Dots ‘n’ Dashes

Back in my days in the Boy Scouts, they had a merit badge called “Signaling”. To earn the badge you had to build a basic communication device (buzzer, blinker) and demonstrate a knowledge of Semaphore – visual signaling by flags – and Morse – audible signaling by “dots” and “dashes”. Today most people wouldn’t have a clue about Semaphore, and their only familiarity with Morse might be from the frantic telegraph typing in the movie Titanic.  Dots ‘n’ dashes have stepped down, more associated with the mundane pavement markings of the streets we drive.  Well hey, at least they’re still signaling devices.

“Dashing through the… street…”

Let’s talk about street dashes first.  The highway to our rural neighborhood was recently restriped, mostly dashes but occasionally a solid for safety’s sake.  Some lanes were shifted, and they just covered up the old stripes with blackish paint similar to the asphalt below.  But my car was not fooled, no sir.  It still sees the old striping.  Anytime I pass over those areas my car’s “lane-keeping assist” emits an audible warning and tries to bump me back onto the road, when in fact I’m just passing over covered-up stripes.  That’s annoying.  Either car tech needs to improve or road striping needs to come up with a better cover.  Until one or the other happens I’m all over the road.

Here’s an even better story about dashes.  Long ago, my parents were driving my brothers and me back from my grandparents’ house.  We were cruising along a paved winding road late at night when all of a sudden my dad gets to wondering about those highway dashes.  He starts to guess – if you measured one, how long would a dash be?  Talk about useless information, right?  But then, right in the middle of a darkened highway, no cars in the rear-view mirror, my father stops the car, gets out, and starts measuring a dash, foot-in-front-of-foot like he’s taking a sobriety test.  Then he gets back into the car and announces proudly, “six feet”.  Think about that the next time you pass those stripes at forty miles an hour.  (But please, don’t get out and actually measure one).

California highways are usually dotted, not dashed.

Now let’s talk about street dots.  You know, those round, non-reflective raised pavement markers used to designate lanes and borders and such?  They’re actually called Botts’ dots.  It’s a name I’ve known since childhood because I grew up in California where they were invented.  California has over 25 million of the little guys marking its endless streets.  And if you must know, Botts’ dots were named for their inventor, Elbert Dysart Botts (and how’s that for a mouthful?)

Kinda cute, right?

Botts’ dots might’ve never been a thing were it not for their total makeover.  At first they were glass discs attached to the road with nails. (How’d you like to have that job?  Whack, whack, whack!).  But then they started popping loose, and people got flat tires from the nails and the broken glass.  So Botts (or a coworker) devised a hard plastic to replace the glass and an asphalt-friendly epoxy to replace the nails.  Now the dots – and the speeding cars above them – stay where they’re supposed to.

But now Botts’ dots have a whole new challenge.  We face a future with self-driving cars.  Turns out, Botts’ dots mess with that technology.  The car may or may not recognize a dot as the border of a lane.  That’s not good when you put your steering wheel in the hands of a robo-chauffeur.  But can you imagine the task of removing 25 million Botts’ dots?  That’s worse than hammering them in one by one!

Botts’ dots may go the way of the telegraph.

Over here in rural Colorado, I got pretty excited about the prospect of California surrendering all of its Botts’ dots.  We can use ’em.  You see, out here we have mostly two-lane highways divided by dashes, or occasionally solid lines instead of the dashes (don’t pass!), or very occasionally the luxury of a defined left-turn lane.  But “dash-it-all” when it snows.  You not only lose the striping, you lose the road.  At least a Bott’s dot would make noise and give you a jolt to let you know you’re not about to cruise into somebody’s cow pasture.

Alas, my dream of millions of Botts’ dots flying over the Rocky Mountains died before it was born.  Turns out the asphalt epoxy of a Botts’ dot cannot compete with the combined weight and speed of a snowplow.  The dots’d go flying every which way from the snowplow blade, like hundreds of tiny shuffleboard discs.  Ping! Ping! Ping!

Signaling merit badge was retired by the Boy Scouts in 1992 (yet another reminder of my advancing age).  Looks like the Botts’ dot is headed for a similar scrap heap, at least if self-driving cars become more mainstream.  Meanwhile, you’ll find me out in my neighborhood navigating the painted dashes.  Even if I do prefer the dots.

Some content sourced from Wikipedia, “the free encyclopedia”.

Carefree Highways

Here’s a connect-the-dots challenge, tapping what’s left of your road-trip driving fever from Labor Day weekend. Pull up Google Maps, pick two towns on opposite edges of the continental United States, and see if you can discover the longest driving trip. The only rules: you must start and end with U.S. cities, and your answer must be the blue line (not the grey line alternatives).

My first guess on Google Maps (above) is effectively the longest drive between the borders of Mexico and Canada.  San Ysidro in California wouldn’t exist if not for the busy border crossing just to the south.  Van Buren in Maine wouldn’t exist if not for a small group of Nova Scotia citizens exiled from Canada in 1785.  As you can see, my southwest to northeast traverse gets me 3,291 miles of driving and takes more than two days (including a wealth of bathroom stops).  In the process, I pass through ten U.S. states and three Canadian provinces.  Label this trip a long-distance segue from “Ole!” to “Eh?”

My second guess chooses a sun-starved soul north of Seattle, seeking some beach time in the Florida Keys (though someone named Irma would object right about now).  Our friend finishes his oyster stew in tiny Blaine, WA; points his car to the southeast, and arrives in Key West, FL two-and-a-half days later, just in time for a twilight margarita with Jimmy Buffett.  His drive also passes through ten states (like my first guess) but lasts 3,559 miles.  If our friend finished in Miami he’d drive the same distance as my first guess, but Highway 1 – further south through the Florida Keys – buys him a 160-mile tiebreaker.

A recent Wall Street Journal article asserts we Americans are endlessly romanced by the allure of the open road (a “four-wheeled traipse” if you will), and the Labor Day holiday conveniently marks the end of the summer travel season.  Thus, you get a lot of drivers on the first weekend in September – 600,000 in Colorado alone, or 11% of the state’s population.  That translates to over 3.5 million road-trippers across the entire United States.  Traffic jam, anyone?

                  

In the prehistoric times of street-corner pay phones and folding road maps (read: 1970’s), the American Automobile Association (AAA) offered a service called “Triptik”.  Go to an AAA office, tell ’em where you want to go, and they’d hand you a step-by-step book of maps “prepared expressly for you”.  My parents gave me a Triptik – and all the station wagon gas I needed – as a high-school graduation present.  My buddy and I created a Western States round-trip starting in Los Angeles, driving as far north as Montana, as far east as South Dakota, and returning through the Southwestern states.  Our aim was to hit as many national parks as possible.  We spent a few nights in motels (on our own dime), but most nights in sleeping bags in the back of the station wagon.  No agenda, no worries – just a couple of teenagers making a ton of memories on the open road.

On the topic of road trips, I owe a nod to America’s beloved “Main Street” – U.S. Route 66.  Though nowhere close to the longest road trip in the U.S., Route 66 is certainly the most renowned.  Built in 1926, the “Mother Road” ran from Chicago to the Pacific Ocean west of Los Angeles – fully 2,448 miles.  Early 1900’s migration to the Western U.S. owes some of its success to 66, and all those road-trippers “got their kicks” at the hundreds of restaurants and motels born along the highway.  It wasn’t until 1985 – sixty years later – the last remnants of Route 66 were replaced by newer segments of the U.S. Interstate Highway System.

Now then; time to solve the Google Maps challenge (with a twist).  The winner of the point-to-point American road trip is some nearby version of my second guess above: Washington to Florida.  However, for my money I’d much prefer the drive from Oregon to Massachusetts (above).  The twist?  You can do it all on one ridiculously long highway!  U.S. Route 20 – “The Big Daddy” – starts in little Newport, Oregon (pop. 10,000) and ends in Boston (pop. 673,000).  You’ll cover 12 states and 3,154 miles before you hit the checkered flag.  It’ll take you almost two days without stopping, but please stop.  Along the way you’ll find the Idaho Potato Museum, Yellowstone National Park, “Carhenge” (a Stonehenge homage made entirely of autos!), Iowa’s Field of Dreams, Hall of Fame’s for RV’s/motor-homes, rock & roll, and baseball; and most importantly, the Jell-O Gallery Museum, your one-stop-shop + tribute to the jiggly dessert.  C’mon, how you gonna top that road trip (with a dollop of whipped cream?)

Some content sourced from Wikipedia, “the free encyclopedia”.

phenomenon

Our neck of the woods is considered “country roads” by most standards.  Some call us “outside the city proper” while others go with “unincorporated county”.  No matter the label, living in these parts presents its unique challenges.  It takes a little longer to get to your groceries and gas.  The wind gusts enough to make the patio furniture take flight.  The wildlife big and small sneaks into the backyard or peeks through the dog door.

20 - phenomenon

There’s one more aspect of “the country” I didn’t expect when we moved here: washboard.   Washboard is a constant phenomenon on our dirt roads.  The pressure of rotating car tires makes small ripples in the dirt, which quickly turn into bigger ripples, and eventually you have speed-bump city.

The concrete on the interstate is smooth as silk, while the asphalt on the city streets generates a soothing hum.  But washboard is all kinds of nasty on the ears.  If I could drop an audio file into this post you’d think I was riding a Harley in need of a tune-up.  Just try to have a conversation while you’re bumping along on washboard.

I have this recurring nightmare where I’m driving on washboard and all four wheels simultaneously vibrate off the axles and bound away.  Then my car slams to the surface of the road and comes to a skidding halt.  Then one of my neighbors walks by, chuckles at me and my car-with-no-wheels, and wanders on.

Scientists (with way too much time on their hands) have determined that a car’s suspension – once thought to be the cause of washboard – actually has no bearing on the creation of all those ripples.  They also ran a few experiments and decided the only way to avoid the creation of washboard is to drive at 3 mph or less.  I guess I could do that – if I wanted to take twenty minutes to drive the distance I normally cover in two.

Now that I have you utterly spellbound over the phenomenon of washboard (not), look for it on sandy beaches and snow-covered ski slopes.  Ocean waves and speedy skiers produce the same effect on entirely different surfaces.

How our county resources “fix” our washboard roads drives me nuts.  Our street is a mile long with a half-dozen houses on either side.  That’s not enough country bumpkins to generate the tax revenue (or traffic) to justify paving the road.  Instead, every couple of weeks the county sends out a giant Caterpillar tractor, which drags and pushes and manicures the dirt until all of the washboard is gone.  But those grooves just reappear in the next day or two.  This futility reminds me of the Golden Gate Bridge, where once the painters finish a fresh coat it’s time to go back to the other end and start again.  That’s how it is with washboard.

The upside of living on washboardy roads is that you never have to wash your car.  There’s no point.  The moment you hit the washboard you’re giving your car an all-over dirt bath. So I just ignore the thoughtful “wash me” notes that show up on my back window every now and then.

The other day at the gym I was working out and I overheard a guy talking about his “washboard abs”.  For reasons that are now obvious to you, I cringed and promptly left the room.