I’m in a committed relationship with Ortega Highway. At least it seems so. That winding, treacherous, scenic road and I have shared more experiences than I have with many of my friends. We started easily, as most relationships do, then we had some adventures when we became better acquainted, broke up after a miserable event, then…
We met many years ago, when friends invited me, my husband, and our two children to a picnic in the woods. We drove Ortega for several miles, enjoying wonderful views and serene peace on this road connecting Lake Elsinore to San Juan Capistrano. We parked, hiked into a sheltered area, and found picnic tables, a stream, and no one else. A great first meeting with a handsome stranger I hoped to see again.
For years afterward, Ortega and I had brief encounters. We crossed paths anytime I went to San Juan Capistrano to shop or eat at a local restaurant. The road was occasionally mentioned in the newspaper, usually due to someone misjudging a curve. The handsome stranger had a bad side. I was intrigued.
Some time later, I was promoted to division director at the Orange County Probation Department. My first assignment was at a boys’ camp, reached only by driving Ortega Highway. Would this be an exciting relationship? Time would tell.
It was 23 miles from the 5 Freeway to the turnoff that took me another 2 miles up a winding, ascending road to the camp, situated on 60 acres in the Cleveland National Forest. The drive wasn’t the only challenge I faced. The camp was a good old boys bastion, and I was its first female director.
The female staff welcomed me. The men were wary. But the Ortega stories were consistent among both genders. Almost everyone had hit a deer, had a breakdown, or experienced a collision. I was assured if I stayed long enough, I’d add to the list. No, I thought, this beautiful highway and I are going to get along.
And we did. Driving carefully in my Thunderbird, I avoided the impatient drivers passing in the oncoming lane and the occasional deer. When the camp was evacuated for eight days in 1993 due to fires, the road was closed to everyone except law enforcement. I drove the road peacefully without other traffic. For two more years I stayed safe, and our successful union blossomed, until a severe rainstorm changed that.
Rain pelted the camp one January day. When I left at 6 p.m., it was dark. My staff advised me to stay, warning of the loose rocks on the road. I preferred to brave the storm rather than spend the night, so I did not heed their advice. Besides, Ortega and I had been together for quite a while. I knew its vagaries. It wouldn’t let me down.
I slowly drove the 2-mile road, my windshield wipers barely able to keep up with the torrents of rain obstructing my vision. I reached Ortega Highway and began to inch my way home. Without streetlights or other signs of civilization, the blackness was impenetrable. The car’s headlights illuminated no more than a few feet in front of me. I dodged the stones in the road for several miles until, suddenly, a boulder crashed into my left front tire. I kept control and kept driving, although it was quickly evident my tire was ruined. Fearing that my car would become totally disabled, I continued at a crawl down the narrow mountain road. There was no calling for help as my cellphone had no reception. Minutes seemed like hours as I clunked along. In three years, I’d grown to love Ortega. Now I felt betrayed. When I saw the lights of San Juan Capistrano, I breathed a sigh of relief. Safety at last!
The road widened as I entered the city limits. Because a car was behind me, I pulled to the right into what appeared to be a puddle, except the road had descended and water rose to the level of my car’s hood. The car promptly died. I grabbed my purse and briefcase and jumped out. A nearby driver drove me to the closest gas station, where my attempts to call AAA met with a continuous busy signal. I called my husband, who rescued me. We’d deal with the car tomorrow.
The next morning, I learned my car had been towed by the sheriff. It was in a no-parking zone. Even a disabled car in a flood wasn’t exempt. It was towed to the dealer, but it was a total loss. I not only needed a new car, but I’d joined the ranks of having my own Ortega story, and it disappointed me. I’d been so trusting.
I was driving home two weeks later in my new Thunderbird when a pickup truck in the opposite lane took the curve too rapidly, lost control, and flipped over in front of me. Facing a drop-off to my right and a mountain to my left, I had nowhere to go. Objects in the truck bed flew into my car. I knew, if I lived, my insurance company would surely drop me. I braked and managed to avoid a collision as the truck continued rotating through the air, finally landing on its side on a small, grassy shoulder, inches from a steep drop. The road had barely earned my trust again, and now this!
I pulled over to learn the condition of the driver, expecting to call the paramedics. Instead, a shaken but otherwise OK young man popped out through the passenger window and circled his vehicle, wondering what happened.
My loyalty weakened, I endured the drive for two more years before I was transferred. When I said my goodbyes, I didn’t think I’d miss Ortega Highway. It had been a tumultuous relationship.
Eventually I retired and started writing novels set in Orange County. My protagonist had her own adventures on Ortega Highway. Writers are told to write what they know, and I had firsthand knowledge.
When my husband and I decided to downsize, we learned of a planned retirement community, yet to be built, in San Juan Capistrano. We made a deposit and looked forward to moving there in 2018. But the company’s change of plans resulted in the development relocating to a more scenic site, reached via Ortega Highway. Were they kidding? Could old flames successfully reunite? Would I be driving on Ortega in my golden years? My excitement about this new venture was now riddled with memories of frustration, anger, and maybe a longing for reconnection, too.
I thought we’d broken up, but like any long-term relationship, this one waxes and wanes. I have decided to keep an open mind and give it another chance. We did have good times. Since this will be my last move, I believe Ortega and I will be together until the end.