Today I’m fortunate enough to present a guest article from Jon Persky. Jon is a frequent contributor to the Twelve Mile Circle with a long history of insightful comments. He also inspired the popular Counting Border Crossings article a couple of years ago. In other words, Jon is an aficionado of geo-oddities of the highest order.
Jon contacted me a few weeks ago. He had been working on an interesting problem, attempting to determine the shortest road distance between all 48 continental United States plus the District of Columbia. In a weird coincidence, Data Pointed wondered the same thing and published an article right around the time Jon was finishing-up his research. Jon and I took another look at his draft and felt it was different enough from the Data Pointed article so we decided to stick with it.
Without further ado, and with sincere thanks and appreciation, I turn the remainder of 12MC today over to Jon:
Suppose you wanted to drive to all 48 continental United States. Sure, many with time on their hands and a yearning to see the country have accomplished this feat and have the stickers to prove it. But let’s up the stakes a bit: in a scene eerily reminiscent of the Keanu Reeves movie "Speed," imagine that there’s a bomb in your trunk rigged to go off when your odometer hits 6,500 miles. Without hitching your car to someone’s U-Haul – that would be cheating – can you complete your dream roadtrip and make it out alive?
Extreme road-tripping (minus the time bomb) is actually a sport with a devoted following. The Iron Butt Association administers a long list of lengthy motorcycle rides. If you’re up to it, you can ride 1,500 miles in 24 hours and win a handsome certificate. (To do this, you’d have to average over 65 miles per hour assuming you can manage to spend only 1 hour buying gas, eating, and using the bathroom.) The Association also awards a prize to those who visit 48 states in the span of ten days. There are a bunch of rules: you have to visit an actual town in each state, and you need a receipt from a gas station or store in each state showing the time and date that you visited.
True aficionados, not content with only 48 states, continue to Hyder, Alaska, the easternmost town in Alaska and the closest by road to the lower 48. (Fun facts: (1) Hyder is the only U.S. town that uses a Canadian area code, 250; (2) the state of Alaska pays for the children of Hyder to attend school across the border in Stewart, B.C.). The 49-state record, held by Iron Butt founder Ron Ayres, is 7 days, 0 hours, and 20 minutes. If you’re the four-wheel type, you might be interested in this guy made it to Hyder in 7 and a half days – in a 1932 roadster.
If driving nonstop for four days without sleeping is not your thing – and, for the sake of drivers and pedestrians everywhere, please let it not be your thing – then shoot for distance, not time. The man who finished the 48-state drive in 97 hours claims that he has designed “the shortest route on record” – a 6,500-mile trip – but he won’t tell you what it is. Real geography fans don’t keep secrets. So, I set out to both break his record and tell everyone what it is. And as an added measure of difficulty, I decided to add the District of Columbia. It’s not a state, but it should be!
So, let’s get going in search of a sub-6,500-mile route. Here’s my first attempt, connecting the southwestern tip of Michigan with Bellows Falls, Vermont:
View 48 STATES (VT-MI) in a larger map
This clocks in at a disappointing 6,929 miles, and requires almost two complete east-west trips across the country. You can see that two states, Florida and California, are themselves responsible for a good portion of the mileage. The Appalachian region is tricky: you have to wend your way through Kentucky, West Virginia, and Ohio, but you can’t go too far inland or you’ll miss South Carolina. Finally, New England is a bit awkward. Drawing a straight line through the six small states isn’t an option, so we have to snake around a bit. In this version I decided to zip in and out of Maine and travel west to finish at the Vermont border.
I decided that the key to reducing miles was to increase the distance between the two termini. New Buffalo, MI is 885 miles by road from Bellows Falls, VT. If I increased the gap, could I decrease the total number of miles of the route? I decided to start and end at the California/Nevada/Arizona tripoint and the Oregon/Washington border, respectively.
View 48 STATES (OR-CA) in a larger map
Maybe I’m on to something here. This route measures 6,781 miles, and the termini are 1,005 miles apart. I still think we can do better, though. For one, the route requires two full east-west cross country trips. For another, there are significant redundancies in the Northeast. Even though I’ve "picked up" New York en route from the George Washington Bridge to the Connecticut border at Greenwich, after completing New England I’d have to drive another 400 miles through a state I’ve already been to. (The 6,850-mile, 101-hour trip planned by the Morriss brothers, from Four Corners to the Kansas/Oklahoma/Missouri tripoint, suffers from the same malady.)
Then I had an epiphany. If the distance between endpoints reduces the length of the route, then the route shouldn’t be a loop at all: it should begin and end on opposite coasts and snake through the country. After some tweaking, I arrived at a route connecting Walla Walla, Washington with Eliot, Maine, clocking in at 6,495 miles:
View 48 States (WA-ME) in a larger map
Not only does this route break the 6,500 mile record, but it does it in an elegant fashion. I only needed to add nineteen detours to Google’s driving directions between the two endpoints. (Because Google’s routes are optimized by time, not distance, it’s necessary to make a number of manual corrections in order to shorten the distance between two places). There are only a handful of states that are "poked" – i.e., dipped into and out of without accumulating any mileage. Somewhat surprisingly, I saved some distance by skipping Four Corners, in favor of routing the trip through different parts of each of the four states. For those of you who collect state capitals, the route passes through eight of them (plus, of course, the District). Also, since the route begins in Washington state, I could proceed 1,200 miles to Hyder and claim my 49th. If I ever accomplish that, I’ll have earned a vacation – in Hawaii, of course.
I’ve thwarted the nerdy terrorist and saved the day. But there must be a shorter route out there. Can you spot places where I can shave a few miles? Might it make sense to use different end points? Would you hit the south of Ohio, as I’ve done, or the north? Are there more creative ways to hit the tricky states of Florida, California, and Michigan?
And now for some extra credit: Can you design a route under 7,300 miles that hits each state exactly once without reentering it? I did, and I’ll share my map in the comment section. As you may have guessed, you have no choice but to start in Maine, and you’ll have to make some significant adjustments to the 6,500 mile optimized route.
(POSTSCRIPT: In a coincidence worthy of the "great minds think alike" accolade, Tom pointed me to a recent blog post by fellow TMC fan Stephen Von Worley that attempts to determine the fastest method to reach all fifty states – the last two by air. He also uses the “W” formation in the lower 48, arriving at a 6,813 mile route.)