Joe Mathews: Inferior roads further divide California

Traffic flows west on I-80 toward the I-5 interchange in Natomas last August. Joe Mathews says that north-south highways in California are much better than east-west routes.
Traffic flows west on I-80 toward the I-5 interchange in Natomas last August. Joe Mathews says that north-south highways in California are much better than east-west routes. Sacramento Bee file

Do you seek beauty and danger in California, but are unsure where to find it?

Just drive west. Or east.

California is reliably connected from north to south by workhorse routes such as Interstate 5, Highway 99 and U.S. 101, with multiple lanes, center divides and other protections of big modern roads.

But if you want to drive horizontally in this state, from east to west or back, your task will be harder, your risks higher, perhaps on one of the country’s most dangerous interstates – I-80 in the north or I-10 in the south. And if you’re heading inland or to the coast away from the big cities, your only option may be a windy state highway that offers little protection from oncoming traffic.

California’s east-west connections, despite improvements, are narrow, far from numerous and hard to navigate. It’s not merely politics that divides the blue coast from the red inland; it’s our geography, our weather, our Pacific Coast Range and the very roads that are supposed to connect us.

I recently faced California’s east-west challenge in Yreka, in Siskiyou County, inland along the Oregon border.

I needed to go to Crescent City 80 miles west for meetings the next day. But the Klamath National Forest stood between me and the coast. Google Maps said I’d have to drive 150 miles, for at least three hours, to get there.

“You gotta go north and south to go east and west here,” Mark Baird, a leader of the movement to create a new state in the far north of California, told me.

As the locals laid it out, I had three options. I could take the long, California way – south through Redding, over to the Eureka area on Highway 299, before heading back north on 101 to Crescent City. But that could take five hours.

The two other east-west routes required me to go north – into Oregon. The faster route would be a semicircle along I-5 North into Oregon, through Medford, before taking Highway 199 in Grants Pass back to the California coast. But this would require going over the Siskiyou Pass, where it was snowing. The previous night, as I came south over the pass, I had skidded to the side of the road in my rented SUV.

So I chose the most direct option – right through the forest. I got on tiny Highway 96 and headed west along the Klamath River and over the hills. The roads took me back into Oregon, where I connected with Highway 199, the Redwood Highway, with its awe-inspiring trees and views of the Smith River. I arrived at the Pacific in Crescent City nearly four hours after I’d left Yreka, weary from the driving but happy from having seen so much beauty.

That mix of feelings is common to east-west travel, no matter where you are in the state. I experience it most frequently on Highway 152, which I use to cut between I-5 at Los Banos and U.S. 101 at Gilroy on drives between L.A. and the Bay Area. It offers so much – the stark otherworldly blue of the San Luis Reservoir, the Diablo Range, the sweet smell of the garlic fields near Gilroy. But it’s very dangerous near U.S. 101, where you must keep your headlights on to avoid head-on collisions.

These small highways represent a failure for a big state. East-west traffic is increasing, with more people and businesses in the growing inland regions needing to get to the coast. Surely we can find faster, safer ways to help Californians traverse its beautiful east-west divide.

Joe Mathews is California & innovation editor for Zócalo Public Square, for which he writes the Connecting California column.