Life in the non-descript lane
Driving is something I’ve always considered myself fairly good at. Except for that little, um, mishap involving my parents’ car about 20 years ago, the road has been a friendly place.
That is until this winter, when I’ve had to drive Interstate 80 between Reno and the Colfax area several times. All of a sudden I became one of those “advanced” ” as in age, not ability ” drivers. There I was on a couple of wet, dark nights, hunched over the wheel, trying not to drive too slow, peering intently through my windshield searching in vain for my lane. I wasn’t driving Ms. Daisy, I had become Ms. Daisy.
Years ago I wouldn’t have thought much about why a major interstate lacked lane striping. I would have cruised on through the mountains without feeling the least bit endangered, let alone musing about maintenance plans, budgets and environmental concerns.
But now, as I plunge down the Truckee River canyon at 70 mph next to rattling big rigs or crest Donner Summit on a slushy night, I squint at the road like Grandpa Simpson and curse the fact that there aren’t any discernible damned lane markings, damn it. I pay taxes to have lanes!
Coming up from Reno, I-80 is clearly marked; nice big white dashes divide the road into tidy lanes. Until, that is, you hit the California border and ascend the mighty Sierra. Then it’s kinda like driving on a Tijuana highway.
I figure that Nevada is swimming in all that gambling money so they can afford to paint big fat lane markers on the road. That’s unlike California, where residents spend billions gambling at places like Thunderdome Rancheria yet the state can’t afford to paint stripes on the interstate.
Meanwhile, driving I-80 over the Sierra ” particularly at night ” is a hairy ordeal, and I know the roads.
I worry about the uninitiated who, once in California, have to battle speeding luxury SUVs, the mountain weather and rumbling 18-wheelers all the while trying to figure out where to point their vehicle. They must wonder why us crazy Californians don’t have lanes drawn on the ground.
Well, according to Jan Mendoza, a public information officer with Caltrans, there are all sorts of reasons why, none of which sounded as though they were money-related.
“It’s pretty much project related and weather related,” she said. “The interstate is very beat up because of the snowplows and sand. It gets weathered.”
OK, at least it’s not for a lack of money. I can understand Mother Nature, which is another reason for the lack of clearly marked lanes. Mendoza said that Caltrans crews are out between storms re-striping, but because of environmental concerns they can only use water-based paints, which don’t stick to the road surface for long.
What does stick to ” or more accurately, wears ” the surface of I-80 are those big rigs. One way I can tell what lane I am in is by how much my pickup truck rattles. If it’s really noisy, I know I’m in the slow lane, the one that’s got the deep ruts carved in it from all the trucks.
But now that I think about it I don’t need lane markers. I can just put in some earplugs, steer over into the right lane, sit back and let the road vibration soothe my nerves while the ruts guide me on down the interstate.
Jamie Bate is the editor of the Sierra Sun. Reach him at email@example.com.