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Change in the Fast Lane

ON THE ROAD: Journeys Along Ventura County's Highways

Ventura Freeway: Built in the 1950s, the 101 has helped remake the region, affecting the lives of residents from one end of the county to the other.


It wasn't built for beauty. Just a way to get from one place to another as fast as possible. Although the Ventura Freeway lies over old stagecoach routes and the footprints of mission priests, it was built with speed in mind, not romance.

Constructed in stages during the Eisenhower-inspired building era of the 1950s, the One-Oh-One was meant to funnel travelers painlessly through Ventura County, 44 miles of concrete linking Los Angeles and Santa Barbara counties and nothing more.

But with a little time to explore, the Ventura Freeway serves quite a different function.

It reads like a book, telling the story of Ventura County--past, present and future. It isn't a complete story, but it is a rich one, full of vivid details and plots that change on an almost daily basis.

In 1950, when Caltrans was beginning the vast freeway construction project, the population of Ventura County was just 114,000, and crop fields and orchards spread from the mountains to the ocean across the Oxnard Plain. Over the next four decades, the freeway helped remake the county, bringing the Los Angeles suburbs into the Conejo Valley and introducing bedroom communities and shopping centers to the west county.

Now the freeway opens up the county like the backside of a dollhouse. Revealed is a cross-section of terracotta-capped housing tracts and shopping centers facing off against farmlands and fruit stands.

The California Department of Transportation estimates that an average of 155,000 vehicles cross the Los Angeles County line into Thousand Oaks every day. They drive through Thousand Oaks, where the Santa Monica Mountains heave up to the left of the freeway, and over the Conejo Grade, a summit that both physically and psychologically divides the county. They drive along the Oxnard Plain, drawn by the twin points of the county's two high-rises in Oxnard, and onward, over two rivers and up past the beaches of Ventura into Santa Barbara County.

Entering the county from the south, the first thing most motorists see is a half-mile-long tribute to the horseless carriage itself, the Thousand Oaks Auto Mall. With 40 franchises, it is the world's largest auto mall, a fact trumpeted on a monumental sign facing the freeway.

This size thing is something the auto mall is very proud of.

"We're about to celebrate our 29th birthday," said Jerry Smith, who oversees operations for Nesen Motor Car Co., the mall's luxury car dealer. "We're going to have the world's largest cake." How big that cake has to be to set the record is still under research, Smith says. "We're trying to find out," he said. "It goes in pounds."


Begun in 1967 on a dirt lot between the freeway and Thousand Oaks Boulevard, the auto mall sells cars ranging in price from $8,600--a Geo--to $315,000--a Rolls-Royce. With its freeway visibility, it lures car shoppers from all over Southern California. Like the time a professional golfer on his way to a tournament in Ojai stopped by and just had to have a Land Rover that minute. "We've sold a lot of cars like that," Smith said.

Although the freeway is good for business at the auto mall, it complicates Linda Stone's job just a few miles down the road past the Civic Arts Plaza. Ensconced in a model home at the new, upscale Cortina development, Stone is trying to sell $400,000 homes next to the freeway, with no sound wall between.

"Usually we tell them [prospective buyers], if the freeway is a problem for you, then don't buy," Stone said. While selling, Stone concentrates on the big lots, views of the mountains, the beauty of the Arroyo Conejo below--anything but the noise of the cars humming by her head. A credit to her salesmanship, only five of the 17 homes are still available.

Across the freeway, Stagecoach Liquors owner Jim Barker isn't the slightest bit fazed by the sight of yet another expensive new community pressed up against the traffic. At 55, he is already an old-timer in this young city. When he opened Stagecoach Liquors 31 years ago, there was no offramp at Ventu Park and the freeway was just a highway two lanes wide.

"I knew this end of the county was going to grow," said Barker, a Santa Paula native. "You just buy things and set. Everything builds up around you."

He gave the place its name in a tribute to the Stagecoach Inn, which used to sit there before it was moved up to its current site on Ventu Park Road. Outwardly, the store hasn't changed much over the years--the facade is the same as in the days when Dean Martin would wander over from his Hidden Valley home to pick up a few necessities. The distinctive sign above the door is the original, Styrofoam covered with epoxy. It would be easy to sell out and retire, but Barker says he isn't leaving.

"I've got no reason to get rid of this," Barker said. "They can bury me under it, I guess."

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