It started out as it often does through a chance encounter with a roadmap anomaly. I happened to be examining a stretch of highway online. Then I spied an uncharacteristically wide split between the westbound and eastbound lanes of Interstate 84 directly outside of Pendleton, Oregon.
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It seemed quite remarkable. A mountain ridge forced opposing lanes to split and separate by an unusual distance. I used mapping tools to measure a line directly across the opening to estimate the greatest separation, which I calculated at around 1.7 miles (2.7 kilometers). This required a level of subjectivity. I attempted to measure between equivalent points on opposing lanes, measured almost horizontally in this instance. Obviously longer distances could be calculated by angling the line. That felt like cheating though. I decided to stick with my original estimate, giving or taking a small amount to account for eyeball-level accuracy, and wondered whether I could discover roads with greater separations.
Likely candidates went by different names such as
duel carriageway, freeway, motorway or divided highway, based upon linguistic variations of English-speaking nations. Likewise the separation between opposing lanes might be called a central reservation in the United Kingdom or a median strip in the United States, as examples. These terms could be mixed-and-matched to target online searches for better candidates.
Let’s dispel with the knee-jerk candidate right away.
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An Intertubes mythology has coalesced around Brasília’s Monumental Axis ("Eixo Monumental"). This impressive roadway defined a core for Brazil’s capital city, a feat certainly worthy of recognition. This also created an uncorroborated notion that Monumental Axis was either the widest road or the widest central reservation on the planet. Clearly it is neither. I measured the median at 0.25 miles (0.4 km). That’s a wide spot for Brazil perhaps although completely unremarkable when compared to the Pendleton split.
I wasn’t the first to ponder this question. Others blazed a trail before me and recorded numerous instances, including the Pendleton example I felt so smug about "discovering" a few days ago. A roadfan discussion and an FAQ proved to be particularly helpful so I stole from those sources liberally. Examples going forward should be ascribed to people who mentioned them there. I was too lazy to find any other instances on my own.
My crude measurements suggested co-champions, one in Canada and one in México.
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The Trans-Canada Highway presented a paradox, a 2.6 mile (4.2 km) separation for no apparent geographic reason, located outside of Ernfold, Saskatchewan. There weren’t any mountains to bypass. Muskeg wouldn’t be an issue this far south. I did notice a number of small lakes and ponds within the vicinity although those should have been negotiated with ease by highway construction crews.
I may have found the answer. The original highway, now the westbound lanes, swung to the north and passed through Ernfold. The eastbound lanes came later. Those lanes took a more direct path, avoiding further traffic through a residential area while reducing construction costs.
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Down along the border between México and the United States, a common geographic formation created dueling companion instances with the more impressive one located in México.
I measured the Interstate 8 median strip east of San Diego, California at 1.5 miles (2.4 km). The distance between opposing lanes of Mexican Federal Highway 2D as it stretched from Tijuana to Mexicali came in at around 2.6 miles (4.2 km). That was the same as the Canadian example, once again within the margin of error of eyeball precision. I am sure one or the other occurrence could claim the crown with improved criteria and measurement.
One other United States location often surfaced in discussions, a stretch of Interstate 24 outside of Monteagle, Tennessee (map). I measured the width of the median at 1.7 miles (2.7 km), the same as Pendleton, so I’d call these a tie for the greatest US distance unless someone finds a better location.
Sometimes examples from the United Kingdom surfaced. They did not compare favorably.
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The M6 at Shap near Junction 39 received frequent attention. One source noted that " Junction 39 is the highest junction on the M6 being less than half a mile from Shap summit, the highest point on the M6." That would seem promising. I measured it at 0.2 miles (0.32 km) which was even as much as Brazil’s Monumental Axis. Others suggested the A611 at Annesley (map). The central reservation appeared to have a similar width. They were both noteworthy for the UK although neither contended for the world title.
Canadian and Mexican examples, both with 2.6 mile (4.2 km) median strips, were the best that I could find during my cursory search. Certainly we can do better.
The adventure ends. This article will post automatically as I’m flying somewhere over the vast interior of the United States assuming my WordPress blogging software operates correctly. I will likely be home by the time many of you read this. It’s been a great two weeks of traveling through corners of Washington and Oregon I’d never experienced before. Now I need to finish this vacation and readjust to reality. I plan to take a couple of days off from blogging and I’ll see you all next week after I catch-up on job responsibilities and household chores. Hopefully this final article within the Pacific Northwest series will provide sufficient 12MC goodness to see you through.
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This map, unlike the previous ones actually describes our route accurately, albeit we didn’t complete everything in a single day.
We’ve been blessed by great weather. Our drive past Mount Hood — the tallest peak in Oregon at 11,249 feet (3,429 metres) — was no exception. We’d been spotting glimpses of it all day as we traveled north out of Bend on a route towards Hood River. I don’t generally backtrack although I made an exception here. I had to stop the car and turn around briefly after this view of Mt. Hood appeared in my rear-view mirror.
I’ve been to the Pacific Northwest enough times to understand that this wasn’t an everyday sight.
I broke another one of my ironclad cardinal travel rules a couple of hours later: avoid the tourist hordes at all costs. There wasn’t an option. My wife and I had been to Multnomah Falls on our 1998 trip and were suitably impressed. We felt the kids needed to experience them too. Perfect summer weather. On a weekend. Right off an Interstate highway. Directly outside of a major metropolitan area (Portland). This wasn’t going to be a pretty traffic situation.
We prepped the boys that this might by a drive-by visit only. We left Interstate 84 and nudged down a narrow roadway at the base of the cliffs, the Historic Columbia River Highway. Near gridlock, bumper-to-bumper traffic greeted us as we closed-in on the falls. We drove past slowly and told the kids to look up towards their left. This would be their only opportunity to view of the falls, or so we though. Unexpectedly, right as I was about to exit towards the Interstate, a parking spot opened directly in front of me. What’s that old expression? "It’s better to be lucky than to be good?"
Regular readers know that I can’t bypass a ferry. Only one ferry remains on the lower Columbia River, the Ferry Wahkiakum, running once an hour between Washington and Oregon. Wahkiakum County, Washington operates its eponymous ferry as it has since taking over operations in 1962. It’s the only direct automotive connection between Wahkiakum County and Oregon, which is why I suppose the ferry continues to exist even though bridges can be found to the east and the west.
Astoria is a quaint town near the mouth of the Columbia River on the Oregon side of the border. It has roots going all the way back to a fort established in 1811 by the American Fur Company, and named after the company owner, John Jacob Astor. Bear in mind that this occurred only about five years after Lewis and Clark first covered the expanse of North America to a spot very near this point.
Furs are long gone. Tourism seems to be the dominant industry in Astoria today with all of its art galleries, gingerbread Victorian architecture and Bed-and-Breakfast inns. It’s a great little weekend getaway for people living in Portland.
I took this photograph from the Astoria Column, a 125 ft. / 38m. tower atop the highest hill in town. Notice the bridge that spans the Columbia River with the state of Washington on the far side. It’s only about 20 minutes from Ferry Wahkiakum which is why the old ferry felt like such an anachronism, albeit a pleasant one.
We’d been chasing Lewis and Clark since the Tri-Cities almost two weeks earlier, and we arrived at the Pacific Ocean in a similar location. We toured Cape Disappointment on the Washington side of the border where the Corps of Discovery Expedition observed the ocean before crossing back to Oregon and settling-in for the winter of 1805-1806.
We went just slightly north of the Cape to present-day Long Beach, Washington.
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I couldn’t help one last bit of geo-geekiness on our final leg towards SeaTac airport. Mason County had long been a "doughnut hole" on my Washington State map of counties visited. I veered from Highway 8 a short distance to clip Mason County and finally capture it. That empty spot on my map had been taunting me for years and I felt this might be one of very few opportunities to resolve that discrepancy. Problem solved.
Now it’s time to return home.
Other articles in this travelogue:
The Twelve Mile Circle feeds my on-the-ground experiences and my experiences loop-back and feed 12MC. It’s a great circle of activity, although I mention that with apologies for the analogy. A reader comment brought John Day to my attention, which resulted in an article, which resulted in some fascinating places to visit during my Oregon trip.
I’ve been tripping across John Day repeatedly ever since.
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This is the approximate route for the John Day portion of the journey, although not all in a single day. We’re using Bend, OR as a base camp and making day-trips into the countryside from there, having driven down from the Tri-Cities area of eastern Washington earlier.
I began with a drive-by of the Columbia / John Day River confluence along Interstate 84, on the Oregon side of its shared border with Washington. The John Day dumps into the much-larger Columbia right at the railroad trestle farther back in the image. I could have stopped at Le Page Park, situated directly at the confluence, but that would have required an admission fee and I’m cheap. I wasn’t going to pay just to take a photo as much as I love the 12MC audience. Sorry.
We checked-in with John Day a bit more dramatically at the John Day Fossil Beds National Monument a few days later. It’s truly in the middle of nowhere and all of the park rangers appeared to be in their mid-20′s. I think John Day may be a form of newly-hired ranger hazing. I can imagine the parks superintendent saying something like, “So, you want to work at Yosemite, do you? Well, put in about 20 years and maybe we can make that happen. First, let’s start you off at John Day and see what you’re made of.”
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The satellite image makes John Day look bleak. That’s deceptive. It’s absolutely stunning and gorgeous at ground level.
The National Monument has three units and we visited two of them. It’s headquartered at the Sheep Rock Unit named, appropriately enough, for Sheep Rock. You’re looking at Sheep Rock right now.
One can visit the Thomas Condon Paleontology Center and the nearby James Cant Ranch in quick succession. This part of the park has the only true amenities (e.g., genuine flush toilets). My wife felt it was important to note that for the more demure members of the 12MC audience. It’s apparently a big deal. There are also a variety of short-hike opportunities with spectacular scenery nearby too.
Notice the trickle of water in the foreground of the image. Yes, that’s the same John Day River that will dump into the Columbia more purposefully another hundred-or-so-miles to the north. Much of the flow down here gets diverted for agricultural purposes. Water rights are strictly apportioned and enforced. Farms could not exist in the High Desert without careful water management. My favorite trivial tidbit from an interpretive sign at the ranch:
Just as the Cant family did before us, the National Park Service is dedicated to continuing the tradition of working this land by farming and cultivating an annual hay crop. In fact, to manage this operation, John Day Fossil Beds National Monument employs the only full-time farmer in a national park.
I can now say I saw the only full-time national parks farmer puttering-along on his tractor.
The Sheep Rock unit is slightly over the Grant County line, approaching from the west. My wife pointed out the sign to me as we crossed the border. I felt a sense of accomplishment, that she’s finally acclimated to my county counting fixation albeit she never truly understanding it. I also felt a sense of bemusement that she didn’t seem to realize I’d mapped and planned this county capture well ahead of time, and in fact, it was a contributory reason for trekking all the way out to the Sheep Rock unit in the first place. I give her a look of mild surprise, and responded “oh, isn’t that interesting?”
The kids enjoyed the fossils at the Sheep Rock unit most of all. My wife and I favored the scenery of the Painted Hills Unit. There was something for the whole family to appreciate. I call that success.
I cannot even begin to describe the Painted Hills and the photograph doesn’t do it justice. The colors, if anything, were even more vibrant. A passing shower created additional viewing opportunities, changing the entire nature of the scenery. Yes, apparently I have the ability to bring rain to the desert. Call it my special gift. I can’t have a vacation without rainfall. It passed quickly and didn’t spoil the day, so no harm done.
The Painted Hills are located in Wheeler County, which is the Oregon county with the smallest population (1,441 residents in 2010). It also covers 1,715 square miles, making it one of those rarefied counties with more land than people. What does more land than people look like? Empty. Really, really empty. As in, make sure you have a full tank of gas before you arrive because it’s going to be a long time before you get another chance, empty. Do you want to live completely isolated in a stunningly beautiful place? Wheeler County might be your choice.
I didn’t get to the town of John Day or Dayville, both named for the John Day River rather than directly for the man himself, because they were further down the road and the kids would have mutinied. I did, however, stop by this odd Shoe Tree between Dayville and Mitchell.
We stumbled upon this completely by accident although I found it listed on Roadside Americana after we returned. I guess it’s famous, sort of, or whatever. A beat-up pickup truck stood by the side of the road when we pulled over. Two middle-aged guys, looking like they’d been plucked right out of the 1840′s Mountain Man era complete with ZZ Top beards, were throwing old shoes onto the tree. They explained that it was a tradition started by local high school kids, and alcohol may have been involved.
Actually they looked at us like we were the odd ones. "You don’t have shoe trees where you’re from?" Um… no, can’t say that we do.
Other articles in this travelogue: