AT 3:30 a.m., Matt DeVictor backs his International Scout out of the driveway of his Moreno Valley home at the edge of the desert here, 60 miles east of downtown. Destination: Irvine, in Orange County to the south. Estimated time of arrival: 5 a.m. At 5 a.m. in Carlsbad in San Diego County to the south, Charles Contreras points his headlights northwest for Burbank, in the San Fernando Valley. ETA: 7:10. At 6 a.m. in the booming desert community of Palmdale to the north, Garth Erdrich packs his three kids into his 1983 Toyota. Destination: West Hills at the westernmost edge of Los Angeles County. ETA: 8 a.m. Unlike most long-distance commuters in other large American cities, these three men are not headed from distant suburbs to downtown. Their marathon morning and evening treks are from remote enclave to exclave in a pattern most pronounced in Los Angeles but now being followed elsewhere as well.
They are three of Southern California's stalwart brand of motorists known as ``supercommuters,'' representing a small but growing club whose members' odometers click off more than 100 miles per day.
``The phenomenon of relatively ordinary people wearing the heck out of themselves, their cars, the road - to somehow balance a job and an affordable home hours away - is a relatively new phenomenon,'' says David Stein, principal transportation planner for the Southern California Association of Governments (SCAG). The daily ranks of these long-distance commuters have swollen to more than 400,000.
Los Angeles has long led the United States in both quantity and variety of commuters. Since the metropolis grew up after the auto was already a major mode of transportation, it has always lacked the downtown core that typifies other cities. In its place have come mini-downtowns and the freeways to connect them - 740 miles at last count.
``The rest of the country over time is becoming more and more like L.A.,'' says Martin Wachs, a University of California, Los Angeles professor of urban planning. ``Cities like Boston, New York, and Philadelphia are watching their downtowns send businesses out into the suburbs. Transportation planners look to the extreme cases for guidance.''
In Los Angeles, already saddled with burgeoning smog and congestion problems, exploding real estate prices are forcing extreme life-style changes. With room to expand in every direction but southwest, the metropolis is spawning desert real estate boomlets - the Conejo and Simi valleys to the northwest, Santa Clarita, Palmdale, and Lancaster to the north, Moreno Valley to the east.
The supercommuters are a study in the pressures of living in the nation's second largest city.
``It's ridiculous. I work 10 minutes from where I grew up [in the San Fernando Valley] but I can't come close to affording a house there,'' says the 28-year-old Mr. Erdrich. He bought a three-bedroom house on a 9,000-square-foot lot in Palmdale for $130,000. The same model house in his childhood community of Woodland Hills runs $350,000 to $400,000. Rather than forgo the home and open space, Erdrich and his wife (combined income: $70,000) commute a total of 210 miles a day.
Erdrich sees no alternative. ``The jobs available and the pay scale in Palmdale are nowhere near what can be earned ``down below'' (Palmdale terminology for Los Angeles and environs).
Because of stories like Erdrich's (one neighbor commutes to Glendale, the other to Culver City), Palmdale has quadrupled in size over the decade.
Even more striking has been the growth of Moreno Valley, a desert community of new tract homes that has tripled in size (35,000 to 114,100) since 1985. The overwhelming majority, according to the local newspaper, the Press Advocate, commute to Orange County.
A 1989 study of commuters on Route 91, the freeway that connects Moreno Valley to Orange County, found the average commute was 92.8 minutes - one way.
One commuter on Route 91 is 23-year-old Matt DeVictor. He endures the indignity of his 120-mile daily commute to Irvine so he can rent a four-bedroom house in Moreno Valley for $800. He likes the quiet, remote atmosphere but would rather be able to afford housing in the Orange County community where he spent much of his youth. Though he doesn't mind the physical task of driving 41/2 hours a day, he says he resents the cost of gas and time lost for other activities.
``My car has 200,000 miles on it, and I'm afraid to add up the cost of gas, shocks, brakes, and clutches,'' Mr. DeVictor says of four years of daily commutes. ``To be very honest, I hate it.''
The present alternative is car- and van-pooling. But though the South Coast Air Quality Management District has mandated such plans in companies with 100 or more employees, they are foiled by different employee schedules, and the necessity of short trips for errands, spouses who work, and children needing day care.
Currently, SCAG has a 20-year plan to further decentralize the working environment, moving jobs out to where residential concentrations are growing. The organization has also identified 65 sites in the four-county area to serve as commuter hubs, linking local bus routes with high-speed rails. Two rail lines have already begun in short downtown segments. Precisely timed transfers will enable commuters to move swiftly across broad areas.
But SCAG's Mr. Stein says, ``Employment concentrations are not dense enough to make mass transit a viable alternative.''
In the meantime, the ranks of supercommuters are growing by about 25,000 a year.
Not surprisingly, company officials have expressed concern about the productivity of those who arrive bleary-eyed after two hours in traffic and who must anticipate another two-hour-plus return trip. George Wiley, director of employee and government relations for Rockwell International, the huge space and weapons manufacturer with at least 20 southern California locations, says: ``We do have concerns, but how can we enforce them?''
Mr. Wiley says those concerns led his company to embrace rather than resist programs initiated by the Air Quality District. More than 8,000 southern California companies are mandated to provide car- and van-pooling options. If all reach target quotas of 1.5 passengers per car, traffic congestion will be reduced by 20-25 percent in five years, according to Claudia Keith, a district spokeswoman.
Raymond Novaco, a University of California, Irvine, professor in social ecology who studies the effects of long-distance driving, points to voluminous research documenting correlations between memory and mental errors and irritability on the job from longer commutes.
``The personal, civic, and social costs of such behavior need serious scrutiny,'' says Stein. ``When it takes someone 12 to 13 hours to put in an eight-hour day, we've reverted to the same conditions the labor movement fought against 150 years ago.''
But for every few commuters who complain, there seem to be plenty who cope very well.
``I've been making this commute for so many years that I don't even notice it,'' says Charles Contreras, who has made his way from Carlsbad in San Diego County to Burbank five days a week for four years (round trip, 120 miles). He makes the trip interesting by varying his route six different ways, listening to tapes and music, and using the car phone for which his company has paid for the past two years.
The sales product manager says the phone ``has taken a lot of stress off the commute, because if I get bogged down I can just work my territory by phone from traffic, and all's well.'' One in a series of occasional articles about life in the United States.