I-5 travelers describe long waits in the snow

Southern California began 2011 with a traffic jam for the record books, as a powerful snowstorm stranded and stymied thousands trying to get between Northern and Southern California at the end of a long holiday weekend.

Some motorists said drives that normally took four hours lasted 12 hours or longer as they inched through blinding snow, gridlocked roads and slippery black ice as well as a succession of accidents and stalled cars.

And they were the lucky ones.

Southern California’s two key passes — the Cajon along Interstate 15 and the Tejon along Interstate 5 — were totally blocked for long stretches, forcing motorists to seek shelter in roadside motels, fast-food parking lots and even on the sides of some ice-covered roads.


“If you don’t know your street, you can’t tell where you’re going,” said Miriam Arreola, manager of the Hilton Garden Inn in Palmdale, which went from 10% to 70% filled by Monday morning. “You can get lost in the whiteness of the snow.”

Kirk and Linda Urata were stranded at the hotel with their 12-year-old daughter, Claire, after dropping off an older daughter at UC San Diego and heading back home to Bakersfield.

Stopping for coffee and a bathroom break at a Denny’s in Mojave at 1:30 a.m. Monday, they decided to continue on. But bumper-to-bumper traffic and snowy roads forced them to get off Highway 14 and backtrack to the Hilton.

Kirk Urata, a high school teacher, e-mailed his lesson plan at 4 a.m. for the substitute teacher.

“It’s been friendly,” Linda Urata said of their encounters with other travelers. “Everybody’s been chatting and telling their stories. We just keep saying it’s an adventure.”

And Claire was happy to miss her first day back to school after winter vacation.

The situation was worse on I-5, which was closed from Sunday afternoon to just before noon Monday.

UCLA student Nicole Haworth, 18, of Danville in the Bay Area gave up on making her first day of class and decided to decamp Sunday night at Harris Ranch in the Central Valley.

“Hundreds of cars were backed up,” said Haworth, saying traffic was so bad approaching the Grapevine that she turned around and headed back north to a hotel. “This is crazy.”

All 51 rooms at the Castaic Inn just off I-5 had been filled since 5 p.m. Sunday — as were many parking lots and side streets along the freeway.

Michael and Jennifer Prince said they decided to stop at the hotel Sunday on their way home from San Diego because they did not want to risk driving on the icy roads at night with their 4-year-old son, Jack. They were trying to get back to Bakersfield, where they manage a theater, but weren’t confident they would be home Monday night.

“We booked another night just to be safe,” Michael Prince said.

Juan Estrada had been stopped on the northbound roadside with his family since 7 a.m. after spending the holidays with his brother in Pasadena. They were trying to make it back to Watsonville. Estrada, who works for a surfboard manufacturer, said he had already called his boss to say he would not be there Monday.

“It’s going to be a long day,” he said, standing outside his car in a ski cap and down jacket. He was chatting with Raymond Lora, who was on his way to visit his daughter in Tacoma, Wash.

Lora said he had made it to Southern California from Florida in three days but was then delayed by Sunday’s storm. Like Estrada, he was determined to wait until I-5 reopened Monday morning.

“If I turn around, I’ll just get lost,” he said. “And I still have a long way to go.”

The mood in the Grapevine lifted when the California Highway Patrol announced that cars would be allowed back onto I-5 with escorts.

But the National Weather Service warned that mountain and pass road conditions would remain potentially dangerous through Tuesday, with the snow level dropping to as low as 1,000 feet. Parts of the Santa Clarita Valley had up to 4 inches of snow. Flurries were also reported on the Las Vegas Strip.

By Tuesday, sunny conditions should return, and the rest of the week will see gradually rising temperatures.

Some motorists grumbled about what they said was a lack of information from authorities about which roads were open. The Uratas said Caltrans’ 800 line was not providing updated information.

Caltrans officials said I-5 was closed mainly because of ice on the road rather than large accumulations of snow. A dozen plow trucks were deployed, dumping 2,500 gallons of a biodegradable liquid chemical, Ice Slicer, as well as 1,000 tons of crushed sand and cinder or crushed volcanic rock.

Caltrans spokeswoman Maria Raptis said the CHP decided when to reopen the interstate based not just on road conditions but on how officials thought drivers would fare.

Southern California drivers “are not used to these conditions,” Raptis said.

True enough.

When sound engineer Bryan Cook left Mammoth for Los Angeles with his wife and their dog, Peacha, about midafternoon, they were expecting a typical five-hour commute even as a light snow fell around them.

Along Route 203, speeds averaged about 35 mph, and after the turn onto the 395 Freeway, they removed the chains from their tires. “It was all was pretty normal until we got south of Lone Pine,” Cook said. “Then it turned awful.”

The traffic slowed as weather worsened. They stopped at a gas station in Mojave, where the wait for a bathroom was half an hour.

But by the time they reached the 14 Freeway, a series of accidents had led the CHP to stop traffic for half an hour. The snow was falling heavily by then, and some took the opportunity to park on the 14 Freeway and mill around. At least one person made a snow angel.

Cook and his wife pushed forward. From the freeway, they could see lines of cars in the drive-through of a McDonald’s in Acton.

“Everyone was on the same page of desperation,” Cook said. “They were at their wits’ end and needed a break. They had the basic need to eat” and they didn’t know when their next meal might come.

Near I-5, around Canyon Country, traffic let up. Cook and his wife got to their Eagle Rock home at 2 a.m. — after 11 hours on the road.

Despite the traffic, Cook said it was worth the wait.

“We ski a lot and this was one of the finest days we’ve had. It was up there with anything. I think it was worth it.”

Times staff writers Robert J. Lopez in Harris Ranch and Shan Li in Los Angeles contributed to this report.