Fear & Loathing on I-15

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This weekend, I drove to Las Vegas and back again along I-15.  To summarize what that was like, I just have to say … It sucked.  Not the destination, or the reason for the destination, the drive.

People have romanticized Route 66 for all its quirky old fashion road trip experience.  Yet if some other stretch of road had seen its own spotlight in other works, it has to be I-15 between Los Angeles and Las Vegas.  At least, I can name two such stories.  Most famously would be Hunter S Thompson’s trip (pun intended) to the titled city in Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas.  The first line states:

We were somewhere around Barstow, on the edge of the desert, when the drugs began to take hold.

Now, you would never get me to recommend loading up on anything while driving that road or any road – let alone the mass quantities he and his lawyer took.  Yet it sets an image, doesn’t it?

The other thing that this stretch of the road pulled me in on was the movie Swingers, where two guys excited to get away hop in a car in Los Angeles and keep repeating “Vegas, baby, Vegas”.  They hit the road, excited for all the crazy that is ahead of them.  They flash forward, and a couple hours in that drive with way more still to come, their tried faces try to flash to life and say again, “Vegas, baby, Vegas.”

In theory, I-15 in that stretch shouldn’t be that big of a deal.  It’s a long desert highway with stretches weaving through the high and low deserts of Eastern California and Southern Nevada.   Heading towards Vegas, the road switches from Northwest to West to North finding the routes through the mountain passes as it rises up from near sea level to nearly 5000 feet.   The road sees a fair bit of heavy truck traffic, being the main route from Southern California to the mid-Rockies and areas beyond.  A vast majority of non-commercial traffic is the ‘Vegas, baby, Vegas’ crowd.  Especially over the weekend, like I did, there is a mass exodus out of Los Angeles to Las Vegas on Fridays to spend the weekend – then that same exodus runs on Sunday.

The road is far from uninteresting.  Any stretch of road with little vegetation and changing altitudes is at least interesting.  In part, it’s helped by its remote nature and the LA to Vegas traffic.  From where it leaves the LA Basin near San Bernadino, to where it enters the Las Vegas plateau; there really is only a half dozen places to stop over the 200+ miles.  Victorville is the biggest, but it’s essentially just over the hill from LA.  Barstow is that spot just a little too close to the beginning or ending to stop – but your options get thin after that.  Baker is that annoying town in the middle, where the gas sniffs at $5/gallon, and all the fast food joints are run down.  Primm is just across the Nevada border, so of course, it has casinos.  Crazy looking ones too, like they have roller coasters going through them.  Interesting yes, but you can guess what remote casinos are like on the inside.  The route is beautiful too, at least if you are into desert mountain landscapes.  The valley Baker is in is the start of Death Valley so it can be cool to see the salt flats there.  Plus you get to drive by the Ivanpah Solar Electric Generating System – which is a vast area covered in mirrors pointing the sun’s light at three boilers that glow white.  These things are surreal, and it’s hard to look away from them, but it just adds to what you can see.

So, why does this stretch of road suck?  Well … people.

One of the things I hate about driving up in Wisconsin is that there are lots of people up there that see the left lane as the only lane worth driving in.  Think like that … but with Californian egos.  Especially on my Friday drive, the road was filling up with people who would not leave the left lane.  Not that they weren’t going slow, but they inhibited the flow of the entire traffic.  Sure, there were semis and slower cars in the right lanes, but in comparison they were rare.  At one point yesterday on my return drive, I was in the right lane running a (how do I say this without admitting violating a speed limit) safe speed for the traffic.  I had a semi about a quarter mile ahead and another three-quarter of a mile behind me.  No cars were between me and the two semis.  I was at or just above the speed of the left lane.  Yet in that same stretch between those two semis, I counted 23 cars, lined up all in a row, not moving up or moving back.  Anyone who wanted to travel faster, they had to pass on the right.  This is what causes chaos then.  In fact, at times when there are three lanes of traffic (usually the rightmost designated as a ‘slow vehicle lane’), the lane speeds would be opposite of what you would think.  Slowest on the left, moving well in the middle, and occasionally someone gunning it on the right to pass.  What this means is that you get random slowdowns, inconsistent flow, and dangerous situations when cars that don’t belong in a lane are in a lane they don’t belong in.  It’s stupid, absolutely stupid.

I want to say that this is because the folks from SoCal are so used to massive lanes of traffic that no one learns how to drive a two-lane road.  I think like that, but that just pisses me off more.

Okay, it’s not always the people.  Much of that stretch is two-lanes, yet it backs up a lot.  It’s known for being a parking lot around the weekends.  However, there is nothing stopping the expansion.  Honestly, there is space between the two directions to add two lanes each right now.  I mean, it probably would end up with a billion cars on the leftmost lane with three lanes to pass on the right, but still, space is space.

So as I was talking to someone I was working with on Saturday, a conclusion came.  He’s from Long Beach and pointed out it’s an hour flight to Vegas without the hassles of driving.  So I asked myself … why the hell did I drive?

I don’t know.  Maybe I just needed to let the drugs kick in.

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