Angeles Crest Highway — also known as California 2, also known as “the ’Crest” — climbs from the foothills to many wonderful mountain recreational opportunities including hiking, camping, skiing and many others. The snaking highway has also become a popular shortcut for drivers who want to quickly get from the high desert to the Los Angeles basin.
All too often, however, Angeles Crest only leads to tragedy. Last week on April 1, it happened again. At 5:48 in the afternoon, a double-deck, car-carrying truck driven by 43-year-old Marcos Costa of Massachusetts, lost its brakes on the last mile of the infamous mountain road. The big rig gained lethal momentum on the arrow straight, dangerously downhill last stretch of highway. It punched a ruinous path through rush hour traffic, killing two people with the terrible luck to be in the intersection at Foothill and Angeles Crest at that precise moment, and leaving an oily trail of destruction and debris in its wake.
Our son, who now lives thousands of miles away on Oahu, sent an e-mail soon after news reports reached his part of the Pacific. He wrote what I’m sure so many locals, myself included, thought when they heard the tragic news: “It’s scary to think how many times I’ve been in that exact intersection.” Indeed.
Since the latest calamity, I’ve even found myself questioning whether or not I really need to run an errand that takes me through that intersection, particularly with the surfeit of signals regulating traffic in and out of the new Town Center. The few times this past week I’ve waited there at a red light, I caught myself stealing furtive glances at my mirrors watching for careening, oncoming semis. As embarrassed as I was, however, I was also comforted to discover drivers around me doing the same thing.
You can’t avoid the ’Crest if you live here long enough. Over the years, I’ve traveled the length and breadth of the highway too many times to count. In good weather and bad, around rock slides and through snow, on motorcycles and four-by-fours, in sports cars and station wagons.
My dad was an avid backpacker, compelled to hike the dusty trails of local and distant mountains as often as possible. My brothers and I usually went along in body if not always in spirit. Whether we set off for a conditioning hike out of Charlton Flats, or trekked north up the Owens Valley to test our mettle against the granite-covered switchbacks of the Eastern Sierra, a tire-squealing drive along Angeles Crest was an inescapable part of every trip. I memorized each hairpin turn and every possible turnout I might beg my dad to use so I could unload whatever meal I’d foolishly consumed before hitting the road.
I also remember dad explaining to us that the wide, gravel-filled medians in the middle of the long, straight stretch of Angeles Crest were there to stop runaway vehicles and keep them from ever reaching Foothill Boulevard.
I was reminded of my dad’s commentary when I read last September about the tractor-trailer loaded with 78,000 pounds of onions that lost its brakes and plowed through the very same intersection. I wondered why the trucker simply hadn’t used the escape median. But I discovered last week — incredulously — that the great thinkers at Caltrans decided to do away with this safety median a decade ago. I guess some head honcho thought landscaping was much more important than a “truck arrester lane.” That was then.
The good news is that after last week’s tragedy — along with a newly enacted 90-day ban on commercial trucks traveling over Angeles Crest Highway — now Caltrans officials are said to be considering rebuilding the escape median.
I won’t hold my breath, though. After all, when you get bureaucracies and government officials involved in any situation that requires healthy amounts of common sense, inevitably things go downhill fast.
See you ’round town.
JIM CHASE is a freelance writer and longtime Crescenta Valley resident. He can be reached at email@example.com.