Thursday, October 21, 2010

Thunderstorms and traffic

Last weekend I drove down to the big city of Barstow, California to attend an annual event with some friends. Barstow is southwest of Vegas on the road to Los Angeles, and is about a three hour drive at 260km (150 miles) or so. It’s a three hour drive for me because I am pulling a small trailer with my car, and the speed limit in California for cars pulling trailers is 55mph, while the general speed limit is 70mph. For some reason I usually observe the speed limit, while most cars on this route do not. This results in the drive taking three hours while the other guys usually take less than two hours to get there.

It’s a reasonably pleasant drive there, as we are driving in the opposite direction of most of the weekend traffic. Los Angeles is a four or five hour drive from Las Vegas, depending on where in the city you are coming from. On most weekends the estimate is that 30,000 to 50,000 cars drive from LA to Vegas, driving here on Friday afternoon and back on Sunday afternoon. The only road between these cities is I-15, which is mostly two lanes in each direction. The Friday drive starts for most people when they get off of work, unless they take an early afternoon. The Sunday drive starts at hotel checkout time, usually noon, with lots of people hanging around after checkout to play games and watch the football games in sportsbooks. The large number of cars hitting the road at the same time can cause some slowdowns, especially if there are accidents to look at or bad weather.

Las Vegas is about 2,400 feet above sea level, with LA down at the water. There are two high passes through the mountains on the drive, Cajon Pass at around 3,500 feet and Summit Pass north of Baker at 4,500 feet. Both of these locations can get very heavy snow in the wintertime, causing the road to be closed due to high winds and low visibility. The Baker Grade heading north is also brutal in the summer, rising over 1,000 meters (3,000 ft) in ten miles. With temperatures that can reach 50c (120+f) and people wanting to use the air conditioners in their cars you can usually find quite a few vehicles stuck alongside the road on that grade with hoods up and engines overheating and boiling over.

I wasn’t able to take any photos on my drive south on Friday, as the sun was in front of me, but on my return Sunday the sun was setting behind. The road curves between hills, running southwest from Vegas, so there are straight runs heading due south or west, causing the sun to shine straight in your eyes or be right off the side of your car. It’s mostly flat open desert, with long views to the mountains. Baker is one of the few towns along the road, the only one between Barstow and Vegas. It is the entrance to the Mojave Desert National Preserve, and can get quite hot. But this weekend was a little different out here in the desert; we have been having a few wet days. There were some severe thunderstorms on the drive back, I tried taking photos but the camera kept focusing on the raindrops on my windshield (sorry, too wet to roll down the window).

Here is my first shot driving north, looking at the clouds ahead.

The road in my direction has fairly light traffic, over on the other side is a reasonable amount of vehicles. As you can see, it’s rather flat right here, with not much around. There are no trees out here, just low scrub, sage and creosote bushes. After driving through some really wet windy storms I was at Baker , with the big town just to my left. The population of Baker is around 300, with most people working at the gas stations and fast food places, and some others working at the Mojave National Park. The Baker Grade is right over that truck ahead of me, the road curves a little to get around this big city, with continuous traffic on the other side and headlights approaching. The hills ahead are about 30km (20 miles) away.

After driving over the grade and dropping down into a valley on the other side I passed through some more heavy thunderstorms. There was one big arching rainbow directly over the road, touching down both to the left and right. Straight ahead is the Summit Grade, with a line of car headlights looking like a continuation of the center line. The top of the hill ahead is about 1,000 meters higher than where I am, and is about 30km (20 miles) or so away. The taller peak ahead beyond the grade is around 60km (40 miles) off.

It was interesting driving through the rain. As you can see from the photos, there is not much detail to look at during this drive, but there are nice views of the distant mountains, with some mountains to the west visible about 80km (50 miles) off. It would have been a lot nicer if the wind didn’t keep trying to blow me off the road.

Driving home yesterday here in Vegas the radio stations were interrupted by severe storm warnings. The national weather service has automated voices that cut in on radio and TV broadcasts when something bad is happening. Out here it’s usually ‘severe thunderstorm alert’ several times a year. Yesterday the warnings were for lots of water, flooding in low lying areas, hail the size of quarters (about 3cm in diameter) and winds around 100km/hr (65 mph) for parts of eastern Clark County and parts of northern Arizona. Las Vegas is in central Clark County, but this storm was a little to the north of us. Those announcements are very annoying, accompanied by very loud buzzing sounds to get your attention. We did get a lot of water on Sunday, Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday, with 30% chance of thunderstorms again today. Even with all of the warnings people still drive through flooded areas.

Found some videos on YouTube showing weather around here. First one is a thunderstorm with hail

Out in the desert it could be raining miles away while you are in sunshine, but the water still goes downhill. Billboards all over tell you not to drive through low spots, it looks like this

At times we just see the lightning

Here in Vegas we can make anything into entertainment. The shopping center behind Planet Hollywood has one area where it rains every hour (inside)

So, besides gambling, come to Vegas for the weather!


Will said...

Have you ever sidetracked over to the Amboy crater?

JoeinVegas said...

Never heard of the Amboy crater before - it looks interesting, will have to day trip down there. Thanks

Froggy said...

wow, that drive looks just like the trip across to the Yorke Peninsula on long weekends. Horrid! We are usually on the other side of the road - they busy one.

Thanks for the videos,too, Joe. Very interesting. x

The Blonde Duck said...

We're actually not going to Vegas until Spring, probably. Some stuff came up.

Froggy said...

Joe, I had a giggle at your comment on my blog. Sadly she still has 5 years of highschool to go, and Adelaide has so many college/university campuses that she would be going to college right here! So, I can guarantee she'll be at home the whole time! Haha. Never mind.... :-) At least by then she'll have her licence and own car so can get out from under our roof a bit more.

Virginia Gal said...

I've seen that rain storm in the shopping mall, it was very pretty! oh I am so jealous you guys in Las Vegas got rain, we got a few drops out here but still not enough to satisfy me.

The Blonde Duck said...

Happy Tuesday!

Rob said...

Reminds me of the old Disney film "The Living Desert".