How Low Can it Go?

On January 29, 2013 · 2 Comments

I stumble across the most fascinating bits of information in unexpected places. It happened this time as I examined the unusually-wide median strip between the eastbound and westbound lanes of Interstate 8 in southern California. I learned of a nearby oddity further down the highway while reviewing various roadfan websites.

A motorist will encounter the lowest overland elevation in the entire Interstate Highway System just to the east of the extreme central reservation I’d discovered earlier. It is listed as 52 feet (16 meters) below sea level by the U.S. Government’s Federal Highway Administration.

It’s not the lowest elevation of any road of any type within the U.S. — that’s Badwater Road in Death Valley which provides access to the lowest public restroom in North America (~ -282 ft, -86 m) — just the lowest natural point of elevation in the Interstate Highway System. It’s still pretty impressive, though.

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This happens in the vicinity of Exit 107 where I-8 crosses the New River. Notice the channel. The road dips down here as it crosses the river over a short bridge. Where, I wondered, could the New River be flowing if it was already more than fifty feet below sea level here? Certainly it would not be flowing to the sea. It much be part of an endorheic basin, and indeed that is the case.

The New River begins in Baja California, Mexico where it’s known as the Río Nuevo. It passes through the wonderfully conjoined portmanteau cities of Mexicali and Calexico. From there it flows under the I-8 bridge west of El Centro, and on to the Salton Sea. The surface elevation of the Salton Sea is -226 ft (-69 m) so whatever flows along the New River won’t leave the Salton Sea on its own unless it’s able to evaporate.

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That’s a problem. This Street View image from the point of lowest Interstate elevation shows one of the most polluted bodies of water in the nation. Sewage, pesticide-laden agricultural runoff, and industrial waste from businesses located along the ditch then dump into a basin without an outflow. Toxins and pathogens collect in extreme concentrations, creating a most foul situation. Those driving at high speed along I-8, crossing this point of lowest elevation, likely never consider the drawbacks of this dubious honor.

Let’s put one more asterisk onto the claim. There are other places along the Interstate Highway Systems with a lower elevation. However, they are located in tunnels. A similar situation exists in Canada.

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The Intertubes claims that the Fort McHenry Tunnel carrying I-95 traffic through Baltimore, Maryland represents the absolutely lowest Interstate elevation at 107 ft (33 m) below sea level. It passes in close proximity to historic Fort McHenry, as implied by the name, the battlefield site inspiring the Star Spangled Banner. It then drops below Baltimore Harbor. I’d post a Street View image except that the interior of a tunnel isn’t exactly the most exciting scenery available (check for yourself if you must).

While the exalted position of the Fort McHenry tunnel seemed to be conventional wisdom for the cyberspace masses, it was not the only candidate offered. I discovered numerous other claims. I could not, however, nail-down a definitive source. Another option included the I-93 Thomas P. "Tip" O’Neill Tunnel, part of the Big Dig project in Boston, Massachusetts. The I-64 Hampton Roads Bridge-Tunnel in Virginia was also mentioned frequently. I know we have several roadfans who read 12MC regularly so hopefully someone can provide a proper citation and we can put these issues to rest. I’ve driven through all three of these tunnels so I’m covered no matter how it turns out. Funny, I never realized I was experiencing a true geo-oddity during any of my transits.

I’ve never driven on I-8 through California though. I look forward to experiencing both the wide median and the lowest overland elevation someday.

Capitals Aligned

On October 2, 2012 · 11 Comments

A query landed on the Twelve Mile Circle from a search engine as they often do. Our anonymous visitor was curious about "capital cities interstate." It took me a little while to figure out what he really wanted to know. I believe he was curious to discover the small number of U.S. state capital cities that are not served by Interstate Highways, a topic covered previously. That’s my guess and that’s where the search engine pointed him so hopefully all went well.

That got me thinking about the query differently. What if I took it literally? Let’s imagine a scenario where someone wished to visit state capitals on a long-distance trip. I don’t know, maybe our traveler wanted to create a photo collection of state capitol buildings or something — don’t be judgmental, people do that! — and for some reason he wanted to remain on a single Interstate Highway the whole time between points. Which Interstate Highway connects the most state capitals?

I didn’t conduct an exhaustive examination so I can’t guarantee that these are the absolute best results. I think they’re pretty good though.

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Interstate 80 seems to be the most optimal example to me. Five state capitals can be found along its length: Des Moines, IA; Lincoln, NE; Cheyenne, WY; Salt Lake City, UT; and Sacramento, CA. This can be accomplished with 27 hours of driving over 1,724 miles (2,774 kilometres). I’ll add a little caveat at this point. The highways I examined may not always plow directly through each city. Sometimes they provided a bypass in close proximity while skirting the city center. Thus, whether a highway actually serves a city depends upon one’s tolerance to proximity. The Interstate 80 example seemed to be the cleanest one with minimal bypassing based upon my quick eyeballing.

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I found another example in the crowded northeast corridor along Interstate 95. I wasn’t too surprised. States tend to be smaller with capitals located near the Atlantic coast, an artifact of colonial times when ships were a primary means of transportation. Five state capitals aligned again: Augusta, ME; Boston, MA; Providence, RI; Trenton, NJ; and Richmond, VA. Boston might be the ringer here. I-95 bypasses the city core by several miles (map). I can sense an opportunity for someone to claim that I-95 doesn’t really run through Boston. Perhaps one could also add the national capital, Washington, DC to this list. I know, it’s a slippery slope. All of these capitals could be claimed during a 747 mile (1,200 km) trek. Under the absolutely best conditions it would require 14 hours of pure driving hell. This is not a journey for the timid.

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I’m going to call Interstate 35 a four-plus example. There are definitely four state capitals: St. Paul, MN; Des Moines, IA; Oklahoma City, OK; and Austin, TX. The "plus" pertains to Topeka, KS. Topeka isn’t located on I-35, however, it’s found on a spur of that highway with the designation I-335. I might let that one slide except that it’s a fifty mile (80 km.) spur. It doesn’t have sufficient proximity, in my opinion, for me to count Topeka as being located along I-35.

There were three other Interstate Highways that I found with four capital cities along their routes.

  • Interstate 20: Columbia, SC; Atlanta, GA; Montgomery, AL and Jackson, MS
  • Interstate 40: Raleigh, NC; Nashville, TN; Little Rock, AR and Oklahoma City, OK
  • Interstate 70: Columbus, OH; Indianapolis, IN; Topeka, KS; and Denver, CO

I-20 seems to offer a particularly good return on investment. The total driving distance would be a relatively compact 624 miles (1,000 km) along a nice route without the nail-biting traffic found in the northeast. I discovered a US Highway that also fit the bill. US Route 50 connects Annapolis, MD; Jefferson City, MO; Carson City, NV and Sacramento, CA.

Looking at pairs, which two are the closest together?

  • Interstate 95: Boston, MA to Providence, RI (50 mi/80 km)
  • Interstate 93: Boston, MA to Concord, NH (68 miles/110 km)
  • Interstate 89: Concord, NH to Montpelier, VT (118 miles/190 km)

Another non-interstate, US Route 13, also does remarkably well with Dover, DE to Trenton, NJ (113 mi/182 km)

And the most frustrating? Denver, CO and Harrisburg, PA are both on Interstate 76. Hartford, CT and Boise, ID are both on Interstate 84. However, one cannot drive contiguously using the same highway between the pairs. The segments, despite common numbering, are separated by thousands of miles.

This was a fun albeit completely unproductive way to spend an entire evening.

My Craziest Geo-Oddity Adventure Ever

On August 5, 2012 · 5 Comments

The adventure will have ended by the time you read this. I’m writing this several days ahead of time since I will be returning home when my WordPress software automatically posts this. I suspect I’ll also be dog-tired.

This whole crazy thing started almost exactly a year ago. Steve Wood, the author of the amazing Connecticut Museum Quest — so good I read every article even though I don’t live anywhere near Connecticut — organized a charity auction to benefit the Smith-Magenis Research Foundation. He wanted to bounce an idea off of me. What would be the approximate value, he wondered, of an Extreme Connecticut Geography Tour. He would serve as a personal tour guide for a dawn-to-dark adventure of statewide geo-oddities accompanied by a constant stream of Connecticut trivia from someone who understands every pertinent fact worth knowning. Priceless I thought, absolutely priceless.

He didn’t figure (seeing how I lived several states away) that I might actually bid on the item and bid rather aggressively. I did. I didn’t figure that my bid in absentia, my already outrageous prearranged maximum would be exceeded. It was, and I lost the auction fair-and-square. I’m grateful that the winning bidder allowed me to tag along on the adventure, with both of our bids going to charity. It’s a scary value that I don’t even want to contemplate although it certainly contributed well towards a decent charitable deduction on my 2011 Federal income taxes. Priceless in fact does have a price.

Nicely played Mr. Wood, nicely played.

It wasn’t easy finding the perfect date for our adventure. In addition to personal summertime plans, we had to find a way to match it with the tides. No, it’s not some weird astrology thing, it’s because one portion of the journey involves a boat ride to an island that can happen only within proximity of a high tide. That’s one of the reasons why this is an extreme geo-tour. Ordinary tourists wouldn’t care. We beg to differ.

All the stars aligned for Saturday, August 4th, and thus we set the date. Steve worked out an agenda and placed it on his website, prompting someone to comment: "are you sure they weren’t bidding on NOT having to do this?" This is hardcore geo-nerd stuff, not for the faint of heart. This is like the Bizarre Foods guy except for geography. Go check out that page and weep in jealousy.

View Extreme Connecticut Geography Tour in a larger map

This is approximately how things should work if it everything happen perfectly. The plan envolves around 350 miles of driving, 10 miles of hiking, plus a ferry ride resulting an all-day nutmeg geo-oddity adventure. Connecticut is sometimes called the Nutmeg State. See how I worked that into the article?

Does anyone want to place bets on whether we executed the plan as expected? I guess we’ll find out soon enough, which is an odd thing to say because in reality it’s already happened. Or not.

I’m hoping to be able to contriube a small number of additional oddities along the general route, time and interest dependent of course. We’ll pass right by the Connecticut road stolen by New York, fairly close to the smallest Indian reservation and within spitting distance of a significant lat/long confluence (42°N 72°W). Ironically the initial topic of shared interest that brought me to CTMQ nearly four years ago won’t be included on the agenda: The Southwick Jog. Steve and I were both itching to visit the Southwick Jog but we can’t make it happen. Take a look at the route map and you’ll understand. It’s completely inconvenient to the overall layout of other geo-oddities.

It looks like I’ll be driving or riding for a little more than a thousand miles this weekend. This includes numerous hours along the most horrible road imaginable within the United States as I travel to Connecticut and return home: Interstate 95. It’s still worth every moment of inconvenience on either end. This is the Extreme Connecticut Geo-Tour! Like I need to explain that. My wife, she thinks I’m nuts, but I know the logic will be readily apparent to most everyone in the 12MC audience. Right? (… cue: chirping crickets in the background).

I suspect I’ll return with huge quantities of photos and video footage. In fair warning, understand that the next two or three articles will be extremely Connecticut-centric. Steve will probably post something before I do. It should form the basis of a nice compare-and-contrast between our two sites.

Let the adventure begin. Or end. Or something.

UPDATE: Success! I’m back home again safely and resting. The only spot we bypassed was the CTMARI tripoint We simply ran out of daylight.

Other articles in this series:

12 Mile Circle:
An Appreciation of Unusual Places
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