Searching for heaven on the highways to hell.

Published: October 15th 2008
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Day 1

The goals for the first day were two-fold: to see contemporary art and to drive to Baltimore.
The latter would take up most of the day.
The art in question is at the Aldrich Museum in southwestern Conneticut.
Getting there, though, entailed experiencing much of what this day would be like.
The most efficient way of getting there is I-84.

Tollbooth from hell

I-84 in Conneticut is very much a Jeckyl and Hyde highway.
The eastern half is a pleasant drive; the western half is utter hell.
Before even getting there, I had to contend with the Southbridge split.
Long distance travel out of Boston generally goes in one of four directions, northeast to Maine, northwest to Montreal, west to upstate New York and the Midwest, or southwest along the eastern seaboard.
The last two have most of the traffic.
At the start of the journey, both traffic streams are along the same road, the Massachusetts Turnpike.
The Southbridge split is where the southwest travellers split off for New York City.
The toll booth for this exit simply can't handle the volume of vehicles that use it, especially on holiday weekends, so traffic backs up on the highway, often for 10+ miles.
This makes for one frustrating wait, which is just what I don't want at the start of a vacation.
I usually end up pulling off early and taking local roads, which is not much faster but is certainly more pleasant.

Highway from heaven

Ironically, the same toll both that causes such problems when one is heading toward it caues the highway to be a delight heading away from it.
Cars and trucks can only get through it so fast, so eastern I-84 is comparitively uncrowded, and moves quickly.
This section of I-84 passes through a section of Conneticut called the Quiet Corner.
It contains rolling hills, farming valleys, and small towns where nothing ever seems to happen.
The foliage is starting to come in, so it was a beautiful drive.
At a rest stop along the way, a local scout troop was handing out snack food in return for donations to a local charity.
I'm very appreciative of this, because I had no time for food before the museum, and I was starving by that point.
I took a few minutes after eating to snap some photos of the foliage near the rest area,

highway from hell

Soon enough, the car pool lane to Hartford appeard and it was time to deal with the other I-84.
There are many guidelines that have been developed over the years about how to build a good expressway.
The people who designed Hartford's expressways managed to violate every single one of them.
Hartford's highways are known to long distance drivers as the worst in New England (yes, even worse than Boston's Big Dig) and their reputation is well deserved.
These expressways consist of narrow lanes, constant sharp curves, steep drops, bridges so low that trucks only fit in certain lanes, and a seemingly endless series of left side exits and exit-only lanes.
In one notorious spot, through traffic has to cram into the two right lanes to avoid two seperate exit-only lanes on the left, and then immediately cross to the left to avoid two other exit-only lanes on the right.
All of this makes me feel more like I'm on a road-rally course than an Interstate.

After Hartford, a problem of a different sort appears.
I-84 narrows to two lanes while still carrying three plus lanes worth of traffic.
This situation continues almost all the way to the New York border!
The state is currently working to widen the road, but it has a long way to go.

Diner from heaven

Finally, I reached my exit and turned off to drive to the Aldrich.
At this point, I got quite lost.
It turns out that the Aldrich is located deep in the southwest Conneticut hills, and the map I'd brought wasn't very helpful.
I never did find the museum, but I did see a number of towns so scenic it practically hurt to look at them, and roadsides with foliage to spare.
Its hard to imagine that this scenery is located less than 20 minutes from the endless suburbia and industrial sites you see from the interstates in this section of Conneticut. but it is.

I also discovered Orem's Diner in Wilton.
It is a classic roadside diner that has been open since 1921.
This diner has such a reputation locally then when the road was widened recently, the state legislature passed a law delaying the project long enough for the owners to move the diner to a spot further back from the road.
There is a comemerative copy of the law posted next to the entrance of the diner
Needless to say, the food was delicious, served quickly, and priced right.

Engineering history from hell

After the diner, the driving part of this day started in earnest.
My first target was a landmark of civil engineering, the George Washington Bridge.
This bridge is the busiest highway bridge of its size in the world, with a staggering 130,000 cars and trucks crossing it every single day.
It may be unusual to call a bridge beautiful, but this one qualifies, particularly at night when the cables are lit up to create the famous "string of pearls" silouette.
I crossed the bridge at sunset, when it is about as romantic as a bridge can get.

After the bridge, a confusing network of ramps led to the second landmark of civil engineering I encoutered that day, the New Jersey Turnpike.
We take high-speed higways so much for granted today that its hard to realize how radical they were when they first appeared in the late 1940s.
The New Jersy Turnpike in many ways is the prototype of them all.
Travel back then was mostly on two lane roads, which could no longer handle all the traffic.
This lead to a high and increasing accident rate.
The first solution to this was the "limited access highway" that used bridges to eliminate road crossings.
Unfortunately, these didn't solve the accident problem.
The designers of the New Jersey Turnpike took a different approach, a highway deliberately engineed to be safe at high speeds.
The Turnpike was the first road to feature things that are so standard today that people barely think about them; things like wide lanes, gentle curves, breakdown lanes, and long clearly marked exit and entrace ramps.
The design was so innovative that the Turnpike was called the "highway of tomorrow" and "the world's safest highway" when it first opened.
For a while, the design worked, and the Turnpike had a very low accident rate.
Soon enough, though, drivers realized that what the safe design really meant was that they could drive much faster for the same amount of risk as other roads, and the accident rate on the Turnpike rose to match that of other urban highways.
To this day, the Turnpike is one of the fastest urban highways in existence, with large packs of cars and truck convoys cruising along at 75+.
If you ever want to know what its like to be a stock-car driver, the New Jersey Turnpike will give you a taste, hopefully minus the wrecks.
The turnpike is now over 50 years old, and to mark the occasion, the state opened a history exibit in the service plazas.
The picture above is from part of it.

The turnpike is also the scene of one of the oddities of the Interstate Highway System, the disappearence of Interstate 95.
Within metro New York, the Turnpike is clearly marked as Interstate 95.
Just south of New Brunswick, those signs disappear.
Interstate 95 magically reappears just north of Trenton, miles away from the Turnpike.
A look at a map from the 1960s will reveal the reason,
Back then, the state planned to build a highway from metro New York to Trenton that would be the missing part of Interstate 95.
This proposed highway had the misfortune to pass through some of the wealthiest communities in New Jersey.
Like other highway projects in the US at the time, these communities fought it bitterly until it was finally cancelled.
Unlike other highway projects in the US at the time, New Jersey responded to the cancellation by leaving a gap in Interstate 95 rather than rerouting it onto other existing roads.
It is now officially the longest unfinished stretch of the Interstate Highway network.

Hell comes to an end (for at least one night)

In Baltimore, I stayed at a Motel 6.
The reason I bring this up is that this particular Motel 6 was newly renovated.
The best part of it, believe it or not, is the new bedspread.
Seen from a distance, it looks like a typical motly design pattern.
Look closely, and it resolves into classic scenes of the roadside from the US and Canada.
More fitting bedding for a roadsite hotel chain I will likely never see.


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