September 2, 2011: If getting though Cajon Pass and up to the California high desert is a challenge on the average Friday; you can imagine how much more of a challenge the trip is on the last three-day weekend of the summer. Any traffic going northwards towards Vegas, Death Valley, or Lake Havasu must snake its way up and through Cajon Pass.
My final destination was Needles, CA, a tiny town of 2,500 on the Colorado River and known for outrageously high fuel prices, well above the statewide average and significantly expensive enough to cause its California drivers to cross the bridge into Arizona for a fill-up. Yes, I was going to Needles for a purpose, though not for riding the river, the primary reason people head out that way. I was going to Needles to do some research on whether Les Paul’s story about playing in Needles, in the mid-1940’s was true. I had no luck.
I estimated the trip from my office in CIO (City of Industry) to Needles to be about 4 hours if traffic was near perfect. To try and get that “near perfect traffic” and make the trip through the pass quickly, I left the office early, around 2PM.
I crawled through the normally busy, but short CA57/CA60 merge right at the start of the trip. Once the highways split again, the cruise up the 57 was quick and the cruise east on the 210 even quicker. Finally, I easily made the transition over the 210 and onto the 15 north. So far, every notorious Riverside and San Bernardino Counties’ traffic choke point was pretty clean. That brought a smile.
But, something had to happen and boy did it.
That something happened to start somewhere around Lytle Creek and DeVore, where the traffic came to a stop; a full stop.
Around here, 15 begins snaking upwards through the pass. There are yellow warning signs about shutting off your a/c and watching your temperature gauge. Overheating can be common in this area. Also in this area, due to the pass’ S-curves, it can be hard to see more than a few hundred feet in front of you. So, when I saw a big plume of smoke, it was hard to judge where the smoke was coming from. I took a wild guess – car fire.
The crawl up and through the pass was stop and go, with substantially more stopping than going. An abnormally high number of cars were off to the shoulder smoldering steam as well as a few more than usual rear-enders blocking the center lanes.
After an hour sitting there, I called home to whine to my wife about the traffic. My wife told me that the fire was a wildfire that was all over the local news and that 15 in both directions through the pass was closed. With that, I noticed the electronic traffic sign said 15 was closed at the 138 exit up ahead. However, the traffic was still moving enough to make me doubt the warning.
And I was right, the northbound traffic continued slowly passed the 138 (Wrightwood/Silverwood Lake) exit, with no sight of the source of the smoke (which seemed to be going side to side due to the curves in the road). I quickly contemplated but wrote off the idea of exiting the 15 and bypassing the traffic by taking Cleghorn Road, the dirt tract across the top of Cleghorn Mountain that drops down around Silverwood Lake. However, I did not know if the fire was up that way. It was around the Cleghorn Road and 138 Exits, I first noticed the fire helicopters and forest service planes circling round.
Nearing Cajon Summit (4000 ft), thick and smelly ash appeared in the roadway, but was passable. The roadside shoulders were scorched and smoldering. This is where I would find out later, what had been named the “Hill Fire” began before heading up the southbound lanes of the 15. It would be reported that 27 fire crews using 64 fire engines and 7 helicopters were carrying hoses up to the southbound lanes, which were completely closed. In this area, the northbound and southbound layers split, with the southbound lanes taking the high route.
It was about 2 hours from the original slow down at Lytle Creek and DeVore until northbound traffic started picking up, somewhere near the 395 split in Hesperia. Eighteen miles in 2 hours. The southbound lanes remained completely closed until near Victorville, with people stuck sitting in their cars on a highway blocked by heavy trucks and the CHP. As the northbound traffic completely opened up, I upped the volume on some heavy metal and drummed on the steering wheel to get back into the driving groove.
Now moving, in no time, I was in Barstow, not thinking to take the chance to exit the highway and try to look back on and photograph the fire. However, from the Barstow gas pumps, I could see the smoke from the fire moving to the north-east.
Barstow to Needles is a long dreary 143 miles across the Mojave Desert. Its not one of those drives that you want to do. It is one of those drives you have to do to get where you are going. If it is dreary during the day, you can image doing the ride in the evening. It can be one of those roads where you are seeing the same persons over and over as you pass each other as each stop for gas or the restroom. It reminds me of a family drive through Georgia and Florida on I-95 towards south Florida we took when growing up.
On 40E, the fun began, as the sun started setting and coloring the sky. The low traffic in the Mojave allowed for easy stop and go picture taking.
On this particular night, or this particular time, the drive was not as dreary as expected as the sun setting in the west and reflected from my rear view mirror motivated me enough to pull over at two separate spots for photos.