Fun with Highways: Super Tuesday Part 1 (Vermont, Virginia, Tennessee)

Ahead of the Super Tuesday presidential primaries, we at CatSynth will try to virtually visit many, though not all, of the states involved.

We begin in the Northeast Kingdom of Vermont along State Highway 114. It winds its way from the most remote northeastern corner of the state and The Kingdom State Forest eventually into the towns and lakes of the region.


[Photo by Dougtone on flickr. (CC BY-SA 2.0)]

The scenery as seen in images often is lush and green, when it isn’t brightly colored in the autumn. It is not surprising that the Green Mountains and the state of Vermont were given their verdant names. It’s also interesting to note how different the terrain and scenery is from neighboring New Hampshire. As a reader noted in our New Hampshire edition on DailyKos, the Connecticut River that divides the two states also separates radically different geological structures between the Green Mountains of Vermont (an extension of the very old Appalachian Mountains) and the younger, rockier mountains of New Hampshire. The geography lead to very different settlement patterns, different economies (farming in Vermont versus industry in New Hampshire) and perhaps into the modern political contrasts as well.

In terms of life in The Northeast Kingdom, I often turn to the blog meeyauw, who has over the years mixed great photography from her nearby landscape with cats and mathematics. I did enjoy these recent pictures from the author’s home near Barton Mountain, not far from Highway 16.

We can follow VT 16 back to Interstate 91, the main highway in and out of the “The Kingdom”. Heading south on I-91, the terrain looks a lot like eastern New York, hilly and forested. We turn off the highway onto US 2 and head west to Montpelier, the state capital. It has the distinction of being the smallest state capital in the U.S.


[By Jared C. Benedict [GFDL or CC-BY-SA-3.0], via Wikimedia Commons]

It is in Montpelier that we turn onto Interstate 89, which crosses the state diagonally from New Hampshire in the southeast to the Canadian border in the northwest. Along the way it connects the capital to the largest city, Burlington. Although I-89 never enters the city, it is easy to connect to the downtown via US 2.


[By Jared and Corin (Church Street, Burlington, Vermont) [CC-BY-SA-2.0], via Wikimedia Commons]

Probably more than any other place in Vermont, Burlington defines the state’s current political reputation. It is home to Bernie Sanders, onetime socialist mayor of the city and current U.S. Senator. We at CatSynth have long been fans of Sanders, not only for his political views but also his strong Brooklyn accent. Burlington is also the birthplace of Ben and Jerry’s Ice Cream. The city itself is on Lake Champlain, and one can look out from its waterfront across the lake to New York State.

Lake Champlain contains several large islands, particularly in its northern half. US 2 traverses most of these, including Grand Isle via a network of bridges and causeways before heading west at the north end of the lake, where Vermont, New York and Quebec all meet.


[Photo by Dougtone on flickr. (CC BY-SA 2.0)]

The islands themselves have small bays and interesting geography, including one bay called “The Gut.”


From Vermont, we jump to Virginia, the other state that begins with the letter “V”. We begin just south of Washington, DC at the notorious Mixing Bowl Interchange.


[Click image to enlarge.]

The Mixing Bowl, also known as the Springfield Interchange, connects I-95, I-495 (the Capital Beltway) and I-395. The latter heads north into the center of Washington DC, while I-495 casts a wide circle through the suburbs. The interchange is complex-looking enough and well-known enough to have even gotten its own “Fun with Highways” article back in 2009. While the interchange in its current configuration is complicated, the aerial view is even more so because of the “ghosts” of ramps that were removed during a massive reconstruction project.

We can stay in Virginia on I-495 heading “west” (though what is west on a circular highway?) and turn west on I-66. The highway is quite crowded in the growing suburbs of northern Virginia, but starts to quiet as one moves westward. Along the way, one passes Bull Run and Manassas of Civil-War battle fame. There was not one but two major battles here. I am pretty sure there are more Civil War sites in Virginia than any other state, and many in the northern part of the state like Manassas are likely getting absorbed into the expanding suburbs. I-66 continues west towards the Appalachian Mountains, specifically the Blue Ridge Mountains that form the eastern edge of the range. Before its end, we can turn southward to Shenandoah National Park and tour the Skyline Drive.


[Wallygva at en.wikipedia [GFDL, CC-BY-SA-3.0 or CC-BY-2.5], from Wikimedia Commons]

Skyline drive runs for 105 miles and offers spectacular views of the mountains. I have heard (and seen photos) that suggest it can at times get quite foggy as well, though. Nonetheless, doing the entire drive seems like it would be rewarding if one is not in a hurry. In addition to the views, there are details such as the rather narrow Mary Rock Tunnel. The southern end of Skyline Drive connects to I-64. One can head east towards Charlottesville, home of the University of Virginia and one of the country’s shrines, Thomas Jefferson’s home Monticello.


[By YF12s (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0 or GFDL], via Wikimedia Commons[]

The geometric aspects, symmetries and design are quite interesting, as are some of the inventions and features inside. One can tell it was a labor of love (and obsession) for its owner. For some reason, one thing that stuck with me when visiting is the idea of “a home within a home”, a much more modest actual living space almost self contained within the grander designed building.

Back on I-64, we can head west onto Interstate 81 which runs along much of the Appalachian Mountains. It passes through hills, valleys and towns along the way, and is indeed a major corridor for the interior eastern US, connecting the northeast with the south. As such, it connects to our next state.


We continue on I-81 into Tennessee, where it ends at I-40. Here we leave the interstate and head south first on TNĀ 66 and then US 441 to the Great Smoky Mountain National Park. It has the distinction of being the most visited national park in the U.S. It offers great views of the southern Appalachian mountains, both scenic vistas of the mountains and details such as streams and waterfalls.

The other thing I remember from a visit as a teenager was encountering black bears. Even as one is cognizant of the fact that the bears are potentially dangerous wild animals, there is something quite endearing about them.

We did also go to the top of Clingman’s Dome, the highest point in the Smokies and the highest point in Tennessee.

We can west from the park on US 441 to the city of Knoxville.


[By Kg4ygs – Jeffrey Paul Prickett (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0-2.5-2.0-1.0], via Wikimedia Commons]

I do like the Sunsphere, though it looks quite out of place, a future retro design from a past era (or maybe a disco ball). It’s the sort of thing one expects to see abandoned as in the New York Worlds Fair, in a delightfully dystopian setting like Alexanderplatz in East Berlin. However, the Sunsphere sits in a well-maintained green park and has been reopened with an observation deck, cafes, and what I am guessing must be quite unique office space .

Continuing westward on I-40 through the state, our focus shifts to music. Nashville is of course a major music-industry center, both in terms of records and musical instruments, and is synonymous with country music (though in fairness the city is home to other types of music as well such as alternative rock). But I think I would identify more with its neighbor to the west, Memphis. Memphis is home to important early blues, but I think it is the later Electric Blues, early Rock-and-Roll and Memphis Soul (as epitomized by Stax Records) that most interest me – even as a mostly “experimental” composer, the sounds of these genres are a strong influence. I can’t personally speak to an I-40 musical rivalry between Nashville and Memphis, but perhaps some readers may be able to contribute here.

Indeed, I-40 is named the “Isaac Hays Memorial Highway” on its eastern approach to Memphis. Long before he was Chef on South Park, Isaac Hays was a leading figure in Memphis Soul on Stax. I-40 and I-240 together form a beltway around this city’s outer neighborhoods, but its downtown and many of its most famous landmarks lie further west, between I-240/I-69 and the Mississippi River. Just off this highway south of downtown is the Stax Museum on McLemore Avenue. Further north on off I-240/I-69 is large exit for Union Ave, which carries several number designations all at once (US 51/64/70/79). Union Avenue was once home to Sun Records which produced many of the earlier Rock-and-Roll artists of the 1950s. Union Avenue also provides access to Beale Street.


[Photo by ChaseGorden on flickr. (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)]


[By Jack E. Boucher [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons]

It is a major tourist destination now with blues clubs, based on its historic significance in the development of the music. But it did go through a rough period before it was revitalized as the original music industry and the area in general went into decline in the 1960s. Consider this picture.

The Daisy Theater is still visible, but other than that the street looks run down – but somehow “authentic.” It is perhaps best to think of the new revitalized touristy street as just another phase of its history.


Because we are attempting to visit many states at once, each one will inevitably get less attention (this is true of the political process that is happening in parallel). As always, it is great to get feedback and ideas of places we missed. So please don’t be shy about leaving us your comments.

In tomorrow’s installment, we will explore a few more states, in particular Ohio and Idaho.

Fun with Highways: Michigan

Today we continue our “primary highways” tour with a virtual visit to Michigan, and in particular to Detroit.

My most significant visit to the state took my to Ann Arbor and the University of Michigan for a music technology conference. The conference was a great experience, of course. The campus what quite interesting as well. As with many traditional college campuses, it has an iconic bell tower, Burton Tower. But it has a second one as well on the modernist North Campus. Our conference required going back and forth between the two where we could easily see the contrast between the traditional collegiate architecture and the modernist, which I quite liked but my colleagues derided.

If instead of going west from airport to Ann Arbor on I-94 we had instead gone east, we would have arrived in Detroit. I have yet to visit Detroit, and as such the city has taken on a mythical quality. I-94 enters the city as the Edsel Ford Freeway, mostly staying to the north of the city center. We can turn south onto I-75, the Chrysler Freeway to head downtown. One would expect the “motor city” to have an impressive network of freeways. I-75 runs along the edge of downtown as the Fisher Freeway, and together with I-375 and Michigan Highway M-10 form a loop around downtown, anchored by some large interchanges on either end.

As one can see in this map, the loop frames the downtown and Grand Park Circus. The famous People Mover is primarily located within the boundaries of the loop as well. But us now turn our attention to the surface level, beginning with this view from the connection between M-10 and I-75.


[Photo by ifmuth on flickr. (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)]

That large building behind the highways is Michigan Central Station (or sometimes Michigan Central Depot, perhaps someone can tell us which is the correct name actually is).


[Albert duce [CC-BY-SA-3.0 or GFDL], via Wikimedia Commons]

The massive and once upon a time grand train station now sits alone and abandoned. It symbolizes much about the city and its history, both rise and decline; and people have very strong opinions about it. It’s “heartbreaking” to some who love Detroit. Some see potential for it to have new uses in the future, perhaps as green revitalization project. Others simply see it as an “eyesore” that needs to be removed. For me, it is quite captivating as a quintessentially American form of “ruin.” We tend not have ruins, preferring to remove that which offends us in favor of bigger, faster, newer, etc. And ruins from the 20th century seem even more vulnerable to our need to remove and remake. But perhaps more than most large cities, Detroit stands out for its ruins that remain. This in part because the city was the center of our iconic automobile industry, and quite prosperous with grand buildings and streets. The decline and decay are quite dramatic, but happened in such a way that many of the places are still there in their decayed state. I first became fascinated with this through the website The Fabulous Ruins of Detroit, which is a loving tribute to the city and its ruins, albeit a melancholy one. And for me, these ruins can be as much a source of creative inspiration as the landscape of Arizona that we explored yesterday. Indeed some of the basic elements of color, shape, texture and sound have things in common, although the human factor is quite different. There is definitely more that Dystopian feel here. I could certainly see music and image inspired by visiting the ruins of the abandoned Packard Automobile Factory.


[By Albert duce (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0 or GFDL], via Wikimedia Commons]

I hope to have the opportunity to visit the city and explore creativity and meet people in the local community there, and make something to share. I hope perhaps the city can find a way to live with its ruins and draw from them without it having to be “blight”, and that vital communities, perhaps greener communities, can grow up within them. Some of the old towers around Grand Circus Park are being redeveloped at this time. And this is all the context of positive news from “Detroit” the automobile industry.


[By Andrew Jameson (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0 or GFDL], via Wikimedia Commons]

In the meantime, there certainly are plenty of cultural opportunities. The Detroit Institute of Arts and the Museum of Contemporary Art Detroit (MOCAD). We have been shadowing the artist Mark Di Suvero throughout this series, and the DIA has two of his works, including an older piece Tom made primarily from wood. Music of Detroit is of course legendary. I have a fondness for quite a lot of classic Motown, much of which was done before they moved – I tend to think it works best in minor keys or when the overall sound is a bit more melancholy than when it is at its most bouncy and upbeat, but that is perhaps just me. Detroit also has a place in the history of popular electronic music. To me, these are not as disparate as others might think, particularly when one considers the harmony. (On this note, I would also enjoy hearing suggestions of music in the comments.)


But it is time to get back on the road. We can head northwest from Detroit on I-96 to Lansing, the state capital. For those like me who are amused by highway trivia, in Lansing, I-96 and I-69 meet, and even run concurrently for a brief period of time. I think this only place where there is such a mirror-image concurrency (as I-87 and I-78 in New York actually never meet). A spur I-496 turns off into the center of Lansing, with the state capital building to one side.


[Criticalthinker at the English language Wikipedia [GFDL or CC-BY-SA-3.0], via Wikimedia Commons]

If from Detroit we head north on I-75, we pass through Flint (of Michael Moore fame) and then further away from the Great Lakes that define the state’s geography and into the center of the lower peninsula. But I-75 is also the main highway connection to the Upper Peninsula over the Mackinac Bridge.


[By Jeffness at en.wikipedia. Later version(s) were uploaded by Sam at en.wikipedia. (Transferred from en.wikipedia) [CC-BY-SA-2.5], from Wikimedia Commons]

North of the bridge, we can switch to US 2 which hugs the shore of Lake Michigan on the southern side of the peninsula. But we can also head inward on M-28, from which we can approach the northern shore along Lake Superior, traveling by many picturesque parks such as Tahquamenon Falls and Pictured Rocks.


[By Attila Nagy (anagy) (Own work) [GFDL, CC-BY-SA-3.0 or CC-BY-2.5], via Wikimedia Commons]


[By MJCdetroit [CC-BY-SA-3.0], via Wikimedia Commons]

M-28 continues on to Marquette, the largest city in the Upper Peninsula even though its population is around 21,000. It is home to Northern Michigan University and the Superior Dome, the largest wooden dome in the world.


[By Bobak Ha’Eri (Own work) [GFDL, CC-BY-SA-3.0 or CC-BY-2.5], via Wikimedia Commons]

In researching this article, I came across the blog Michigan Architecture. This site’s author is a gradulate of Northern Michigan University and is still based in Marquette. I recommend checking out her blog and seeing some of her interesting photograph of unexpected places around the state.

We conclude in the northernmost part of Michigan, Isle Royal. It is far north within Lake Superior, and indeed closer to Minnesota and Canada than it is to the rest of Michigan. It has an odd geography, basically a series of parallel ridges sticking up from the lake.

The middle of the island is a lake, Siskiwit Lake. It is trippy to have a large lake in a large island in a larger lake.

But it gets better. When nearby Moose Flats pond is full, Moose Boulder becomes the largest island in the largest lake in the largest island in the largest lake in the world! I will leave readers to ponder this…

Primary Highways: Indiana

It has been a really busy week at CatSynth, but we're taking some time to continue our “primary highways” series with a visit to the state of Indiana. Appropriately for our series, Indiana is nicknamed the “Crossroads of America.” And that is how many of us know the state, passing from one place to another. It boasts eight major interstate highways: I-69, I-65, I-94, I-70, I-74, I-64, I-80, and I-90. These are indeed crossroads among major U.S. cities, New York, Baltimore, Washington, Boston, Chicago. Detroit, Seattle and are hometown San Francisco.

I have traveled through Indiana en route from New York to San Francisco multiple times on I-80, which is part of the Indiana Toll Road. (Anyone surprised that we are once again traveling along I-80 during this series?)This highway runs along the extreme northern section of the state, passing through farmland, old industrial cities, and the suburbs of Chicago to the west. One can imagine along this landscape the demographic divisions currently being portrayed in the media. One can also observe Indiana's well-known reputation for being flat, particularly in the north. Though in the south, towards Kentucky, the landscape becomes more hilly.

In the northwest, near Chicago, I-80 shares its path with I-94. To the west, I-94 splits off to become the major freeway in downtown Chicago; beyond that it heads towards Milwaukee, then Minneapolis and the northern plains. In Indiana, it hugs the coast of Lake Michigan “before heading east on the long road to Detroit“.

A bit of amusing highway trivia involves I-69, which extends from Indianapolis north to Michigan and eventually the Canadian border. There have been plans for a while to extend I-69 south all the way to Texas and the Mexican border, creating another north-south transcontinental route. Former representative John Hostettler from Indiana was a strong supporter of the extension of I-69, but he also led a campaign to change its designation. Apparently, some “religious conservatives believe 'I-69' sounds too risqu