Truckin’ Through California

This has absolutely nothing to do with the Grateful Dead although they were indeed from California and noted for Truckin’. It is literally about trucks in California. Feel free to listen to Truckin’ in the background if that would make you happy though.

It all started out more grandiosely. I recalled a particularly awful drive on Virginia’s Interstate 81 last November where it seemed like every other vehicle on the highway was a truck. Some were driving with extreme aggression and well above the posted speed limit. The rest were poking along well below the limit. I grew increasingly aggravated as I slalomed between them.

That incident later inspired an online quest to find a highway with the highest percentage of trucks primarily so I could forever avoid it. That quest continues. I haven’t given up that search. Meanwhile I do have an answer for California. I found a great page from the California Department of Transportation. I was able to download a spreadsheet of annual average daily truck traffic in 2011, which I then sorted appropriately to determine all California state highways with more trucks than cars. It happens rarely. Only a small handful of places throughout the state met that standard. Imagine the nightmare of routes where more than half of all vehicles are trucks, not "seems like it" but genuinely so, consistently, day after day, forever.

Of course I plotted the offending locations. I found it fascinating that almost all of them happen near borders.

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I examined each area and I tried to determine what might account for an overabundance of truck traffic, paying particular attention to apparent clusters.

Calexico/El Centro

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The top spot went to Rt. 115 at its junction with Rt. 78 in Imperial County. Trucks composed an astounding 81.9% of recorded vehicle traffic passing this point in 2011. That is such an amazing statistical outlier — no other point in the California managed to crack even 60% — that I had to wonder if it might have been a typographical error. I checked the math and it seemed to work. Nearby, Route 98 at Cole Road in Calexico also scored high with 56.36% trucks.

All truck traffic crossing from Mexico into the United States along this particular stretch of the border uses the "Calexico East" Port of Entry. That might explain Route 98. I’m not sure it explains Rt. 115. It doesn’t seem to follow a logical path between the port of entry and the outside world. Farms and fields surround the junction. Maybe trucks address some sort of agricultural purpose here instead?

Los Angeles/Long Beach

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This one seemed more straightforward. The adjacent ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach are the two busiest container ports in the United States. Add their volume together and they handle three times the cargo of the next busiest port, New York/New Jersey.

Two spots nearby both hit 57.52% truck traffic, on Rt. 47 where it crosses the Commodore Heim Lift Bridge and shortly thereafter where Rts. 47 and 103 split. Notice their placement on the map above. They are practically equidistant between two very active ports. A massive volume of containers heads in-and-out at any given time and this route serves a good option. It’s a wonder truck percentages weren’t higher.

Maybe the brief stretch of Interstate 40 from Needles, California to the Arizona state line falls within this same cluster, even though it’s completely across the state? The highway provides a straight shot between the ports and several distant metropolitan areas including Flagstaff, Albuquerque, Amarillo and even Oklahoma City. The southeastern interior of California wouldn’t account for much local traffic, and containers originating in Asia would need to roll east in a steady stream to distant inland cities.


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I was going to guess that truck traffic near Bakersfield might be serving agricultural needs until I drilled-down to the exact spot. The junction of Rts. 58 and 33 happens in McKittrick, which falls outside of the fertile San Joaquin Valley. The terrain looked rather rough and pretty much dug-up by human activity. Thank goodness for Wikipedia and the likely explanation:

The town is in the center of a large oil-producing region in western Kern County. Along State Route 33 to the south of the town is the Midway-Sunset Oil Field, the second-largest oil field in the contiguous United States; within the town itself, as well as to the west is the McKittrick Field; to the northwest is the huge Cymric Field; and along Highway 33 beyond Cymric is the large South Belridge Oil Field, run by Aera Energy LLC. East of McKittrick is Occidental Petroleum’s Elk Hills Field, formerly the U.S. Naval Petroleum Reserve.

I don’t know if every truck passing through here serves the oil industry, however it seems like a plausible reason for much of the 55.55% truck volume, absent further evidence.

National Forest

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Of all roads with greater than 50% truck traffic, only Route 161 in Siskiyou County fell outside of southern California. It’s about as far away from the others as possible. The anomaly recorded 55.25% truck traffic at the far northern extreme of the state. There might be an agricultural reason because of nearby farms. There might also be another reason, forestry: Winema National Forest, Fremont National Forest, Modoc National Forest, Shasta National Forest and Klamath National Forest are nearby as are areas accessible to commercial logging. Maybe the trucks are hauling logs?

10-4 Good Buddy

I’ve received a steady stream of visitors far removed from the geo-geek community on my Smokey and the Bandit Route article over the last several months. I didn’t anticipate or perhaps didn’t appreciate that the geographic construct behind a movie made over thirty years ago would still elicit much curiosity. Apparently I was wrong. Released in 1977, Smokey and the Bandit rode the tail-end of a Citizens’ Band radio frenzy that crested in the mid-70’s and ran through the end of the decade.

One leading theory links this broad cultural touchpoint to the disruptive nature of the 1973 OPEC (Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries) fuel embargo. As postulated in "’I Can’t Drive 55′: The Economics of the CB Radio Phenomenon" published in the Winter 2011 edition of The Independent Review – a Journal of Political Economy:

The CB craze of the mid- to late 1970s is thus an archetypical case of an entrepreneurial response to a change in relative prices. Because the relative price change of the altered time constraint was enacted so swiftly over such a large economy and the subsequent boom in CB sales and usage was so immense, a case study of the CB phenomenon of the 1970s merits the attention of economists.

I love it when someone describes a popular cultural event in even geekier terms that I would use. Broadly, the United States enacted a nationwide 55 mile per hour (88.5 km/h) speed limit to reduce fuel consumption in the wake of an uncertain, possibly permanently decreasing supply from OPEC. This impacted long-haul truckers disproportionally since slower speeds meant longer (fewer) trips and less income. CB’s became a tool to evade speed limits and avoid law enforcement. The public-at-large didn’t have as much of an economic incentive, however CB’s allowed them to act mildly subversive and pretend they were outlaws. They could become antiheroes like the truckers, stiking it to The Man.

[turn sarcasm filter on]
Thus, a conglomeration of middle-eastern nations were responsible for a cultural shift that led downstream to the Daisy Dukes phenomenon, which is ironic considering their conservative views on appropriate dress.
[turn sarcasm filter off]

Let me see if I can pull this conversation back to the point. There is a geography topic here, I promise.

The CB craze was already in full swing several years before Dukes of Hazzard and even prior to Smokey and the Bandit. One manifestation was a 1975 novelty song created by C.W. McCall titled "Convoy" It included a number of geographic references, some obvious and some not. For example:

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  • "It’s clean clear to Flagtown" – Flagstaff, Arizona
  • "We is headin’ for bear on I-one-oh" – Interstate 10
  • "’Bout a mile outta Shaky Town" – Los Angeles, California
  • "By the time we hit that Chi-town" – Chicago, Illinois

I think my favorite one is Shaky Town for Los Angeles, an apt reference to its seismic instability.

These are indicators of an argot (e.g., "a specialized idiomatic vocabulary peculiar to a particular class or group of people, especially that of an underworld group, devised for private communication and identification"). The unusual anti-language developed by long-haul truckers and their wannabe automotive kin conveyed a wide spectrum of descriptions for their business needs — the movement of goods from one location to another as quickly and efficiently as possible. It made sense, given their objective, that CB slang would encompass alternate names for various geographic locations and features.

There are countless websites that catalog CB slang. I can’t guarantee that names I’ve chosen to highlight are definitive versions or are even still in use today. Any given town may have had several variations that fell into or out of favor. I’m not in the industry and I’m relying on the Intertubes so take that into consideration. Nonetheless and with all due caveats noted, I’ll share a few of the more memorable and less intuitive examples I uncovered.

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  • "Big Stink" – Las Cruces, New Mexico. Alleged to have been derived from a sewage plant found in proximity to Interstate 10.
  • "Bubble City" – Champaign, Illinois. A reference to the sparkling wine spelled slightly differently, champagne.
  • "Cactus Patch" – Phoenix, Arizona. I suppose this could apply to any number of places in the southwestern desert, although Phoenix is one of the larger so maybe that’s why it stuck.
  • "Capital J" – Jackson, Mississippi. Jackson is indeed the capital of Mississippi.
  • "Circle" – Indianapolis, Indiana. There are several different slang terms for Indianapolis, generally derived from the annual Indy 500 automotive race. Technically the track is an oval so does the same apply here too or does it refer to the general design of the Interstate Highway around the city?
  • "Divorce City" – Las Vegas, Nevada. A location well-known for its quickie divorces.
  • "Ghost City" – Casper, Wyoming. Casper, the Friendly Ghost!
  • "Hot Town" – Atlanta, Georgia. Atlanta, sometimes Hot-lanta, shortened even further.
  • "Nickel City" – Buffalo, New York. From the U.S. coin minted between 1913-1938, even though the animal is technically a bison not a buffalo. Not that it really matters.
  • "Taco Town" – Corpus Christi, Texas. I’m going to hope that this is named for its geographic proximity to the Mexican border rather than taking a swipe at its residents. There is a subtle, and sometimes not-so-subtle, bordering on offensive thread running through CB argot that tends to denigrate those who are not part of its stereotypical trucker demographic.

There are hundreds, literally hundreds of other geographic references incorporated within CB slang. I’m sure this extends internationally although I’ve focused solely on the United States.

Smokey and the Bandit’s Route

Ah, the 1970’s, that cultural hangover when Disco ruled a world of polyester, when a sea of avocado and harvest gold shag carpeting stretched from coast-to-coast, when the CB radio craze allowed wannabe truckers to exclaim "ten four good buddy." A purely escapist movie dropped perfectly into that time and place, delivered with a black Pontiac Firebird Trans Am muscle car and an 18 Wheeler. Smokey and the Bandit, released in 1977, involved little more than a 28 hour round-trip police chase condensed into 96 minutes.

The Internet Movie Database was invented for readers who simply must know more, or YouTube for the more visually-oriented amongst us:

Got all that? Right. The Bandit (Burt Reynolds) and his sidekicks (Jerry Reed and Sally Field) have to pick up and deliver a truckload of monstrously awful beer to some rich guy with more money than sense, all the while being chased by a policeman or "smokey" in CB slang (Jackie Gleason). I know it’s crazy. Can anyone today imagine going this far out of their way for Coors? Talk about the triumph of marketing and advertising! Coors wasn’t available outside of a few western U.S. states at the time. Its lack of geographic ubiquity created quite a mystique during an era when domestic brewing limped towards its horrible nadir. Imagine a terrible time when people actually bootleged Coors beer because they perceived it to be the best thing available. Try not to shudder when you consider those dark days. Nonetheless it made a great premise for a pedal-to-the-metal action and smash-up flick.

It wasn’t my intention to focus a series of 12MC articles on roadtrip movies. I’ll reference a title on a page and suddenly it gets a bunch of hits from the outside world. I feel it’s almost a public service for me to provide further elaboration. Last time this led to my Thelma and Louise Route Map. This time my description of De Sint-Sixtusabdij van Westvleteren as a possible premise for a high-class remake of Smokey and the Bandit leads me to address that topic as well.

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This article didn’t require the same level of thought or analysis that I discovered with Thelma and Louise, where geography served as an integral interwoven plot element. For Smokey and the Bandit, it’s all drive from Georgia to Texas, pick up beer in Texarkana, return to Atlanta within 28 hours and collect $80,000. It also has a happy ending. I’m not denigrating the movie — far from it — mindless fun and endless vehicle crashes fill an entertainment void. I’ve certainly enjoyed my share of mindless movies, this one included. I’m simply pointing out that the plot isn’t saddled with a lot of complexity.

The producers didn’t seem too concerned with feasibility, accuracy or complications because little of that mattered to the intended audience. It didn’t even matter that Bowie County, TX, where Texarkana is located, was completely dry during the 1970’s (it is considered "partially wet" today). Imagine if the movie strove for accuracy and the Bandit got all the way to Texarkana only to discover that he couldn’t purchase any beer. Now, that would have been funny.

The Bandit Run

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The movie invokes a certain nostalgic stirring amongst its loyal fans because of its feel-good nature. This resulted in The Bandit Run in 2007, a commemoration of the movie’s 30th anniversary. The Bandit Run reenacted the historic route from Texas to Georgia albeit at much slower speeds and spread over several days. Imagine the sight of dozens of classic Firebirds rolling through the southeastern states.

It’s an annual event now although the route seems to stray rather regularly from the original. I didn’t search exhaustively for every incarnation although I found several and they seemed to involve a classic car show in Braselton, GA (northeast of Atlanta) either as a starting or ending point. This is the location of Road Atlanta:

… recognized as one the world’s best road courses…. The facility is utilized for a wide variety of events, including professional and amateur sports car and motorcycle races, racing and driving schools, corporate programs and testing for motorsports teams.

I like the way that Google Maps marks portions of the track as part of the regular road network!

The Bandit Run will return to a Texarkana to Atlanta (well, Braselton) route in 2012. However it will swing a little further south than Burt Reynolds would have gone, stopping overnight in Lafayette, LA, Biloxi, MS, and Birmingham, AL, along the way. It sounds like a good time.

Smokey and the Bandit 2012

Geo-geeks can stop reading now. This part is reserved for the beer geeks (and I know there are a few of us in the 12MC audience).

Warning Massachusetts 500 Feet
Several annual vintages from my personal stash

I figure it’s only a matter of time before someone decides to remake Smokey and the Bandit because that seems to be the prevailing pattern in modern Hollywood. Apparently nobody has the ability to develop an original idea that will make any money anymore. That got me wondering about a brewery to serve as the underlying the premise. Obviously Coors won’t work anymore. We need a brewery that’s sufficiently coveted but large enough to take a tractor-trailer load from its inventory and not feel a pinch within its regular distribution area.

I’ve already mentioned Westvleteren as a European possibility although on second thought I think they’re probably too small. New Belgium in Fort Collins, CO might be a possibility. They’re based in Colorado like Coors and they’ve created quite a hoopla in beer circles as they slowly migrate their distribution towards the east. I think they may come closest to replicating the original idea. I’d prefer Alaskan (my visits) which now reaches all the way to Minnesota and Wisconsin. However, the Bandit would be in a world of hurt when he discovered that Juneau is landlocked and the chase had to move onto a ferry. Going in the opposite direction, east-to-west, maybe Dogfish Head (my visits) would be an option? It seems like something tailor-made for Sam Calagione and the publicity machine in Milton, Delaware.

Any other suggestions? I might turn them into a future article if we get enough good ones.