Detour of the Damned

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It's Monday night at 1 a.m. I'm driving south on the 5, returning home from Los Angeles, making good time. But in Buena Park, a flashing sign on the shoulder reads "FREEWAY CLOSED AHEAD." Pylons subtract four lanes from five. Now I'm in line, stopped on the freeway, waiting to detour. Okay. I've done this before. One off-ramp to another on-ramp. Delay of five minutes, 10 tops. I exit and follow the detour signs in a stream of cars and turn right behind two big rigs. Two blocks later, detour signs point me left onto a boulevard. Four blocks later, detour signs point me right. Then left. Then right. Some drivers grow impatient and slip into the darkness to strike out on their own. A dozen of us stick together. Behind me, a pickup runs a light to stay close. Another sign reads DETOUR 5 SOUTH. We turn left—and into a residential area. Now there's panic. Cars turn back. Illegal U-turns are made. Others speed ahead in frustration. Another stop sign and we're in a no-man's land of construction, crossing under the closed freeway, doing a zigzag and over the freeway again. All lane dividers vanish. We come untethered. A stop sign. Another right turn. A left. Then I spot detour signs covered with burlap. Are we still going in the right direction? Only four cars left. We drive deserted streets. In a tight formation, we pass abandoned stores, dead trees, ghostly formations of freeway chunks. Oh, Caltrans of no trans, give us a sign! There is no answer. Now it's just me and a Ford Explorer stopped at a signal at a floodlit intersection where three signs point in opposite directions to Disneyland. The Explorer lurches forward through the red, straight into a barrier unseen, knocks it over, backs up fierce and screeches right. I gather myself, trying to find my internal compass. The light is still red. I turn left against it—under a half-constructed bridge and through an intersection. To my left on the opposite corner, barely visible, a small sign reads 5 SOUTH DETOUR. I slam on my brakes, make an illegal U-turn through an island of cones and jam hard right. It has been 30 minutes since I started this Caltrans bypass trip. As the only consummated witness to the 5 SOUTH DETOUR, I find the return on-ramp. Where no others remain, I drive on the 5 South past Disneyland, the UC Irvine Medical Center, into Santa Ana . . . alone. An automotive survivor. Hey, Caltrans: the next time you design a detour, try it out yourself—with no map and in the dark. You've just emptied a load of late night angry drivers onto the surface streets of Orange County.


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