Thursday, May 3, 2012

The Mojave Desert - Where the Pearblossom Highway and the Palmdale Road are One & The Same



San Gabriel Mountains, looking south from the Pearblossom Highway, CA-138E - Click for larger image (http://jamesmcgillis.com)

The Mojave Desert - Where the Pearblossom Highway and the Palmdale Road are One & The Same

In mid April 2012, I began a trip from Simi Valley, California to Moab, Utah, which is a distance of 745 miles. My plan was to stay overnight at the halfway point, in Mesquite, Nevada. The following day, I would drive the remainder, arriving in Moab before dark. I planned to take the Pearblossom Highway (CA-138E/CA18E) as a shortcut north of the Los Angeles basin. By doing so, I would save a few miles and avoid an ascent of treacherous Cajon Pass on Interstate I-15.

Clouds surmount the snowy slopes of the San Gabriel Mountains near Wrightwood, California, as seen from Pearblossom Highway, CA-138E - Click for larger image (http://jamesmcgillis.com)For the uninitiated, the Pearblossom Highway can be an enigma. Whether you start your drive near Palmdale, heading east or from Victorville heading west, there are anomalies. The unincorporated town of Pearblossom is less than half way from Palmdale to Victorville. Even so, “Pearblossom Highway” long ago became its accepted name. At its I-15 off-ramp in Victorville, road signs identify the same highway as the “Palmdale Road”.

Why have different names for the same highway, depending on your direction of travel? The simple answer is that the highway changes numbers mid desert. To make things more confusing, the western end of CA-18 is at that same “Y” intersection in the Mojave Desert. From that obscure and desolate intersection, CA-138E becomes the Antelope Highway, bearing southeast, while CA-18E continues in an eastbound beeline to Victorville.

The Pearblossom Highway crosses numerous dry watercourses and alluvial fans in the Mojave Desert - Click for larger image (http://jamesmcgillis.com)Ironically, the two highways meet again at the eastward terminus of CA-138 near Crestline. Adding to the confusion is the fact that CA-18 shares pavement with I-15 through the City of Victorville. With so many names and numbers to deal with, I can understand why CALTRANS opted for the name “Palmdale Road”. Palmdale is a far-flung destination to which westbound travelers might relate.

Calling the westbound road the Pearblossom Highway implies that the road might end in that high desert town. In an effort to bypass much of the Los Angeles metropolitan area, would you take a misnamed two-lane road into the Mojave Desert? If identified as the “Victorville Highway”, the route might attract more motorists and more confidence in its eastern terminus.

Despite my Pearblossom Highway route being shorter and faster than other alternatives, both Google Maps and my Magellan GPS failed to utilize it. Most map databases assume that motorists would rather take a freeway than to save time and distance. I wonder how much time and fuel we might all save if routing software recognized the Pearblossom Highway/Palmdale Road as a legitimate shortcut. Perhaps it is the local moniker, "Deathtrap Highway" that keeps Google and Magellan from recommending it.

May 2010 photo of Interstate I-15 South on-ramp, where it runs contiguous with Highway CA-18 in Victorville, California - Click for larger image (http://jamesmcgillis.com)For years, the Pearblossom Highway name, with its nostalgia and small town feel, had baffled me. Having made repeated trips through over I-15 and the Cajon Pass, I finally decided to try “the old road” on during a recent transit. At that time, I was not familiar with the road signs along I-15. Nor did I understand the on-again, off-again nature of CA-18 and CA-138. Consequently, my first attempt resulted in a great circle route back to Barstow on Old-66. A week later, I viewed a GM OnStar TV commercial in which a young couple’s unseen advisor safely directs them back to the elusive Pearblossom Highway