Car talk: Caltrans Collects Comments to Improve a High Desert Highway

Highway 395 runs along California’s eastern side—a backbone highway figuratively—and a lonely one, too. Not as lonely as Nevada’s Highway 50—the so-called “Loneliest Road in America,” but Highway 395 travels a route through country that is high desert and scrub, shuttered towns and isolated cattle ranches with those sweeping, circular wheel lines that water the heck out of alfalfa fields.

Highway 395

It actually slices through four states—California, Nevada, Oregon and Washington—serving as a route for goods movement, commuters and vacationers: some 1,300 miles that can be traversed at highway speeds in 23 hours.

At night—especially warm summer evenings when the stars are out full-bore—you can have that all-American road-trip experience: windows down, freedom flying in your hair. Unless you’re listening to Coast-to-Coast AM radio show with George Noory. Then the dark side emerges: You suddenly realize—the highway is great place for an alien abduction.

The old railroad water tank in Madeline on Highway 395 is a landmark for travelers. Photo by Hal Silliman.

The old railroad water tank in Madeline on Highway 395 is a landmark for travelers. Photo by Hal Silliman.

In the northern part of California’s Outback, Highway 395 runs 203 miles, through Lassen and Modoc counties and a snippet of Sierra County. The state highway office is now studying the route to create a 20-year plan to make improvements. Caltrans District 2 officials are currently holding workshops—four are planned—in cities along the road—seeking citizens’ comments.

Two Caltrans transportation planners, Trina Blanchette and Laura Rose, were recently dispatched to Alturas for one of the workshops, held in the city council chambers that had been decorated with aerial images of sections of Highway 395. To loosen tongues, the duo also brought a pan of homemade brownies for folks to munch on.

The workshop attended by 15 local residents—including elected and agency officials—was chockfull of happily-relayed comments as the group studied the road, north from near Susanville to New Pine Creek, at the California-Oregon border. In the workshop, three basic questions were asked: What works well? What works not-so-well? How can it be improved?

As Blanchette said, “We want to hear your ideas about the route—since you travel it a lot.”

A windmill south of Madeline on Highway 395 reminds motorists that agriculture still thrives in the high desert. Photo by Hal Silliman.

A windmill south of Madeline on Highway 395 reminds motorists that agriculture still thrives in the high desert. Photo by Hal Silliman.

After collecting public comments and doing other information gathering and analysis, Blanchette said Caltrans plans to issue a final “transportation concept report” in December.

“We’ll identify potential improvements to make along the route,” she said.

Between Susanville and New Pine Creek, Highway 395 more or less parallels the old Nevada-California-Oregon railroad line—originally a narrow-gauge railroad that has gone through numerous owners since track was laid over a century ago and that helped establish now decayed towns like Litchfield, Ravendale, Termo and Madeline.

Ghost towns are still in the making along Highway 395. Photo by Hal Silliman.

Ghost towns are still in the making along Highway 395. Photo by Hal Silliman.

Only the small settlements of Likely and Davis Creek—along with the busy Modoc County seat Alturas—remain with going businesses. And the basic fact that Highway 395 in these parts is truly a lonely road puts a premium on safety, services, information and way-finding needed by travelers—evident from the consensus of comments made during the hour-long meeting. Among improvements needed, according to the locals are:

  • Consistent width to the roadway in parts north of Alturas. The road widens and constricts and widens again, without notice, and this is a hazard for motorists.
  • More web-accessible cameras to show highway conditions—especially at the higher elevation mountain passes like Sugar Hill north of Davis Creek, and Sage Hen Summit, south of Likely.
  • Signs that denote what services are available and where.
  • The old-fashion “cinders” used on icy spots—rather than whatever Caltrans is using nowadays.
  • Rest stops with bathrooms that have water—not the smelly “vault” toilets—and are open year-round. There is only one rest stop in 203 miles—chemical toilets located on a downgrade that’s not very safe, participants said.
  • Warnings for motorists that they are passing through “open range”—where the cows have the right-of-way. “People hit them and have died,” noted one participant.
  • Signs that indicate where people can access the rail trail—the alignment of the NCO Railroad from Susanville to near Likely that has been turned into recreation asset.
  • In Alturas, 25 MPH signs through downtown, as traffic has a tendency forget the speed limit.
  • Red zones at downtown Alturas intersections so it’s easier for cross traffic to see oncoming autos on the highway.
  • More pedestrian-activated crossing signals and well-marked crosswalks. These could even be solar powered as in other parts of the state.

One little bit of information eeked out—from a participant and was augmented by Caltrans staff: There is a longstanding plan to transform the Highway 395 alignment from the Arizona-Mexico border to the Washington-Canada border into a super highway akin to Interstate 5. It even has a name: I-11

“Not going to happen in our lifetime,” was the general consensus from the group. Still, the idea of a full-bore interstate knifing through Eastern California creates wild surmise, and Blanchette said she will include a notation about I-11 that “the proposal is out there” in the new report being created. A draft of that report will be available by fall 2017 here.

H.A. Silliman is a freelance writer and communications consultant. He served as the VP of Communications for the San Jose Silicon Valley Chamber of Commerce and holds a B.A. from the University of the Pacific and an M.A. from Sacramento State University.

Copyright 2017. © All rights reserved.


All photos by H.A. Silliman


H.A. Silliman
H.A. Silliman is a freelance writer and communications consultant. He served as the VP of Communications for the San Jose Silicon Valley Chamber of Commerce and holds a B.A. from the University of the Pacific and an M.A. from Sacramento State University.
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16 Responses

  1. cheyenne says:

    I have traveled both 395 and 50.  They are both interesting drives with lots to see.  More services, full service rest areas, could be used on both.  One thing I would disagree with is changing to an I11 freeway.  Like driving 50 through Nevada is much more interesting than I80, changing 395 to freeway could lose a lot of local sites.  Old 99 from Red Bluff to Sacramento is a good example of preserving highway history with the small towns while improving some of the road locally.  Let the people who are in a hurry take the interstates and leave the old highways to us that enjoy driving them, albeit slower, but more satisfying.

    • H.A. Silliman H.A. Silliman says:

      Cheyenne, I’m with you to keep it a highway and not an interstate. More rest stop are needed, that’s for sure…especially considering the comments below! Thank you for your eyes on!


  2. Steve Towers Steve Towers says:

    We have employees—biologists, archaeologists and foresters—who work all over the Western U.S., and for them 395 isn’t the least busy road out there……but it’s still pretty damned empty.

    It’s very rare, but they occasionally get sideways with local law enforcement.  Several years back one of our biologists was on his way home, driving north on 395 in Lassen County, when nature called.  It’s a long stretch between gas stations and rest areas on 395.  He pulled over and was peeing, using the SUV as a screen, when a Lassen County deputy sheriff crested the hill half a mile back.  The Deputy threw on his lights and pulled over.  I don’t recall the infraction—misdemeanor public nudity or something similar—but the fine was north of $300.

    Our biologist was incredulous, and let the Deputy know.  The Deputy’s response was to tell the guy that if he didn’t shut his mouth he’d be charged with indecent exposure, fined $1,000, and would have to register as a sex offender for the rest of his life.  It’s pretty easy to earn a reputation as a county or town that fines travelers as a means of generating income.  I wonder if anyone has ever done a study to estimate the cost in the currency of good will gone down the drain and actual monetary cost that goes with it?

    • H.A. Silliman H.A. Silliman says:

      Wow! That’s quite a lesson to learn and one to heed. More real rest stops are needed–and open year-round, too. Thank you for the information, Steve!

      • Steve Towers Steve Towers says:

        I don’t know, H.A.  If a man can’t relieve himself with a good pee while standing behind his rig on a middle-of-nowhere highway in America’s outback, without eliciting a shake-down from the local tin star complete with the threat of a sex-crime charge, the ‘Murican West I used to know is history.  Long gone, like a Swainson’s hawk come winter.*

        *They winter in the Pampas region of South America.

        • cheyenne says:

          Steve, is that a picture of your road sign on the back cover of the latest High Country News?

  3. Bob Steiner, Jr says:

    Best keep an empty milk jig rather than a roadside pee. But a caveat. Bodily fluids are considered “hazardous waste”  take it home or somewhere you can flush or discard safely.

    Had a friend who worked for Cal Trans who said they found jugs of urine all the time, mist likely discarded by truckers. PETA to deal with.

  4. H.A. Silliman H.A. Silliman says:

    Bob, great advice. But do you have to pee in the car? What if you are peeing outside into a jug…is that lawful? Urine is hazardous waste…and all the bunny rabbits and deer and cattle that pee? Is that hazardous too?

    • K. Beck says:

      Human pee has human pathogens that may infect other human beings. I suspect that is the reason for all the laws. Not a problem if everyone is healthy, but that isn’t the case.

      Question is, what are women supposed to do? Keep a wide mouthed jar in the car? And then, somehow figure out how to use in INSIDE the car without making a mes

      Build the rest stops!

  5. David Goodman says:

    The obvious problem with a Mexico to Canada corridor for U.S. 395 is that it doesn’t go from Mexico to Canada.  It ends at the I-15 and is discontinuous (old 395 signs occasionally).   I hasn’t gone to San Diego in 30  years.

  6. Joanne Lobeski Snyder says:

    I lived in a canyon right off 395 when I was growing up, so I’ve spent a lot of time on that road.  Every idea on the list locals made, is good.   Living on the east side of the Sierra is different than living on the west.  You have to be aware that you may not have phone service,  you need to carry water and food in your car, and help is often not readily available if you get into difficulty.   Thank you for a great article.


    • H.A. Silliman H.A. Silliman says:

      That’s right Joanne. Pretty much, the first responders  up in the outback are coyotes, pickin’ at your bones.

  7. Mark Miller says:

    My understanding is that U.S. 395/I-11 was to be the fallback north/south highway should the military need to retreat from the West Coast to the Sierras in time of war. A big part of the reason for interstates was military, so it makes sense that there were plans for it to be an interstate.
    Also, I heard there were plans to make U.S. 395 four lanes from Hallelujah Junction to Susanville in the 1960s, but it didn’t happen because the funds were diverted to help pay for the Vietnam war.
    Thanks for the well written article.

    • H.A. Silliman H.A. Silliman says:

      Mark, thanks for sharing. That’s interesting. I guess where I live, I would be a defensive line against the threat vectoring in from the coast. A very odd thought!

  8. name says:

    They should raise the speed limit a bit on some of those straight stretches that are out in the middle of nowhere.

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