California’s "Haunted" Highway

California’s "Haunted" Highway

by Antony Grace

There are a lot of things I try to avoid watching on television. I don’t watch golf on TV because it puts me to sleep. I also don’t watch the majority of “reality” shows. Most of the time, the “reality” involved in programs like Survivor, or Wife Swap is so warped, it’s pretty much unrecognizable in comparison to anything I‘ve seen in my own life.

And then, there’s programs like “Mysteries of the Unexplained.”

Maybe you might remember watching this on your local TV station. It’s a syndicated program which ran on independent channels, or those like local Fox or UPN stations in some markets. It’s popular with certain groups, particularly those who believe in UFOs, psychics, and the like. It came from former “Happy Days” star, Henry Winkler, who made a name for himself playing a leather-jacketed tough guy, Arthur “Fonzie” Fonzarelli, whose signature word was, “Aaaaayyyyy.” (Don’t ask me: I didn’t write for that series.)

Part of the program’s appeal was that they would take psychics to “haunted” locations, and get their take on what was supposedly going on. The woos I know eat this stuff up, listening intently to declarations of which spirits are wandering about and creating havoc for those among the living. It’s the sort of thing, I would assume, keeps some psychoanalysts in business.

So, there I am one Sunday, watching “Mysteries of the Unexplained,” (it was either that or golf), and there, by a road I’ve probably traveled a few hundred times, stands Sylvia Browne, with some woman clutching the well-known psychic’s hand. The off screen announcer then proceeds to discuss “California’s Most Haunted Highway.”


I should probably explain that I have a certain amount of expertise when it comes to Highway 152 and Highway 156, the two roads which make up California’s “Haunted” highway. For one thing, I’m a truck driver, with over one million miles under my wheels. One of the companies I’ve worked for hauled telecom equipment for what was then Pacific Telesis Group, (which later became SBC, and is now AT&T). Another company I worked for hauled reinforced concrete pipe, or RCP, and I made several deliveries over both highways, heading into Monterey. I’ve made the trip more than a few times.

Sylvia Browne is not the only psychic who’s made this declaration about 152/156. She might the most visible, however. Just the same, it’s a highway with an unfortunate distinction, similar to California Highway 99, between Sacramento and Yuba City: it has one of the highest accident rates in the state.

There are multiple reasons for 152/156 being so deadly, many of them parallels to 99. However, I can tell you from personal experience, none of it has a thing in the world to do with ghosts, or spirits. In fact, from personal experience, backed up by facts, I can tell you it has more to do with driver error than it does anything “spiritual.”

It helps to understand what sort of a road 152/156 is. The route to Monterey actually begins with a short jog on Highway 33, starting in Santa Nella, which then takes you to 152. (152 itself goes through the city of Los Banos, CA, and terminates at Highway 99, near the cutoff for Visalia.) From there, you drive past the San Luis Reservoir, up over the Diablo Mountains through the Pacheco Pass, to the junction with 156. You then travel through the Santa Clara Valley and into the Santa Cruz Mountains, past the Mission San Juan Bautista, and on into the Monterey Bay region, through Salinas and what is by and large the region described by Nobel Laureate John Steinbeck. It’s a beautiful stretch of road, and in spring and summer, there have been times I’ve found myself looking for a place to pull off to the side of the road, so I could enjoy a quiet lunch in one of the most picturesque regions of the State.

At the same time, it’s a road that requires a high degree of respect. For one thing, while there are great stretches of it which are more like an Interstate, you have to remember that it’s a California secondary highway.

Naturally, the psychics have another reason for the danger. According to Browne and others, the high accident rate is due to a high rate of spiritual activity, partly from the Mission San Juan Bautista, partly because of the number of lynchings which took place along what is now a state highway, (including the hanging of Joaquin Murrieta and Three Fingered Jack by California Ranger Harry S. Love.) Add in the spirits of those who have died in auto accidents, and according to some psychics, it’s no wonder 152/156 have such a bloody accident record.

That’s something I dispute.

On one of the more dangerous trips I took on this highway, in an early spring, another driver and I were hauling utility vaults. These are large, heavy boxes which are used to house such things as electrical conduits and telephone switch equipment. The load was an oversize, so in order to avoid a California Department of Transportation (CALTRANS) curfew, we had left our yard at two in the morning, and were hoping to reach our destination sometime around six in the morning. Our curfew would kick in around then, depending on where we were, and at that point, the only thing we could do was pull over and shut down until nine a.m.

We had just pulled off the 33, and were getting onto the 152 when we noticed that there were the first wisps of fog starting to form. Given our proximity to the San Luis Reservoir, and weather reports that were indicating our temperature was near the dew point, this didn’t surprise me. I turned on my fog lamps in my Kenworth, cracked open the window on the driver’s and passenger’s sides, and dropped my speed at least five miles an hour.

I should probably mention that what I did is generally considered Standard Operating Procedure for anyone driving in fog. One of the biggest mistakes anyone can make is to try and continue running at the speed limit when visibility begins to deteriorate. It’s an idiot’s move because now you’re overdriving your visibility and you won’t have the time to react when you start seeing a hazard on the road.

By the time the other driver and I had gotten past San Luis, and had stopped to check our brakes at the top of Pacheco Pass the fog had thickened. We were halfway down the other side when it became so thick, the maximum safe speed we could move was a laggardly 35 miles an hour. At that point we were now a road hazard. We pulled over and though legally we could have continued we stopped until the fog began to clear slightly. It meant we stood a good chance of being late but we figured that was a better choice.

We wound up sitting for close to thirty minutes. After that we got a rare break in the fog and were back on the road, though only moving around 45 miles an hour. The weather didn’t completely clear until sunrise, and thankfully, we were near Salinas, our destination for that particular load. (I should also mention we were outside the curfew zone, at that point, so we were safe to keep going.

The one thing that I noted while the other driver and I were parked along the side of 152 is the number of drivers who ignored the road conditions, who blew past us at speeds in excess of 55 MPH, the legal posted speed for that road. I know for a fact that some of those people were pushing 75 and at one point I distinctly remember a white BMW roaring past at what had to be over 80.

Understand, with a reservoir right there next to the road you are going to have what we call the Tule Fog in the early spring. It starts towards the end of winter and goes on in some cases into the middle spring just before things really start to warm up. It’s dangerous stuff coming in patches and waves, and usually in the early morning hours. You can go for miles without a hitch when you’re suddenly hit with near zero visibility.

In spite of laws which state the legal limit is the safe speed for road conditions, people still drive too fast for conditions. And keep in mind, in spite of a state sponsored effort to put a 3-5 foot high concrete barrier between the east- and west-bound sides of these roads, there’s still long stretches whe
re the only thing separating them is a narrow ditch, and a broad strip of grass.

So put yourself in the position of someone who’s driving too fast in the early morning as fog starts rolling in. It’s not inconceivable that someone would take one of the tight turns on 152 and in less than a minute either slam hard into the concrete divider, or worse: cross the grassy strip and slam head-on into oncoming traffic.

Consider another point: the California Highway Patrol and the Office of Traffic Safety report that every 15 minutes, someone is killed as a result of driving under the influence. In this case, the only “spirits” causing trouble on 152/156 are in fact the liquid type. Additionally, though I couldn’t find applicable statistics, there’s the additional danger of driving while fatigued. This is also another danger on most major highways but it’s something which can be amplified on a hilly and winding road.

Another problem I’ve encountered while driving is trucks and more than a few cars that have bad brakes. Commercial drivers in the United States are required to inspect their brakes daily and make sure they’re in proper adjustment prior to starting out in the morning. It‘s part and parcel of a thorough pre-trip inspection of any commercial vehicle in the US, and it‘s required by the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration. If you take the five minutes required to inspect the brakes, and adjust them properly, you generally don’t have to worry about it. A properly trained driver will also use his engine brake on his truck, and be able to maintain a steady speed on the downhill slope.

At the top of Pacheco Pass is a brake check area. It may just be me but I suspect I’m actually one of the few drivers in California who actually stops and, as required by law, gets out and inspects the brake drums and linings on my rig. Once you make that stop, and complete the inspection, you’re supposed to flag the stop on your logbook entry for the day. Failure to do so can result in a very stiff fine.

Having said that I am galled by the number of my fellow drivers who will start their day by dumping their gear into their truck and then start the engine without even checking to see if they have air in the tires. There isn’t a professional on the road who would start their day without rocking the hood and checking fluid levels, yet in my last driving job it was routine for drivers to do just that.

On one occasion, we had a driver who was driving a Freightliner with a 550 Caterpillar engine. I watched as he walked into the yard, laid a hand on the nose of the hood then proceeded to pray. A few seconds later he jumped into the cab and fired up the engine.

“Dude, what are you doing?” I demanded.

“Oh, I just prayed over it. Jesus showed me that everything’s okay with this rig,” he explained to me.

“Even Jesus would rock the hood,” I countered. Not that it mattered, and a few weeks later they brought the Freightshaker back to the yard on a hook. He’d fried the engine, because of a lack of oil in the crankcase.

What I’m trying to point out is the reality behind that highway’s danger has more to do with the real world, and far less to do with ghosts or other paranormal hobgoblins.

If, for example, the ghosts of California’s past have made Highway 152 so dangerous, perhaps someone could explain how it is that U.S. Highway 50, which runs through Placerville, CA, has such a safe record? True, there are accidents on Highway 50, but they tend to be less severe.

Why should Placerville have a bloodier road? Simply because it once was known as Hangtown. The city’s reputation for wrongdoing was so great it once boasted a hanging a day (two on some days) and one old photograph shows nearly every tree in the town decorated with multiple nooses (a tall tree and a short rope) with more than a few crooks adding to the scenery.

In my own past, I’m a descendant of a man who robbed Wells Fargo stagecoaches. At one point, I lost my job at Wells Fargo because of my resemblance to my ancestor, whose wanted poster decorated the wall of the service center where I worked. Considering I’ve yet to really be “haunted” around California, given my family’s past, I find myself questioning the role of spirits in highway hazards.

It also bears mention that while Joaquin Murrieta is reported to have been shot and killed in a fight with Harry Love, as was Manuel Garcia who was also known as Three Fingered Jack though there’s some question as to how true that account was.

Murrieta, according to legend, was accused along with his brother of having stolen a mule. As the story goes his brother was hanged while Joaquin was whipped. His young wife was then gang raped by a group of whites and she later died in Joaquin’s arms.

At that point he set out to track down the whites who hung his brothers and killed his wife. Over the next few years, he is said to have tracked down each one and killed them. While there are some accounts which say that he was also guilty of other crimes, it is his acts of vengeance against those who killed the woman he loved that tends to fire the imagination of many.

Murrieta was ultimately tracked down and pursued by Ranger Harry Love, who along with a posse, shot two Mexicans, one of whom was believed to be Murrieta. At the end of the fight, Love is supposed to have cut off Murrieta’s head, as well as the affected hand of Three Fingered Jack. They preserved the body parts in glass jars filled with brandy, and displayed them in Stockton and San Francisco. (Ultimately, they were lost in the Earthquake of 1906.)

The only problem with this is there’s no real verification that the head was that of Joaquin. While there were those who signed an affidavit verifying that the head displayed was the one belonging to the bandit, his sister came forward and claimed that it wasn’t Joaquin’s head at all; it lacked a characteristic scar which would have verified the identity. Add to this numerous sightings after the fact throughout California, and Love’s claim becomes tenuous at best. So much for Joaquin’s spirit doing any dirty work.

Ultimately the accident rate on 152 is really due to people not using their heads while driving. Highway 99 has earned the gory sobriquet “Blood Alley” for many of the same reasons. When the California Highway Patrol stepped up enforcement on 99 a lot of the danger subsided. Much the same happens on other roads within the State.

It comes down to using your head when you’re behind the wheel. Giving people an excuse for their poor judgment (even a lame excuse like those offered by psychics) only creates greater problems. Frankly, if you’re creeped out by the “ghosts” of the past to the point it makes driving hazardous you’d be doing yourself a favor if you’d simply park and take the bus. As for the rest of us, we’ll simply slow down in inclement weather, take our time to make sure our vehicles are mechanically sound, and in the end continue to do what prudence and common sense dictate.

Stay safe.

Antony Grace is a California based truck driver who goes by the nickname “Roadtoad.” His present ambition is to find a decent taco.