[NYT] 3-pack on California Car Culture: The Five, 99, and callboxes

Rohit Khare khare@alumni.caltech.edu
Tue, 7 Jan 2003 00:23:55 -0800

-- did you know The Five wasn't completed until 1971?
-- the origin myth of LA county callboxes?
-- "downtown Merced is a place of hipness-in-waiting"?

Enjoy -- from one Five commuter who knows, it's great meditation=20

(November 15, 2002)
DRIVING; The Dazed and the Bored on I-5

ANYONE who drives Interstate highways knows the numbing effect of mile=20=

after mile of sameness, long stretches where the landmarks are gas=20
stations and the exit signs seem light-years apart. But of all the=20
highways that turn driving to drudgery, the epitome may be California's=20=

Interstate 5.

Officially, I-5 goes from Mexico to Canada, but most Californians think=20=

of it as the pin-straight four-lane section that bisects the arid San=20
Joaquin Valley for the fastest drive between Los Angeles and San=20
Francisco. The Five, as this chunk of road is known, manages to bypass=20=

all of California's stunning scenery and landscapes and instead offers=20=

mile after monotonous mile of parched desert scrub, thirsty-looking=20
garlic and corn crops, and endless power lines and aqueducts=20
paralleling the road.

Yet some Californians can't stay off it.

''It's an unfortunate drive,'' said Ryan Troy, 25, who lives in San=20
Francisco. But once a week he climbs behind the wheel of his Volkswagen=20=

Golf and drives the 380 miles to his music-licensing business in Los=20
Angeles, and a few days later he repacks his bags, guzzling energy=20
drinks, and braces himself for the muscle-stiffening drive back. ''It's=20=

boring and hot, and there are cattle ranches and horrible places along=20=

the way,'' he said.

But it is also fast. The Five, completed in 1971, cut two to three=20
hours off the old eight-hour trip on Highway 101 between California's=20
two largest metropolitan sprawls. As soon as it opened, the Five was=20
busy with truckers and long-distance travelers. And over time, it=20
created something new: the Los Angeles-San Francisco commute.

These commuters are easily located at gas stations and fast-food joints=20=

along the route, and also at Web sites and message boards that cater to=20=

young itinerant professionals.

''The essence of choosing to commute I-5 is that you have to like=20
driving,'' said Steve Leibel, a San Francisco-based contract engineer=20
who drives the road twice weekly to and from work in Los Angeles. And=20
even then, your patience will be taxed.

There are no towns or cities on the main stretch of the Five, unless=20
you count the small fast-food oases that materialize every 50 miles,=20
and no historical sites to stop at. There aren't even any billboards.=20
Trees are an exotic rarity, and the occasional distant dwellings are=20
few and far between. The only notable landmarks are a vegetation-free=20
section of the Tehachapi Mountains that is quickly left behind outside=20=

Los Angeles and an enormous cattle ranch in the middle of the desert=20
that exudes a methane stench for miles. The radio segues into=20
evangelistic stations and cellphone signals fizzle.

Mr. Troy usually relies on a collection of hip-hop and electronica CD's=20=

to keep him awake. Sometimes he also uses mental puzzles. ''It's an=20
interesting tool,'' he said. ''I'll pose a problem -- a relationship=20
problem or something at work -- and have hours to work it out.'' There=20=

is, at least, the luxury of unbroken time for thought.

Other commuters on the Five have their own routines. Some seek=20
intellectual stimulation with audio books and language tapes. A few=20
risk the companionship of strangers in need of rides whom they find=20
through online bulletin boards like www.craigslist.com. Mr. Leibel=20
brings a camera and snaps digital photographs of the road from behind=20
the wheel; he now boasts a vast collection of pictures of odd freeway=20
signs and the rear ends of trucks. Still, he finds the drive so=20
hypnotic, he said, that he recently found he couldn't recall whether he=20=

was driving north or south.

Officially, the speed limit on Interstate 5 is 70 miles an hour: a=20
driver who obeys the law will make it between the two big cities in=20
less than six hours. But most, in their rush to get back to=20
civilization, fly up and down the Five at speeds surpassing 90 miles an=20=

hour, weaving between lumbering trucks. The most reckless brag that=20
they can make it from Los Angeles to San Francisco in four hours, less=20=

time and hassle than it would take to fly, if you count the trips to=20
and from the airports and a lengthy check-in.

''If you're in the fast lane you have to break the speed limit by at=20
least 15 miles an hour if you want to keep up,'' said Kurt Noble, an=20
Internet consultant who, after moving his family to San Francisco,=20
found that the Five made it cheap and easy to maintain his business in=20=

Los Angeles. Mr. Noble has focused dark thoughts on truck drivers who=20
slow down traffic. ''I'd imagine cruel contraptions, like a 12-foot=20
device that could be hung down that would prevent trucks from moving=20
into the fast lane,'' he said.

Between the trucks and the speed demons and the lack of visible highway=20=

patrol officers, I-5 can be a very dangerous highway. All along the=20
road, you can see skid marks from quickly applied brakes and scorched=20
grass from car fires. In the winter, thick fog often triggers huge=20
pileups; in the summer, scorching temperatures cause overheated engines=20=

and blown tires, the remains of which litter the sides of the highway=20
like rubber roadkill.

''It's really easy to go 100 without thinking about it; it's so flat,=20
and so hot, you just space out,'' said Colette Sandstedt, a Los=20
Angeles-based film student who drives home monthly to visit her friends=20=

and family in San Francisco. She has had two nightmare experiences in=20
her old pickup truck on I-5 in the last year; first her engine caught=20
fire; weeks later, she blew a tire.

But her frustrating overnight stay at the Cinderella Motel in tiny=20
Wasco, Calif., did give her a rare chance to meet local people, one of=20=

whom offered her a ride to the next town and a Marxist tract to read.=20
''The culture of the Five is not like either Los Angeles or San=20
Francisco,'' she said. ''There's an other-planetary aspect to it.''

Many sheltered city dwellers would not find this an overstatement. Who=20=

knew that between the California cultures of North and South, there was=20=

a vast expanse of neither where tractors outnumber Jaguars?

At the rest stops, odd characters with suspicious packages look for=20
rides north from Mexico or south from Humboldt County. At the famed=20
In-N-Out Burger in Kettleman City, students from Berkeley meet students=20=

from Los Angeles on Friday nights to smoke marijuana and socialize; if=20=

you're lucky, you can occasionally spot rock bands on tour munching=20
French fries. And during the weekends there are teenagers in hopped-up=20=

cars. ''They drive in huge packs,'' Mr. Troy said, ''six souped-up=20
Integras pack-riding like a motorcycle gang.''

Most regular I-5 commuters seem eventually to adopt a glass-half-full=20
approach. The cheerful Mr. Leibel, for example, pointed out that even=20
if the Five isn't lovely, it does offer a big-picture perspective of=20
the state. ''The California aqueduct brings northern water to the Los=20
Angeles desert,'' he said. ''The endless miles of huge electric towers=20=

remind you of what it really takes for us urban dwellers to plug in our=20=

toaster ovens. A truckload of tomatoes going south is probably to be=20
turned into sauce for pizzas eaten late at night by U.C.L.A. film=20
school students. It's all right there.''

Perhaps it's a version of Stockholm syndrome, in which hostages=20
identify with their kidnappers, but after a while you can grow fond of=20=

the Five.

Last Call May Be Near For Emergency Phones
Californians have coped with earthquakes, fires, the dot-com collapse=20
and rolling energy blackouts. They rarely get rattled about their=20
filthy air. But will they keep so cool when their beloved freeway call=20=

boxes come under assault?

In an experiment being watched across the state, transportation=20
officials here are betting the answer is yes. But they would like to=20
keep the fuss to a minimum to make sure.

''People are sentimental about these things,'' said Linda Lee, an=20
official with the Metropolitan Transportation Commission. ''Once we=20
said we were going to pull them, they said, 'You can't do that!' ''

The commission is set to remove nearly one-third of the 3,500 emergency=20=

call boxes along 1,100 miles of freeways in the San Francisco Bay Area.=20=

It seems many drivers not only enjoy the convenience of driving and=20
talking on their cellphones, they have grown accustomed to breaking=20
down and talking on them as well.

Roadside assistance requests from call boxes have plummeted statewide=20
in recent years, while calls for help from cellphones have surged. In=20
the Bay Area, the number of calls from the roadside boxes has fallen to=20=

80,000 a year from a peak of 200,000. Statewide, the drop has averaged=20=

about 50 percent.

''Technology is just taking over,'' said Ms. Lee, the manager for the=20
Bay Area's call box network. ''If we would start a call box program=20
today, we would take into account that so many people have cellphones.''

The commission plans to remove 1,200 call boxes that are among the=20
least frequently used and to space the remaining boxes farther apart.=20
The thinning out will take about three years and, it is estimated, will=20=

free about $14 million for other emergency roadside programs. More cuts=20=

are likely if use continues to decline.

Simple enough, except that many people, including some with cellphones,=20=

cannot bear the thought of having the boxes removed. The boxes are not=20=

redwood trees, but if drivers were the automotive equivalent of=20
conservationists, officials like Ms. Lee would be cast as the=20

''There is just a feeling of being out of control,'' said Elaine=20
Charkowski, a resident of nearby Santa Cruz who has urged the=20
commission not to carry out its plan. ''People expect the call boxes to=20=

be there. Taking them away is a life hazard. If you are stranded on the=20=

freeway and don't have a cellphone, there are freaks out there.''

A survey last year by officials in San Bernardino County, just east of=20=

Los Angeles where call box use has sharply declined since 1994, found=20
that 86 percent of the respondents deemed it ''very important'' not to=20=

change the emergency network. Yet roughly the same number reported they=20=

had not used a roadside phone in the previous two years -- and many=20
said they picked up their cellphone when stranded.

''We do an annual survey, and that always comes out loud and clear,''=20
said Cheryl Donahue, a spokeswoman for San Bernardino Associated=20
Governments. ''We ask a lot of questions about transportation and=20
quality of life, and support for the call boxes comes in higher than=20

Ms. Lee said part of the quandary for officials is in the telling. ''A=20=

lot of people don't really notice they are there,'' she said. ''If we=20
just pulled them and did not make it public, they probably would not=20

Yet in a state where driving is as much passion as necessity, the=20
distinctive yellow telephones have a loyal following. The phones have=20
been a fixture in some areas since the early 1960's, when, as local=20
political lore has it, a Los Angeles politician rescued a young mother=20=

with a broken-down car trying to run across the Pasadena Freeway. The=20
politician, Kenneth Hahn, father of the current Los Angeles mayor, made=20=

it a mission to equip the county's freeways with emergency phones. The=20=

county's call box system is the largest in the state and still bears=20
his name.

Forty years later, there are about 17,000 call boxes statewide, more=20
than in the other 49 states combined. Most of them were installed after=20=

state legislators in the 1980's authorized a $1 surcharge on vehicle=20
registrations to pay for them.

The boxes have become a familiar and welcome feature on the driving=20
landscape -- whether an occasional steel alternative to a yucca tree in=20=

the Mojave Desert or a towering mile marker on congested freeways here=20=

in Oakland. They have appeared in photographs and paintings, motoring=20
guides and travel literature -- and have even been credited with saving=20=

the life of Oscar De La Hoya, the boxer.

Mr. De La Hoya was driving on a freeway near Los Angeles in 1997 when=20
his car stalled and the steering wheel locked. He found he had=20
forgotten his cellphone, and seconds after jumping from the car to=20
search for a call box, a truck crushed his car. If he had stayed in the=20=

car and used a cellphone, he said later, he would have been killed.

Such rare but compelling testimony makes it tougher for public=20
officials to make the case for removing the boxes. The Bay Area is=20
alone in announcing its intentions to substantially reduce its network,=20=

but transportation officials elsewhere in the state acknowledge it is=20
only a matter of time before other roadside phones begin disappearing.

''Is it the best use of public dollars to have all of these call boxes=20=

out there when the demonstrated need for them, based on the number of=20
calls, is going down?'' asked Byron Lee, the director of highway=20
operations support at the Los Angeles County Service Authority for=20
Freeway Emergencies.

So far, the trend has not extended outside California, mainly because=20
no other state has such a large network. Sebastian E. Gutierrez, a vice=20=

president at Comarco Wireless Technologies, a major call box supplier=20
in Irvine, Calif., said he continued to receive orders from around the=20=

country and abroad.

''This is certainly not what I consider a high growth business,'' Mr.=20
Gutierrez said. ''But with the whole Sept. 11 thing, we are going to=20
see applications I haven't yet imagined. We have noticed demand for=20
security systems for parking lots, airports and border crossings.''

As they prepare to remove the boxes here, transportation officials are=20=

studying how to fill the gaps. One idea is to distribute free=20
cellphones, programmed only with an emergency number, to drivers who=20
cannot afford their own phone. Another is to increase the number of tow=20=

trucks that patrol the freeways looking for motorists in distress.=20
Another is to reassure people that the call box system is not going the=20=

way of the horse and buggy.

''We are telling everyone that we would never pull them out completely,=20=

that is just not an option,'' Ms. Lee said. ''We are not saying call=20
boxes are useless.''

(September 9, 2002)=A0

Renewal of Historic Highway 99

AIRMEAD, Calif. =97 Somewhere around the Mammoth Orange, a ramshackle=20
orange-shaped burger stand that is the lone survivor of hundreds that=20
dotted California roadsides in the 1950's, the two faces of Highway 99=20=


There is the wildly unromantic back-alley 99, a blur of cellphone=20
towers, salvage yards, used car lots, strip malls and phosphorescent=20
billboards for personal injury lawyers.

But there is another 99, found fleetingly in places like Selma ("The=20
Raisin Capital of the World"), Fairmead ("Elev: 246") and even rapidly=20=

growing cities like Fresno. It is the 99 of early March, when peach and=20=

almond blossoms burst forth by the thousands on every tree, and of late=20=

September, when it is possible to roll down the windows and smell=20
grapes drying into raisins.

"Not a single peach, raisin or nectarine leaves here without journeying=20=

along Highway 99," said David Mas Masumoto, a writer and organic farmer=20=

who grows peaches and raisin grapes outside Fresno. "It's our conduit,=20=

the Mississippi of the Central Valley in asphalt."

The 250-mile stretch of Highway 99 that slices through about 30=20
communities in eight counties, from just south of Bakersfield to=20
Sacramento, is the main economic and transportation artery for=20
California's agricultural heartland, though its significance has long=20
been obscured by its scabbiness and severe lack of escapist appeal.=20
Route 66 it's not.

Yet this unheralded historic highway, pipeline for migrants and Bay=20
Area commuters as well as almonds, pistachios, grapes, cotton, walnuts,=20=

Roma tomatoes, strawberries and potatoes, may have its moment yet. It=20
is, after all, the Main Street of the Central Valley, where the=20
pastoral landscape is fading, development is spreading with weedlike=20
intensity, and profound demographic and political changes are shifting=20=

the state's balance of power inland.

"Highway 99 is where the population growth is," said Dr. Kevin Starr, a=20=

historian and the state librarian. "It's the spine of the next=20

This impending transformation has mayors, former mayors, civic leaders,=20=

business owners, people at nonprofit groups and assorted interested=20
residents rethinking a highway that many had never given much thought=20
to before.

It is a road that inspires a singular passion among some residents.

"It's fittingly ugly," said C. G. Hanzlicek, a Fresno poet (yes, there=20=

is a Fresno school of poetry). "It's a thunka thunka thunka highway, a=20=

working-class highway. It should be a little rough and tumble. It fits=20=

the severity of the landscape. Even the shoulders are grim."

The California state transportation authority, or Caltrans, is planning=20=

to smooth the rough edges with $1.2 billion in improvements for 99,=20
perhaps best known for the notorious winter fog that envelops it.

What remains of the highway's distinctive rural heritage and character,=20=

meanwhile =97 flashes of beauty forming flickering windshield images =
debris =97 is finally being recognized.

This month, Scenic America, a national nonprofit organization in=20
Washington, D.C., that champions distinctive vistas, will designate=20
Highway 99 in the Central Valley one of the country's 10 most=20
endangered landscapes, prompted largely by agricultural land giving way=20=

to Bed Bath and Beyonds.

For the same reasons, the Great Valley Center, a nonprofit research=20
organization in Modesto, is spearheading new efforts to spruce up 99,=20
including erecting roadside signs identifying crops and drafting model=20=

ordinances to control billboards.

The center is being joined in Fresno County by the Association for the=20=

Beautification of 99, a group of four cities along a 32-mile stretch of=20=

the highway that have banded together to create a zoning district.=20
Still being planned, the district would require businesses to pay=20
attention to appearances: erecting walls to block views of junkyards,=20
for example.

Growth has already transformed the Central Valley, which includes some=20=

of the country's most impoverished and environmentally degraded areas.=20=

 =46rom 1996 to 1998, the San Joaquin Valley, the southern part of the=20=

Central Valley, led the state in the conversion of irrigated farmland=20
to urbanization, with eight of the state's top 10 counties experiencing=20=

loss, according to the Great Valley Center.

High housing prices in the San Francisco Bay Area and Los Angeles have=20=

helped to make the San Joaquin Valley, along with Riverside County, the=20=

fastest-growing region of California, the latest census shows. By 2020,=20=

it is projected to grow by 52 percent, to five million, most of it=20
along the Highway 99 corridor.

Andrew Arnold, 40, sees the changes firsthand as he commutes from his=20
Mediterranean-style house with a pool in Canterbury, a new subdivision=20=

on former vineyards in Turlock, to his job as a manager for a division=20=

of John Deere in Lathrop, an 80-mile round trip. "You see the ebb and=20
flow of agriculture, the farmers' decisions to sell, the shopping=20
centers in almond orchards," said Mr. Arnold, who grew up in Modesto.=20
"There's a dynamic that gets played out almost daily as you drive."

The Central Valley's newfound status comes with a steep price: Many=20
Valley towns have chronic housing shortages. Persistent double-digit=20
unemployment reflects the seasonal nature of farm labor. The Valley now=20=

rivals Los Angeles for the worst air quality in the nation, in addition=20=

to pesticide-contaminated rivers, streams and drainage canals, waste=20
runoff from dairies and feedlots, and vanishing wetlands, including=20
vernal pools at the base of the Sierras that are considered critical=20
plant and animal habitats.

Nevertheless, those seeking the authentic soul of California could do=20
worse than to pull off 99 at Selma, where this year's raisin glut=20
seemed to fill the fragrant loaves at Dino's Bakery, or Kingsburg,=20
founded by Swedish immigrants in the late 1800's, where breakfast=20
includes Swedish pancakes with lingonberry sauce and shoppers are=20
serenaded by Swedish music.

Nowhere is the "next" California more anticipated by some than in=20
Merced County, where nearly 22 percent of families live below the=20
poverty level, and winter unemployment is 11 percent to 18 percent. In=20=

the fall, ground was broken for the 10th campus of the University of=20
California, the first since 1965, scheduled to open in 2004 with an=20
eventual enrollment of 25,000. Today, downtown Merced is a place of=20
hipness-in-waiting, where immigrants push ice cream carts past=20
somnolent storefronts while a new Internet cafe serves an espresso=20
drink called "the Hway 99."

The present-day highway, which bears about 50 percent more traffic than=20=

Interstate 5 and carries about 24,000 trucks a day, parallels and has=20
subsumed portions of the original 99, a 20-foot-wide strip of pavement=20=

that connected small towns like Earlimart, Pixley, Tipton and Tulare.=20
The towns were established in the late 19th century along the tracks of=20=

Central Pacific railroad.

The current highway, which still has fearsome cross-traffic in places,=20=

was built in stages from 1955 to 1997. The bright promise of postwar=20
California is embodied in the spherical, now embattled Mammoth Orange =97=20=

not to be confused with the vanished Giant Orange or Whoa-Boy Orange =97=20=

the last relic of the era when motorists parched from long drives with=20=

no air-conditioning could stop for burgers and fresh-squeezed orange=20
juice every 22 miles.

The Orange is in limbo, its highway access threatened by a proposed=20
interchange. The "plight of the Orange" has been the subject of=20
impassioned editorials in The Fresno Bee, and Representative George P.=20=

Radanovich has taken up its cause as a cultural landmark.

"It's beat up," said Doris Stiggins, the Orange's owner. "It's old. And=20=

people love it."

And so it is with Highway 99. A coalition led by Carol Whiteside, the=20
former mayor of Modesto and president of the Great Valley Center, has=20
formed to protect open space, control blight and lobby for federal=20
highway scenic enhancement money.

Among the 99ers is Pete Bakker, a Modesto businessman, who became so=20
disgusted with highway litter that he took a dump truck full of fliers=20=

plucked from 99 and elsewhere and dumped it at City Hall. He is=20
financing a new $250,000 "Welcome to Modesto" arch for the freeway=20
off-ramp. "We look like a hickville, to put it bluntly," Mr. Bakker=20
said, echoing the grand tradition of highway boosters past.

Ms. Whiteside said one goal was to influence Caltrans' master plan to=20
take into account the regions' nuances; for instance, "getting Caltrans=20=

to open up vistas so that when you cross a bridge you can actually see=20=

a river." Kiosks for travelers and roadside farmers markets are also=20
being discussed.

"People don't value what they're sitting in the middle of," she said.=20
"Paying attention will cause some things to change.'

A Toll Road in California Offers A High-Tech Answer to Traffic=20
=A0(January 2, 1996)=