Atlantic to Pacific

Regular readers of the Twelve Mile Circle seem to enjoy vicarious road challenges: shortest routes, fastest times, greatest distances over a specific time, and things of that nature. I featured the quickest highway path from México to Canada a few weeks ago. Now I’d like to explore the other direction across the United States, from the Atlantic Ocean to the Pacific Ocean within the Lower 48. What is the quickest route and how long should it take for a theoretical driver obeying posted speed limits?

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It might help narrow the possibilities by examining the shortest line "as the crow flies" and then compare that result to the Interstate highway system to craft an approximate alignment. The United States Geological Survey (USGS) specifies that line as running from "approximately 10 miles south of Brunswick, GA" to "approximately 12 miles south of San Diego, CA." That’s a distance of 2,089 miles (3,362 kilometres). One may quibble that the line runs across a small corner of Baja California, México and whether it truly "counts" or not. It doesn’t matter much to me because I’ll keep the most similar highway route within the United States regardless.

Google disagrees slightly with the distance, returning a value of 2,091.83. It might have to do with the endpoints. The USGS didn’t provide exact latitude/longitude coordinates. I had to make an educated guess about where to drop a pin in Brunswick and San Diego even though each covers considerably more than a single point, and then head a designated number of miles south. It’s almost like trying to follow a pirate map. That came to the southern tip of Jekyll Island, Georgia and a couple miles north of the Mexican border. Also Google isn’t always 100% exact. I’ll consider the mileage discrepancy within an acceptable margin of error considering the uncertainties.

I also plotted the longest coast-to-coast line across the Lower 48, from West Quoddy Head, ME to Point Arena, CA. USGS said it was 2,892 miles (4,654 km). Google estimated 2,892.91. No complaints there. This has nothing to do with the rest of the article, however. I just wanted to see both lines on the same map.

The lesson I learned from the México-to-Canada discussion was that I don’t need to examine a slew of alternatives if someone else has already done the heavy lifting. 12MC reader Brian Casey mentioned the Iron Butt Association, a group of motorcycle enthusiasts who love to take extremely long road trips. I was already familiar with the group because I knew someone who participated in their 2011 Iron Butt Rally. However, I was less familiar with some of their individual ride certifications.

One of the certifications that riders can earn, as Brian Casey noted, was driving between México and Canada in either direction in less than twenty four hours. Did they have a similar certification for coast-to-coast travel, I wondered? Why yes, the Iron Butt Association issued a challenge called the 50CC Quest.

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It was designed for those riders not wanting to make the New York to San Francisco run yet looking for a challenge for crossing the country from coast to coast. You may choose any two coast cities (obviously, one on the Atlantic Ocean and the other on the Pacific Ocean) you wish (Jacksonville, Florida to San Diego, California is the most popular)… Your ride needs to be completely documented and cross the United States from coast to coast in 50 hours or less.

Notice the operative phrase: "Jacksonville, Florida to San Diego, California is the most popular." It followed, naturally, that people behaving rationally would select the quickest possible route. They have only 50 hours. The favored route follows Interstate 10 for most of its length, then Interstate 8 from the western half of Arizona and across California. Someone departing from Brunswick, Georgia would have to go through Jacksonville anyway, so Jacksonville is the better place to begin the journey.

The theoretical shortest straight line distance as noted above was 2,089 miles (3,362 km). The shortest highway distance turned out to be 2,359 miles (3,796 km) and Google said it could be done in 33 hours (recognizing that Google is conservative). This makes the 50CC Quest and its 50 hour limit quite feasible, assuming one has an iron butt.

Sure, I could try to find a quicker route. Why bother though? It’s already been crowdsourced and I’m happy to leave it at that.

Longest Distance in an Hour

It’s the easy questions that seem to be the most difficult to answer sometimes. The search engine query captured in my web logs appeared to be a simple affair. "What is the longest distance someone can drive in an hour." I figured the answer would probably be the portions of the Autobahn in Germany that don’t have a set speed limit (albeit 130 kilometres per hour / 81 miles per hour is recommended) and the new section of Texas highway that has been fixed at 85 mph (137 kph).

I established some ground rules. First, I’d stick with measurements as applied by specific nations. Thus, for countries that post their speed limits in miles per hour — primarily the United States — I’ll specify miles per hour first with kilometers per hour in parentheses. I’d flip the order for other nations. Second, I’d keep it to legally-recognized speeds. Third, I’d use Google Maps as my arbitrator. Whatever Google Maps said could be covered in an hour was what mattered for this investigation.

Here’s the interesting thing. The distances Google said could be covered in an hour were generally less than the posted speed limits, and sometimes considerably less. Also, I checked some of the exact same segments a second time and they would change slightly. Don’t blame me if what I stated below differs from what you see on the map when you open it. I’m beginning to think that perhaps Google changes its calculations on-the-fly depending upon local conditions.

I’ll start with Texas first, not Germany. The reasons will become obvious soon enough.

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I distinctly remember reading about a spot in Texas with an 85 mph (137 kph) speed limit. Unfortunately it appears I jumped the gun by a few weeks. The New York Times reported that Texas is Reclaiming the Title of Fastest in the Land. Unfortunately that 41 mile (66 km) segment between Austin and San Antonio won’t open until November 2012. This could become the one-hour distance champion depending on how traffic flows on either end of that stretch. I’ll try to check it in a few weeks and provide an update.

Thus out of necessity I shifted to other parts of Texas that currently have 80 mph (129 kph) speed limits. Those are practically on a par with recommended speed limits for unrestricted sections of the Autobahn. The best Texan example I discovered was a section of Interstate 20 in the vicinity of Pecos. Google Maps estimated that 72.4 miles (116.5 km) could be covered in one hour.

See what I mean? The speed limit is 80 mph and Google estimates that a driver can be expected to cover only 72.4 miles during that interval. Maybe that calculation would make sense for a long journey, however I’m pretty sure I could put the car on cruise control at 80 mph in this empty quadrant and drive for a single hour without stopping for a meal or a restroom break. I could probably get away with more than that, and likely would if I ever attempted this segment in the physical world. However, let’s remember the ground rule about obeying the law for this exercise.

Nonetheless, I relied upon Google as the decision-maker with the assumption that whatever algorithm they developed would level the playing field to account for "real world" conditions as opposed to theoretical maximums. I guess I can see their reasoning. Certainly there have been plenty of times when I’ve gotten stuck in heavy, slow-moving traffic where the posted speed limit taunting me like a cruel joke.

Portions of Interstate 10 in West Texas also feature 80 mph speed limits. I calculated a 72.3 mile (116 km) distance over an hour west of Fort Stockton (map) and 71.6 miles (115 km) east of Fort Stockton (map).

Utah has a 20-mile segment allowing an 80 mph speed on Interstate 15. The best I could do there was a theoretical 68.4 miles (110 km) over the hour-long period (map).

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Germany was a huge disappointment. Sections of the Autobahn may not have speed limits per se, however try arguing that with Google Maps. It won’t work. I found a nice resource detailing unrestricted sections of the Autobahn (legend) and attempted various map segments. The best I could produce was a portion of A20 and a portion of A24 that both returned values of 109 kilometres (68 mi) for the fictional hour (above and map).

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Poland and Bulgaria both have 140 kmh (87 mph) maximum speed limits. My attempts to find decent results in Poland were a bust. Bulgaria was much better and produced a value esentually equivalent to Texas. The best result was 115 km (71.5 mi) over that imaginary hour.

Finally I turned to Australia, somehow figuring that areas in the Northern Territory zoned for 130 kmh (81 mph) over wide open spaces would generate excellent results. They did not, or I didn’t find them, or something. Google Maps didn’t like the Northern Territory at all. 81 kilometers (50 mi) for an hour on the Stuart Highway in the middle of nowhere (map)? Really?

Let me know if you find anything better than the Texas and Bulgaria results.

Totally Unrelated

Regular reader "Josh" thought the 12MC audience might enjoy a website with 9,308 photographs of North Dakota. I did, and I found the premise even more interesting. The photographer visited every single dot on the map of North Dakota and took at least one photograph. Wow!

Thanks Josh!

The Park You Cannot Visit

The U.S. National Park Service currently has 394 units, with one more arriving soon. These include all manner of parks, monuments, historic sites, battlefields, seashores, recreation areas, trails and various other interesting designations. Each one is a beloved national treasure whether famous like Yellowstone National Park or more obscure such as Rosie the Riveter/World War II Home Front National Historical Park.

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One site, however, cannot be visited. Even though it’s located within a major metropolitan area with more than four million residents, you cannot go there. You can touch it ever so briefly but you can never truly experience it legally. Tourists are strictly prohibited. The site is the Hohokam Pima National Monument on the outskirts of Phoenix, Arizona.

This National Monument was established to protect Snaketown, an ancient village of the pre-Columbian Hohokam people who once inhabited a swath of the desert southwest. It is believed that they settled Snaketown sometime around 2,300 year ago, and abondoned it for unknown reasons (possibly drought) about 900 years ago. It was a large cultural center with a couple of thousand residents, intensive agricultural cultivation and a large system of irrigation canals. Archaeologists excavated Snaketown in the 1930’s and again in the 1960’s. When done, they completely reburied the site to preserve it for future generations.

Hohokam Pima National Monument falls within the boundaries of the Gila River Indian Community. According to the National Park Service, "The Gila River Indian Community has decided not to open the extremely sensitive area to the public." This is as close as you can get to Snaketown without permission:

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Is it really closed? Yes, that’s true in a general sense, but thousands of people travel through the National Monument every day and probably never realize it.

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That’s because, in spite of the site’s sensitivity, Interstate 10 cuts through a corner of it. I guess "visit" depends on whether one considers a 30-second drive sufficient or not. In full disclosure, I’ve visited counties for less time and counted them, although I think that’s a bit different than experiencing a National Park Service unit.

People who collect parkstamps wouldn’t consider a freeway jaunt sufficient. No, they would insist upon on official National Park Passport Stamp to complete the deal and no stamp exists for Hohokam Pima.

12MC reader "Scott" mentioned these passports to me and I gave them a brief shout-out in one of the recent Utah articles. Scott also provide me with lots of National Park trivia that I will use in future articles.

I asked Scott if I could talk a little about the National Park Travelers Club‘s 9th Annual Convention and he said that would be fine. These are people who collect parkstamps avidly as a hobby, which is something I can understand completely with my somewhat-related desire to count counties.

If you happen to be in the Washington, DC area on Saturday, August 6th between 9:30 am and 5:00 pm, and you’re curious about parkstamps, then stop by the Columbia Ballroom of the Holiday Inn Capitol, 550 C Street SW, Washington, DC, for the Annual Convention. It is free to attend! I am seriously considering attending myself if I can work it into my schedule even though my stamp collection now stands at only 2.

This is a "big deal" year, the 25th anniversary of the creation of official stamps managed by the Eastern National organization. There are currently over 2,000 of these cancellation stamps in existence. As an added enticement, there will be an official park passport stamp available at the convention to commemorate the event but only for that one day. It would be a great, extremely rare stamp to jump-start one’s collection.

I am sure Scott will answer any comments you may have below if you would like further information. Likewise I’d be glad to provide contact information for Scott if you’d prefer to send him a message offline.