MERCED — They wake up before the sun comes up.
Coffee in hand, they hit the road before most others have even hit the "snooze" button.
Battling daily challenges such as traffic, road closures, accidents and weather -- the road warriors have seen it all.
They are Merced County's commuters: more than 21,000 workers who drive out of the county, according to just-released Census Bureau statistics. They are leaving Merced County, where unemployment is 17.2 percent, for work elsewhere.
Their top destination is neighboring Stanislaus County, where 10,053 of them earn a living. Santa Clara County came in second as the place most Merced County residents travel to for work, with 4,118 commuters.
But commuting to work doesn't come without sacrifice.
Just ask Los Banos resident Pedro Bueno, 46. He's been commuting for 15 years.
Bueno wakes up at 5:45 a.m. to make the 69-mile trek to Fresno, where he works as a case manager helping disabled veterans' find employment.
"I always leave Los Banos extra early in case there's a traffic accident or fog," Bueno said. "Right now they're working on an off-ramp, so traffic gets backed up pretty bad on the 99 in the mornings."
According to the data, Bueno is one of 1,362 workers traveling from Merced to Fresno County each day.
Bueno, a U.S. Army veteran, commuted to Gilroy for 15 years before landing the job in Fresno. His family bought a home in Los Banos after prices skyrocketed in his hometown of Hollister.
The hardest part of the commute is the impact it has on his family, Bueno said.
Tuesday night, his 17-year-old daughter had an awards ceremony at her school. Bueno rushed home from work, picked up his family and went right to the school. If he hit traffic or a car accident, Bueno would have missed his daughter's ceremony.
Bueno's gone through three cars already -- most of them after 300,000 miles. In December, he bought a gas-friendly Chevrolet, and already has put 10,000 miles on it.
Commuting from Merced County to Fresno is bad enough, but the data showed that more than 200 Merced County residents work as far away as Sacramento County.
The statistics showed that the following numbers of people commuted to these counties: 1,610 to San Joaquin; 1,198 to Madera; 755 to Alameda; 653 to Monterey; 640 to San Benito; 340 to Santa Cruz; 284 to San Mateo; 241 to Contra Costa; and 207 to Sacramento.
Dr. Steve Tietjen, Los Banos Unified School District Superintendent, said parents' commuting has a direct affect on children.
Kids get dropped off to school earlier and have to stay after school longer, creating a high demand for before and after-school programs.
He estimates at least 50 percent of district parents are commuters, and it can cause problems when kids are sick at school. "When kids are ill at school and need to go home, there's no one there," Tietjen said. "That's a complicating dynamic that we experience."
Commute Connection, a regional ride-sharing program between Merced, San Joaquin and Stanislaus counties, matches commuters to share rides to and from work.
Of more than 10,000 commuters registered, 400 live in Merced County.
"Saving money is the No. 1 benefit for most people," said Yvette Davis, Associate Regional Planner. "For people that are driving more than 30 miles one way, they're preventing wear and tear on their vehicles. And from a social aspect, people meet each other and become friends."
For Bueno, the sacrifice of commuting is worth the benefit of owning his own home.
"We're able to live in a house; we don't have to rent," he said. "It's actually ours, and it's worth it."
Reporter Ramona Giwargis can be reached at (209) 385-2477 or email@example.com.