Highway 116: The Long and Winding Road meets Lost Highway

Long ago, I accepted that the construction on Highway 116 might never end. Its perennial delays and eternal dust have simply become a fact of life (and occasionally death) for Sonomans. It’s as if some decree from on high declared, “Ye shall not enjoy ease of passage to and from Petaluma, for Sonoma must remain an inland island, severed from the world by a moat of wine that runneth so deep as to quench the fires of Hell.” Or some such nonsense.

Moreover, Highway 116 is a bit of a shape-shifter (literally, given that its currently in the midst of being straightened) and boasts nearly as many names as Tolkien’s Gandalf, who took up different handles with whomever he was consorting, be they elves or dwarves or Caltrans employees.

Coming from the Russian River, part of Highway 116 is known as “River Road,” which, hands down, wins the prize for “total lack of creative vision in naming a highway.” Through the westerly hills of Sonoma County, the highway is known variously as the Willard F. Libby Memorial Highway (for the Sebastopol native, nuclear scientist and member of the Atomic Energy Commission, who received the 1960 Nobel Prize in chemistry for developing carbon-dating) and Gravenstein Highway, so-named for the apple of the same name (though vineyards have supplanted much of what were once apple orchards). There’s even a stretch known among Caltrans employees as the Cotati Grade, which sounds more like slang for inferior pot than a couple miles of scenic highway.

From Petaluma, Highway 116 is essentially schizophrenic, taking on names and hairpin turns in near equal measure. Lakeville Highway, Stage Gulch Road and Arnold Drive are all formal monikers for various parts of the 11-mile artery to Sonoma. The final leg, prior to its terminus at Highway 121, is named for erstwhile Sonoma-retiree Gen. Hap Arnold, who was likewise mixed up with atomic pursuits. The five-star general was key to getting the B-29 bomber off the ground and bore the highly classified foreknowledge that it would eventually be used to drop the A-bomb on Japan, 65 years ago last week.

I’ve alternately heard our piece of the highway called the Wino Death Trap and Glutton’s Run, though the body count is as often run up from the nature of the road’s design itself, or apparent lack thereof, than mere DUIs gone DOA. Hence, since at least 2003, the highway has been on Caltrans’ do-over docket. We’re grateful, surely, but we’re also nonplussed by the stymied flow of traffic into the Valley, which, very often, is mandated by a middle-aged woman in a panama hat, who bears her “Slow” sign like some sort of a traffic scepter. I’ve come to think of her as the Crossing Guard of Karma.

Instead of merely brandishing her sign, she undulates her hands, wrists and elbows in a manner that suggests a leisurely, rolling wave – like Tai Chi by way of traffic school. The movement, however strange, is actually effective in coaxing one’s foot off the pedal. I’m not sure if she’s practicing roadside hypnosis or casting a spell as if she were Glynda the Good Witch on a day-job. Is Caltrans dabbling in witchcraft? Who knows but it’s working. At least it works on me. Every time I cruise by, perhaps at an ill-advised speed, the woman does her traffic voodoo and suddenly my foot levitates off the accelerator and I’m suddenly quite calm.

This Shaman of the Gravel Shoulder has a way turning MPH into TLC, which is no mean feat in this workaday world of get-up-and-go-go-go. Perhaps, her ritual gestures are some kind of interpretative dance, an ancient sign language that defies translation. Or maybe it’s something as obvious as “Slow down; life’s not a commute; take the scenic route and take your time – we all get where we’re going soon enough.” Or, as translated into the language of bumperstickers: “Better to be on the road to the end than at the end of the road.”

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