into the wrong lane.
But highway safety advocates note that two-lane roads have eight times the accident rates of interstates. If these roads were a little wider, or had more of a shoulder, the consequences of human errors might not be so severe.
“The basic premise is that if you make a mistake, you shouldn’t have to pay with your life,” said Gerald Donaldson, research director of Advocates for Highway and Auto Safety, a Washington, D.C.-based safety organization. “You should design a highway so that people can make an error and then recover.”
In June, after nearly a year of intense lobbying, residents won a $348,000 state safety grant that will provide money for warning signs and an education campaign about safe driving on U.S. 395. And officials from several cities and three counties, who for years despaired of finding the money to improve the road, pooled their money and came up with $10 million, which along with a $4-million commitment from Caltrans will be enough to begin environmental studies on proposed improvements.
Deborah Barmack, director of management services for San Bernardino Associated Governments, said she has been working to fix U.S. 395 since 1990, when she started her job at the regional planning agency.
“Over the last several years, the rate of growth and traffic and development there have resulted in a much higher accident rate, and it’s just horrible,” Barmack said. “We are trying desperately to make improvements.”
When state highway officials set out in 2000 to pinpoint the most dangerous two- and three-lane roads, one of the first to be identified was U.S. 395.
Transportation planners proposed a number of improvements, including shoulders, rumble strips, a median and a plan to widen the road. A few improvements have been finished, including the modernization of a particularly dangerous intersection. But it will cost about $1 billion to do all the work.
Because the area is home to the California desert tortoise, environmental studies alone could take up to seven years, and it could be more than a decade before the project is finished.
The tragedies on U.S. 395 have not been limited to Ridgecrest. People in Adelanto, a rapidly growing community right on the highway, also have had friends and family killed in accidents.
Eric Foster, a 21-year Caltrans employee, moved from North Hollywood to Adelanto 13 years ago to raise his children in the quiet, affordable desert town.
“I’ve seen a lot of accidents,” said Foster, whose job includes helping to clean up accidents on the highway.
So when a police officer knocked on the door and asked, “Does Peggy live here?” Foster said he could almost picture the scene.
Peggy Cowlishaw, Foster’s stepdaughter, was just 18 and newly in love with the son of close family friends. She had died in a head-on crash with a tractor-trailer. Her boyfriend, Nolan Flesher, 19; his brother, Neal, 17; and two other teenagers also were killed.
“I left my home up there to come to a little town to raise my children,” Foster said, “and look what happened.”
In Ridgecrest, the parade of deaths and injuries has affected the way people live, where they go and how they get there.
Nelly Curry, who has lived in Ridgecrest since 1986, used to go south, toward San Bernardino, when she wanted to buy a nice dress or shop in a big retail store.
Now, she heads north out of town and then southwest, toward Palmdale, and shops there. She’d like to find medical care in Palmdale too, but she has a condition that requires the expert intervention available at Loma Linda University Medical Center.
“I had a very close call going to the doctor,” Curry said. “It was at a dip. A pickup truck passed five cars and went up on the sand. I almost cried. I’m afraid to go to San Bernardino.”
H.K. Holland, who has owned a mortuary in Ridgecrest since 1967, has had to reach into his own reservoir of strength more than once to make it through the burials of people he knew well.
“A couple of years ago, we had four in one family, and I personally knew each of them,” he said.
Shortly after Hope’s accident, her mother packed the little girl’s belongings, including her toys and medical supplies, in a Jeep Cherokee and moved to Santee in San Diego County. Now when Harris comes back to visit, she drives the long way around -- through Los Angeles County and down from Palmdale, rather than risk the two-lane portion of U.S. 395.
Denise Irvine Simmons, who grew up in Ridgecrest, already had moved to Orange County when her father died on U.S. 395 about a year ago. Even though her stepmother still lives there, Simmons rarely drives to Ridgecrest anymore. She’s too scared of the road.
“Here’s where my Dad died,” the 40-year-old Simmons said, her tensed hands clutching the steering wheel of a Mazda SUV.
When Simmons and her siblings were teenagers, Clyde Irvine, a scientist at the China Lake weapons station, took pains to teach them how to drive on U.S. 395. Like other Ridgecrest parents, he exhorted his children to drive as close to the right-hand edge of the road as possible -- never mind that this meant violating laws about staying within a lane.
Simmons is driving this way now: On stretches where there is no shoulder, the passenger-side wheels of the SUV ride to the right of the lane, just inches from the gravel that lines the road on both sides.
Her father’s habit of driving to the right, she said, saved her stepmother’s life. The passenger side of the car was almost undamaged.
Simmons points out the window to where five white crosses are planted in the desert ground just off the road. In the time it takes to count them, the SUV swoops down into a dip so steep it takes your stomach out.
A little way down the road, near Adelanto, there is another clutch of crosses, honoring Peggy Cowlishaw and the other teens killed here.
“If they had a cross up here for everybody who died on this road,” Simmons said, “it would look like a cemetery.”