The Ortega Highway meanders along an old Indian trail through rural southern Orange County, passing dark green oaks and golden grasslands where mountain lions roam and red-tailed hawks circle. Then it climbs into the Santa Ana Mountains, with sheer rock walls on one side and steep canyon drop-offs on the other.
But this narrow, 44-mile-long serpent of asphalt is no leisurely drive in the country. With sections of it carrying nicknames such as Dead Man's Curve, Ricochet Alley and Blood Alley, California 74 is, by some measures, the most dangerous road in the state.
The 72-year-old stretch of blacktop has become a place where urban sprawl, bad driving and obsolete road-building techniques collide head-on between San Juan Capistrano and Perris.
As one of only two arteries connecting homes in Riverside County with jobs in Orange County, the highway lures more and more commuters every year. They often speed, drift over the center line and pass illegally--sometimes on blind curves--to advance their place in the string of cars, trucks and big rigs.
FOR THE RECORD
Los Angeles Times Friday August 31, 2001 Home Edition Part A Part A Page 2 A2 Desk 1 inches; 24 words Type of Material: Correction
Ortega--A story Aug. 11 on the Ortega Highway misspelled the name of Mike Huber, a motorcyclist killed in 1997 on a dangerous stretch of the road known as Ricochet Alley.
On weekends, the highway takes on another personality. Car clubs and sightseers compete for road space with motorcyclists, many drawn by the kick of leaning into a turn at 100 mph.
The bikers weave in and out of the procession of slower-moving campers, mobile homes and vehicles towing boats to Lake Elsinore. They accelerate on the straightaways and in the S-turns, the roar of their high-powered machines piercing the quiet.
During the 1990s, traffic deaths and injuries rose steadily on the highway. Motorists are now more likely to get into a fatal or injury accident and more likely to be seriously hurt on California 74 than on any similar rural road in California.
Construction worker Richard Brown, 58, says he is in constant fear during his 30-mile commute from Lake Elsinore to south Orange County. "Your life is in danger on that highway, no matter what," says Brown, "even if you're the best driver in the world."
To join Brown and his fellow commuters on the Ortega is to travel a road that swerves sharply between the charms of old California and the perils of the new.
MILE 1 San Juan Capistrano
The highway, named after a Spanish army pathfinder, begins just outside the mission gates in San Juan Capistrano, a town of about 30,000 known more for swallows and Spanish adobes than gridlock. Because of development in south Orange County, the number of motorists using the city's portion of the Ortega has increased tenfold since 1970.
From the mission, the highway crosses a busy interchange with Interstate 5 and cuts through some of the city's residential areas. During rush hour, traffic slows and motorists hunt for a way out in the surrounding neighborhoods, congesting the streets there too.
Joining commuters on the Ortega are scores of garbage haulers and sand-and-gravel trucks going to and from landfills and quarry operations east of the city. The huge vehicles fill the width of the lanes.
"It's a train of headlights going both ways starting at 5:30 a.m.," says Cher Shepherd, 40, of Laguna Hills, who commutes to work at the Nichols Institute, a complex of medical laboratories about 10 miles east of San Juan Capistrano. "The road is not designed to handle the traffic, especially all the semis."
Outside the city limits, the road crosses the vacant tracts of Rancho Mission Viejo, where the planned development of 25,000 acres is expected to put even more pressure on the highway.
Near Ronald W. Caspers Wilderness Park, the Santa Ana Mountains come into view, especially the distinctive contours of Modjeska and Santiago peaks.
The highway is fairly flat and straight through this part of Orange County's back country. Its shoulders are ample in case of emergency, and the speed limit is 55 mph. But motorists often ignore the law.
"See that?" says California Highway Patrol Officer Steve Miles, pointing out an oncoming Toyota pickup truck that has drifted across the double yellow line directly in front of his patrol car. Radar indicates the truck is doing 74 mph. Miles, who regularly patrols the Ortega, turns his Ford Crown Victoria around and chases the pickup.
"We see this kind of thing way too much," he says after stopping the Toyota. "My pet peeve is passing over the double yellow."
That is what happened in June when a carpool van on its way to the Nichols Institute swerved off the highway to avoid an oncoming motorist who was trying to pass another car illegally. The van tumbled down a 15-foot embankment.
The driver, John D. Phelps, 59, who might be permanently paralyzed from the waist down, was hospitalized for more than a month. Four passengers escaped injury. The driver of the other car just kept going.
"It's kind of ironic," says Gary Samuels, a spokesman for the Nichols Institute. "We offered the van pool thinking it would be safer and more convenient for employees. Then a crazy driver runs them off the road."
MILE 14 Ricochet Alley