Wednesday, August 19, 2015
I’m from Michigan, and over a recent five day period—because of a trip to Florida and back (via North Carolina)—my wife and I drove through Ohio and West Virginia twice. This trip was on the heels of a trip just two weeks earlier when we helped my daughter move into an apartment in North Carolina to begin an internship at UNC (yes, the sky is Tar Heel blue)—so four times we were on those states’ wretched roads in about sixteen days.
Admittedly, I’m a University of Michigan graduate and fan, so my dislike of Ohio comes naturally, but I’m mature enough to admit that not all of Ohio and not all Ohioans are bad. Cedar Point is an amazing amusement park, and I’ve been to Kings Island as well. I’ve watched baseball games in Riverfront Stadium, Great America Ball Park, and Progressive Field. I attended college in Ohio for a year and a half. I’ve been to the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, the Cincinnati Zoo, and the Pro Football Hall of Fame. I have friends who live in the state. It’s not all bad. But as a traveler, this I know: the entire state is under road construction. I mean the whole thing. Not only are the speed limits on the roads typically lower in Ohio and the police force seemingly more determined to give out speeding tickets than any state in the union, but Ohio has a massive toll road and 700 million miles of road construction.
Ohio has only two seasons—winter and road construction. That wasn’t a joke. I was stating a fact plainly named on the internet. Cleveland-based Plastic Safety Systems Inc. is one of the country's largest makers of orange construction barrels (I looked it up on Google), literally putting millions of dollars yearly into Ohio’s economy, while managing to keep their manufactured product almost exclusively on their home soil. Industrywide (not just in Ohio), as many as 750,000 orange barrels are produced annually (another Google “fact”). Now, I’m certain that I-75 near Cincinnati, for instance, has been undergoing road construction non-stop (except in the winter “season”) for at least 30 years. Over 22 billion orange barrels have been produced in that period of time, and I’m convinced half of them can be found in Ohio since the entire state is currently under road construction. And by the way, can anyone tell me when I-75 at Cincinnati will be fixed? It seems inconceivable that there are construction workers who started working road crew as young adults who have retired, never having seen the section of road heading to that terrifying bridge over the Ohio River ever completed.
That brings me to concrete highway median barriers. More Google research says they are twenty feet long, two feet wide, and two feet eight inches tall—and they weigh approximately 8000 pounds each. Since I’m guessing there are a billion of them in Ohio (264 make up a single mile), that means there are eight thousand billion pounds of cement barricading every driving route in the state. Orange barrels are one thing—they’re designed to not wreck a car that happens to hit them, but an 8000 pound weight doesn’t tip over and fall away when a car hits it, so drivers white-knuckle their way through the entire geography of Ohio in hopes of survival—unless, of course, they are safely and securely stuck in one of a myriad of Ohio traffic jams the road construction causes throughout the state. Yeah, the only thing good about the roads in Ohio is that when driving north or south on I-77, they’re better than the roads of West Virginia.
This isn’t scientific, but I-77 runs through the entire state of West Virginia, so I took out a ruler, measured the legend on my atlas, and followed the route the expressway takes. The road should be less than 120 miles long. It’s 187. Yes, it’s more than 50% longer than the map says it is because it winds through the mountains at angles and grades that no one in their right mind would navigate unless they were determined to leave the road construction in Ohio behind and enter back into human civilization in Virginia (via an interesting tunnel through a mountain). No one would do that drive in the winter would they? There must be thousands of abandoned, destroyed vehicles at the bottom of mountain overlooks in West Virginia if people really do drive that route in the ice and snow. Seriously, I found an overhead, satellite view of the West Virginia Turnpike. It looks like this:
The Saturday Evening Post referred to that 88-mile section of road as "the Turnpike that goes to nowhere." Due to the difficulty and lives lost in its construction, it has also been called "88 miles of miracle.” It includes Charleston, which besides its golden-domed capitol building, doesn’t have much to look at—unless you discover the houses hidden in the mountainsides. Other than that, there seems to be no cities, no exits, and no signs of humanity along the turnpike except for in two places. Number one is the “service plazas” which are basically rest stops but are really refuges for the anxiety-riddled people who have braved the worst travel route in the United States. People exit their vehicles, kiss the pavement, throw-up in the rest rooms, eat long meals, and then take a Prozac before buckling up for the next section of road maze. Every bridge is called a “memorial” bridge named after a person I’ve never heard of, but most likely, he or she flew off a cliff in a Prozac-induced sleep. There are signs everywhere that say “Falling Rocks.” That –ing word is in the present perfect progressive tense, describing an action that began in the past, continues in the present, and may continue into the future. In other words, while drivers are grasping the steering wheel in a death grip, maneuvering through roads that go every direction except flat and straight, they are to look to the mountain walls out of their peripheral vision for rocks hurtling through the air in hopes of avoiding the pulverization of their vehicles.
The only other place for humanity is at the toll booths. Now, I’m sorry, but there’s no way I believe there are sane people who drive to and from home to set up shop in those toll booths on a daily basis. Either they’re insane or they are violent criminals on work release who inevitably will crash to their deaths before their prisons terms expire. The only other option is that they rock climb to work to begin their shifts and rappel home when they’re finished. The way the roads wind, I think all three toll stops are actually within a “falling rock” from each other and the whole turnpike is simply a legislative joke to raise money and convince non-West Virginian natives to never consider living in the state. The toll booth workers rappel home to their houses built into clefts in the wall or to spelunker into caves below the surface of the planet. In the meantime, white-knuckled drivers are motoring in weaving, winding circles for 88 miles only to come out five miles ahead of where they started. They could have hiked it faster and more safely.
On our last trip through on Monday, my brakes were grinding and my air conditioner stopped working. I had to turn the radio off because the only sound I could pick up was static. I had to turn my phone to airplane mode because the battery was draining while roaming for a signal that most assuredly didn’t exist. I’m certain no phone company is willing to risk employees’ lives to install cell phone towers in the middle of virgin earth, so the only thing we could do while driving through the state was sweat and pray. Well, we made it through four times in sixteen days, and for the time being, I love the state of Michigan to degrees I’d never experienced in the past. Maybe the next time we go to Florida, we’ll fly.
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