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From Desert to O.C.: 170-Mile Harbinger of Future Commutes


David Letterman's last joke of the night is just a couple of hours old when the alarm clock sounds in Leslie and Gary Smedley's bedroom.

At 3:30 a.m. every weekday, Leslie gets ready for work. In a little more than an hour, she'll be on her way from the narrow gravel and asphalt lanes that make up the high desert settlement of Phelan, just 13 minutes from the ski lifts in Wrightwood, to her job as a phone operator at Pacific Bell in Garden Grove. She spends more than four hours on the road most days, covering 170 miles round trip.

That marathon commute is hardly unusual in sprawling, car-clogged Southern California. Soaring housing prices in coastal areas like Orange County have forced many workers to move to less-pricey inland locales, ushering in an era of ever-longer commutes across the Southland. Others, like the Smedleys, have chosen to take on the long commute so they can enjoy the country life style.

The result has been a shift in the foibles and habits of the motoring public. Long-distance commuters are now leaving home earlier than ever before in their efforts to make it to work on time, transportation experts say. The morning rush hour lasts more than three hours these days, with some freeways reaching gridlock as early as 5:30 a.m., according to California Department of Transportation officials.

Afternoons are even worse, with intense congestion typically clogging the freeways of Orange County from about 2 p.m. to 7 p.m. on workdays.

"It's mind-boggling," said Joe El-Harake, Caltrans's commuter lanes coordinator in Orange County. "People are resorting to getting up early just to get to work on time. Suddenly, they're traveling at awful hours . . . and they're trapped in this situation."

Unfortunately, it doesn't promise to get much better. The number of motorists driving into the region from Riverside and San Bernardino counties, for instance, is expected to explode.

Traffic on the Riverside Freeway, which handles the bulk of the inland motorists surging into the county, has doubled in less than a decade, jumping from 106,000 motorists a day in 1980 to more than 220,000 in 1988. By the year 2010, transportation experts predict, more than 400,000 motorists will be using the freeway each day.

About 80,000 people already commute to Orange County from Los Angeles and another 4,400 from San Diego County, according to federal experts. And more than 300 brave souls meander all the way down from Ventura County to reach jobs in places such as Irvine and Santa Ana.

But few folks travel quite as far as Leslie and Gary Smedley.

Most mornings, Gary gets up with his wife, and both make their killer commute, with him traveling even farther to his construction job in Mission Viejo. But during inclement weather, Gary's jobs are usually postponed until the skies clear, and he gets to sleep in.

On this day, there's a half-foot of snow around the Smedley house--"future mud," as Leslie calls it--with rain in the forecast. Today, Leslie, 36, will be going it alone.

The town of Phelan is surrounded by wide open spaces. There's no mall, and a visit to the beach or Disneyland requires a day's planning. But there is Phelan's Sunshine Market, and when you don't want to drive 20 minutes to Victorville or the local ski areas, you can gaze at the snow-capped peaks through your picture window.

The Smedleys' 2 1/2-acre lot rivals the fourplex they called home in Tustin, which is one of the reasons they moved. "My husband's a farm boy at heart," says Leslie. "And we felt Orange County was just too congested, so we made the move out here. It's rural living, we love it. Our two teen-age boys hate it."

There's a phone in Gary's truck--the family's link to civilization. "My relatives think we're anti-social since we never, as we say, 'go down the hill' into Orange County to see them. But after five days of driving down there, after racking up 850 miles, you just want to relax and enjoy your home."

With clouds filling the night sky, Leslie pulls out her ice scraper and attacks the cold film that covers her windshield. "If you had asked me what an ice scraper was before we moved here, I wouldn't have known what you were talking about."

Her 1985 Olds Cutlass Ciera (which had 124,000 miles, new tires and brakes in mid-January) rolls onto the dirt path that leads to Phelan Road, which is the community's only paved street.

"Twice I've slid on the ice on Phelan Road. I've just turned around and called work to tell them I wasn't going to be in. It was too dangerous."

Occasionally, rabbits and coyotes will peer at her headlights, but on mornings like these, it's just Leslie, her car and her stereo. "I listen to K-EARTH. It's one of the few stations that I can get from home all the way to work."

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