Riverboat Adventure, Part 1 (The River)

On April 20, 2014 · 2 Comments

12MC is back! Thank you for bearing with me while a took a brief respite from posting new articles. There were logistical reasons. Each race in the five state series took much of the morning, then we’d have to drive to the next location (stopping at geo-oddity sites along the way), arrive late each afternoon, and then start preparing for the next race the following morning. The distances were much farther than my Dust Bowl adventure, and we covered 2,700 miles (4,350 kilometres) in 9 days. Those unfamiliar with the basic outline can reacquaint themselves with our ambitious travel itinerary in The Pitch.

This was the longest break I’ve taken from 12MC in the six-plus years that I’ve been writing it. It felt weird. I had one article in the bag ready to post. It had a rushed and hurried tone without the quality normally befitting this site. So I gave myself permission to take a break. Now I’m able to look at the totality of my Riverboat adventure and organize subjects into themes rather than suffer the disjointed limitations of chronology.

I received several audience sightseeing suggestions both beforehand and along the way. Some of those made it into the narrative and will appear in articles over the next couple of weeks. Enjoy!

The Mississippi and Ohio Rivers Confluence

Fort Defiance

The Riverboat adventure focused on the Lower Mississippi River, defined as beginning at the confluence of the Mississippi and Ohio Rivers, and extending to the Gulf of Mexico. We didn’t make it all the way to the Gulf although we started at the confluence and made it as far south as northern Louisiana.

We experienced only a single "disappointment" during the entire trip, and I’m almost embarrassed to call it a disappointment because it was so completely trivial. We planned a picnic lunch at Ft. Defiance Park located directly at the confluence. It would have been a lovely vantage point both for its scenery and its geographic significance. It would have offered Illinois’ southernmost point as well as its lowest point of elevation in addition to the awesomeness of the confluence itself. The park was closed because of recent flooding that happens frequently during springtime. Snowmelt flows down from the northern extremes of the Mississippi watershed and overruns the banks in floodplain areas. It was a mess.

Ft. Defiance Park at the Mississippi/Ohio River Confluence

Instead, under the guise of lemons vs. lemonade, we recorded one of the shortest state clips traversed by a 2-digit US Highway. Traveling this route, we crossed from Kentucky into Illinois over the Ohio River, drove through Illinois for a single mile (map) stopping briefly for a few photos — notice the water — and then crossed from Illinois into Missouri. Yes, it would have been nice to have been able to stop there for lunch. It didn’t happen. We salvaged our misfortune by having a perfectly fine picnic at an equally scenic spot a little farther downriver while waiting for the Dorena-Hickman ferry.

Kentucky Bluffs

Columbus-Belmont State Park

Much of Kentucky featured irregular borders (map) defined by rivers or mountain ridges. The Ohio River determined much of its northern and western border. A small portion, however, at the far western extreme of the commonwealth and immediately south of the confluence straddled the Mississippi River. That was our target.

High bluffs protected some of this area so that residents here remained dry while their neighbors in Illinois and Missouri flooded. We stopped at Columbus-Belmont State Park for one of the races. That was the site of a Confederate fortification during the US Civil War, perched atop the bluff in an attempt to control river access and commercial traffic during the conflict.

Memphis, Tennessee

Mud Island

Farther downstream, Memphis was undoubtedly the largest city we encountered during our journey. We blew through it on our first pass using its highways as a means cross the river and push towards our next destination in rural Arkansas. We would see Memphis again on the return path and stay for a couple of days, and in a bit of foreshadowing, yes we visited Graceland.

Barges heading up- and downstream were a frequent sighting during our journey. Here, a barge passed below the Hernando DeSoto Bridge that carried traffic on Interstate 40 between Memphis, Tennessee and West Memphis, Arkansas.

Greenville Bridge

Greenville Bridge

I’ve driven across the Mississippi River numerous times over the years. However I’ve never driven along the river this far before, not even during my Great River Road trip in Wisconsin. I gained a new appreciation for just how infrequently one can cross the river as we progressed southward down its path, jogging back-and-forth across its banks. One doesn’t comprehend that same sense of rarity on the Interstate highway system where the Mississippi River hardly seemed an obstacle at all.

We used the Greenville Bridge outside of Greenville, Mississippi a couple of times during the drive. We had one race on the immediate western side in Lake Village, Arkansas, and another race just south of Greenville, Mississippi the next day. That provided a rare respite, an uncharacteristic day that involved little driving and some needed downtime.

Lake Chicot, Arkansas

Riverboat Marathon Series - Arkansas

The Arkansas race took place at a beautiful spot along Lake Chicot, the lake for which Lake Village gained its name. Chicot was a classic oxbow lake.

The Oxbow Crescent of Lake Chicot, Arkansas, USA

Wikipedia described it as "the largest oxbow lake in North America and the largest natural lake in Arkansas, formed 600 years ago by the meandering of the Mississippi River." Astute 12MC readers know how much I love oxbows. Largest oxbow in North America! Largest natural lake in Arkansas! Sold. I experienced a genuine geo-oddity simply by watching marathoners loop through the park for a few hours while I went on a photo safari.

Then it started raining like crazy, with thunder and lightning and torrential downpours and the whole deal. This was our day without driving and we knew we were fortunate. I wasn’t disappointed by a rainy day. We were lucky even though the weather sucked, using it as an excuse to hole-up in a warm hotel room for an afternoon to relax.

Mud Island

Mud Island

At this point a special shout-out goes to reader "Bill C." for suggesting the Riverwalk at Mud Island. As the park site explained, "The Riverwalk is an exact scale model of the Lower Mississippi River flowing from its confluence with the Ohio River at Cairo, Illinois 954 miles south to the Gulf of Mexico." I didn’t know about this place in advance and I would have missed it without Bill C.’s suggestion. It was geo-geek paradise, so thanks Bill C.

The Riverwalk represented the entire Lower Mississippi in miniature, everything we’d just spent a full week driving, at a scale where every footstep representing about a mile. I was giddy as I hopped back and forth across the model, pointing out each spot we’d visited during our journey while my wife rolled her eyes and pretended to be amused. This photo captured the Kentucky Bend (aka "Bubbleland") portion, which gave an indication of the model’s colossal scale.

The entire Riverwalk stretched about a half-mile with each concrete layer representing a five-foot elevation change. Notice the color changes, too. The light-tan coloration represented the floodplain. Thus, much of Kentucky Bend would be subject to periodic flooding while the darker-colored area remained dry. Not surprisingly, I noticed that was where the farmers concentrated their homes when we’d visited the Bend earlier in the week.

Signage at the park indicated that the model held about 1.2 million gallons (4.5 million litres) of water at any given time. It was interactive too. Lots of children splashed around in the river and that was perfectly fine. The gift shop even sold T-shirts to that effect.

What State U

On February 9, 2014 · 15 Comments

I mentioned the University of Idaho in a tangential comment on Résumé Bait and Switch. I focused on its location in Moscow, the city in Idaho not the one in Russia, although I noticed an additional feature I didn’t discuss at the time. The western edge of the university ran amazingly close to the state border between Idaho and Washington.

Western Edge of Univ. of Idaho, Moscow, ID

The distance from the farthest western extreme of the University of Idaho to the state of Washington measured 0.3 miles (0.5 kilometers). I walk farther than than that to get to the nearest subway station in the morning!

It wouldn’t take much effort to expand the university just a sliver and abut a neighboring state. It probably couldn’t go farther — the University of Idaho is a public state institution (i.e., not private or for profit). It’s likely confined within Idaho’s boundaries absent some sort of infinitely complicated sharing agreement with Washington involving taxpayer funding, accreditation, enrollment standards, and so on.

Was there an instance of a state university bordering directly on another state, I wondered? I set a few ground rules, and this is where the 12MC audience can participate too. I tried to limit the search to public universities and land borders; no private schools that were free of direct state control and no rivers intervening to block a leisurely stroll. Those criteria would also eliminate every minor office suite with a University of Phoenix "campus" and its ilk that happened to fall near a state border from consideration as well. True residential universities with dormitories and signs of on-campus student life would be a bonus. Examples from outside of the United States that featured international borders would be fine as well although I didn’t have time to explore them.

The search grew difficult even as I slowly relaxed my standards. In fact, I’m still searching for the elusive major state university on a land border. It may exist, and if so I know the eagle eyes of 12MC readers will discover it. Until then I offer my best imperfect discoveries.

University of Texas – El Paso

SW Side of UTEP, El Paso, Texas

Take a look at the University of Texas – El Paso. It came within a thousand feet (0.3 km) from an international border with México at its closest point according to my eyeball estimate, just across from Ciudad Juárez in the state of Chihuahua. It might as well have been located many more miles away though, with an intervening Interstate Highway, railroad track, border patrol agents (see Street View), concrete wall and river standing in the way. It might be easier to break out of a maximum security prison than to walk from UTEP into México following the most direct path.

University of Kansas School of Medicine

KU School of Medicine, Kansas City, Kansas

The University of Kansas — KU — in Lawrence, Kansas didn’t exactly hug the border. However the university placed its School of Medicine in Kansas City and that was a different story. State Line Road ran directly along the eastern edge of the medical center. That was great, however, I wanted to find where a main campus of a university matched the criteria, not just a single department.

Purchase College – State University of New York

NE Corner of Purchase-SUNY, New York

Like the University of Idaho, Purchase College – SUNY seemed to be about 0.3 mi (0.5 km) from the state border at its closest point. I’d call it a tie with credit to Univ. Idaho for being one of the state’s flagship university and also with credit to Purchase College for being located near a genuine geo-oddity, the road that New York stole from Connecticut.

Also, I don’t expect Purchase College to ever change its name to Purchase University because then it would be, well, PU.

John Brown University

Western Edge of John Brown University, Siloam Springs, Arkansas

The Oklahoma border fell about 0.2 mi (0.3 km) west of John Brown University in Siloam Springs, Arkansas. Also, West University Street seemed to imply future expansion, using that designation from the current campus all the way to the state line. A mostly-vacant lot separated the university from a potential Oklahoma abutment while residential areas and a cemetery constraining the campus from other directions (map). I could happen someday. The catch? John Brown was a private school.

An interesting aside about making assumptions: I figured the school must have been named for John Brown, the abolitionist. No, it was named for its founder, a different person of the same name, an early 20th Century evangelist. JBU is a private, interdenominational, Christian university with about 2,200 students, and its first three presidents were John Brown, John Brown Jr. and John Brown III. None of them, as far as I know, ever raided Harper’s Ferry.

Another Puzzle

When the 12MC audience tires of the previous task, may I suggest another? I also noticed that the University of Idaho was only 6.7 mi (10.7 km) from Washington State University. Can anyone find a shorter driving distance between flagship universities of two different states? I thought I’d cheat with the University of Maryland and the University of the District of Columbia (yes, I know, not a state) and even then I fell short at 8.8 mi (14.3 km).

Universities selected should incorporate the name of the state either as "University of {whatever state}" or as "{whatever state} State" for this puzzle. I’d consider other suffixes for schools with sufficient stature, e.g., Texas A&M or Georgia Tech, although neither of those would score well because they’re too far from a state border. Directional modifiers and/or offshoot campus designations would be less impressive, e.g., "Central Northwest {whatever state} at Stumblebum."

Shaped Like it Sounds

On April 4, 2013 · 5 Comments

I enjoyed filling in newly captured counties in my county counting map as a result of the recent Dust Bowl trip. I was quite pleased with the result, a nice block of color added to a previously-empty quadrant. I left behind a couple of doughnut-hole counties that I’ll probably never capture. That’s fine. I’ve gotten to the point where I’m oddly at peace with the thought of never capturing every single one of the 3,143 counties and county-equivalents in the United States.

Lincoln County, Colorado stood-out as I shaded the blocks.

View Shaped Like they Sound in a larger map

I noticed that it was a mirror-image, or backwards, or perhaps a dyslexic letter "L" in appearance, and also the first letter in Lincoln. I’m not sure why I found that remarkable or amusing, and I’m not sure why anyone else should care either. Nonetheless it sparked an odd quest to see if I could find other places that were shaped like the first letters in their names.

Ohio License Plate
Ohio License Plate
via Wikipedia , Fair Use Image

There are several recognizable examples at the State level. The Ohio Bureau of Motor Vehicles noted one such instance right on its license plate, the state’s resemblance to the letter "O." In addition lots of schoolchildren learn that Vermont resembles a "V" to distinguish it from New Hampshire when memorizing the states, and finally, Louisiana looks a lot like an "L."

I put all of my little discoveries, both at the state and county levels, on a single map.

View Shaped Like they Sound in a larger map

You should feel free to open the map in a new tab and explore my finds, or continue to read the article and I’ll provide a few more highlights with links directly to appropriate corners of the map.

It struck me that Louisiana + Ohio + Vermont = L-O-V. It’s too bad that the United States doesn’t have another state beginning with E to the east so we could get a little LOVE. The best I could imagine might be Prince Edward Island if we could convince Canada to give it up, drop the Prince part and start it with Edward, then bulldoze the island into a shape more reminiscent of an E. I wonder if Brent, 12MC’s self-anointed "obligatory Canadian" might arrange a swap? Maybe Canada could trade PEI for a very thin strip of equivalent acreage along the straight, extended border through the western half of the continent? I’m kidding of course. No offense implied or intended to the fine citizens of Canada.

The Letter L

View Shaped Like they Sound in a larger map

Actually another Lincoln formed a much better L than the one in Colorado. Lincoln County, Wyoming at least faced the proper direction. I also found lesser examples in Lafayette County, Florida (map) and Lake County, Oregon (map)

The Letter P

View Shaped Like they Sound in a larger map

You might have to bend the rules a little to see this one. Polk County, Arkansas doesn’t have a little cut-out circle but the average viewer should still be able to interpret this as the letter "P" without too much effort. A similar situation exists in Perry County, Alabama (map).

And the Rest of the Counties

View Shaped Like they Sound in a larger map

Setting aside that Rhode Island no longer has any functional counties — albeit they’re still used for U.S. census purposes — I think my favorite might be Newport. To me, it resembled a lower-case letter "n" written in a cursive script. Maybe? Just a little?

Other examples requiring a bit of creative imagination would include the "R" of Roberts County, South Dakota (map) and the sideways-"T" of Tulsa County, Oklahoma (map).

Thank goodness for the circular towns of Georgia

View Larger Map

Many 12MC readers are familiar with the numerous towns in Georgia with an unusual "O" shape found in few other places. I figured I could find at least one town beginning with the letter O that had retained its original boundaries through the last couple of centuries. It was harder than I imagined. Annexations have changed many of their borders to the point where arcs have softened or have been erased. Oliver, Georgia remained pretty faithful though.

Others mostly intact O-towns in Georgia included:

  • Ochlocknee (map)
  • Offerman (map), albeit with a nub
  • Omega (map) although it would have been infinitely more fascinating if it had been Ωmega shaped.

I wondered if any of the formerly circular towns had annexed pipestems to create b’s, d’s, p’s or q’s but I got bored and lost interest I decided to leave something behind for the 12MC audience to discover on its own.

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