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The Road They All Dread

Scenic, two-lane Highway 395 cuts a deadly path through the Mojave Desert. Many residents of Ridgecrest know it all too well.

August 04, 2004|Sharon Bernstein | Times Staff Writer

RIDGECREST, Calif. — Travis Johnson put his 2-year-old daughter, Hope, into her car seat and sat down next to her in the back of the Toyota. His friend Patrick Cole was at the wheel, and another friend, Amber Courtney, was in the passenger seat.

The Mojave Desert sun was just starting its ascent as the car carrying the baby and the three friends -- all from Ridgecrest -- turned south on U.S. Highway 395 on a Sunday last August, heading to a motorcycle show.

An hour later, 23-year-old Cole was dead, thrown from the car when it was broadsided by a motor home filled with vacationers. Courtney, 19, also was dead. Johnson, 20, was in critical condition, with severe head trauma.

Paramedics found Hope still strapped into the baby seat, barely alive. Her skull had been wrenched from her spine by the force of the collision.

For weeks, Hope lay in a morphine-induced coma at Loma Linda University Medical Center near San Bernardino.

People in her hometown grieved. But nobody was surprised.

Since 1992, the earliest year for which the state has records, there have been more than 2,000 crashes on the 90-mile stretch of 395 that runs north from Interstate 15 to the turnoff for Ridgecrest.

More than 1,500 people have been injured on the two-lane highway, and about 150 have died. Three teenagers were killed just last weekend, when their car collided with a truck hauling two trailers at an intersection in Hesperia.

"When I got the phone call about Hope, and they said it happened on 395, I thought, 'Of course,' " said Jackie Harris, Hope's mother. By the time she graduated from high school, Harris already had lost her godmother and two friends in accidents on U.S. 395.

The road through this part of the Mojave is scenic. Dotted with Joshua trees and framed in places by nubby, blue-brown hills, it is listed on registries of beautiful drives in California.

But it is treacherous.

It winds swiftly uphill and plunges downhill again, running like a roller coaster over blind dips that locals call "whoop-de-dos." On some stretches, there is little or no shoulder.

The toll of injury and death on U.S. 395 has touched many in Ridgecrest, a town of 25,000 that grew up to serve the nearby China Lake Naval Air Weapons Station, and tinges the most ordinary activities with anxiety.

Parents worry about every out-of-town field trip and football game. They teach their teenagers to drive hugging the right-hand side of the road to avoid swerving cars and trucks. Some residents refuse to drive on U.S. 395 at all, traveling miles out of their way to shop or visit relatives.

For many in Ridgecrest, the sweet, soft face of Hope Johnson, now 3, has come to symbolize the critical importance of improving U.S. 395.

A year after the towheaded toddler's accident, Hope's bright blue eyes can still see, but her brain has difficulty processing the images. After months of immobility, she is beginning to try to stand, but she can't yet walk.

Her mother and stepfather work with her every day, moving her limbs and plying her with kisses when she smiles or laughs or tries to do something new.

With proper medical care, her doctors say, Hope may be able to regain 85% of her abilities.

Darla Baker, Hope's step-grandmother, is an editor at the town newspaper, the Ridgecrest Daily Independent, which has published five articles on the little girl since the collision.

Baker wrote some of the stories herself, describing Hope's recovery in an intimate, folksy style.

In this small city, the story of the girl whose life was forever altered has been something of a wake-up call.

"Hope's accident changed my life," Baker said. "I decided it was time for something to happen."

When a reporter visited recently to talk about U.S. 395, Baker put a notice in the Daily Independent, and more than two dozen people came to City Hall. One couple, who had moved, drove more than two hours to talk about the loved ones they had lost.

It was a bleak accounting:

Police Chief Michael Avery lost his 22-year-old son, David Ozanne.

Sharon Hartley lost her mother, Billie Van Der Pool.

The local newspaper lost its chief news editor, Jill Andaloza, and its page designer, Will Higgen.

Deputy Mayor Richard "Duke" Martin has lost so many friends that he lists them by the decade.

"In the 1970s, I lost Bert French, the owner of French's Liquor Store," he said. "In the 1980s, I lost Paul Nelson, a high school classmate. In the 1990s, I lost Mr. and Mrs. Dick Johnson. In the 2000s, I lost two friends, Bill Cunningham and Clyde Irvine."

U.S. 395 is not the most dangerous road in California. That dubious honor goes to a section of Angeles Crest Highway in Los Angeles County. But it is one of just 12 narrow, older roads identified in 2000 by state transportation planners as dangerous and in need of improvement.

Like other rural routes, it was built as a two-lane link between small towns. Now it carries an average of 15,800 vehicles per day -- more than twice as many as 20 years ago, and is an increasingly important trucking route.

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