Fun with Highways: Washington, DC and Maryland

Today our “Primary Highways” series continues with a visit to our nation’s capital and the neighboring state of Maryland.

The oft-used phrase “inside the beltway” literally means inside the Capital Beltway (I-495 and I-95), which forms a wide circle outside of Washington, DC through the surrounding suburbs of Virginia and Maryland.

From the western side of the beltway, we begin on Interstate 66 and US 50 heading east from Virginia over the Potomac River. I-66 turns north while US 50 continues eastward as Constitution Avenue, passing alongside the National Mall and all the national memorials and monuments, which are arranged around the mall and the parkland along the Tidal Basin.


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

On the north side of US 50, opposite with Washington Monument, is the Ellipse, a public park that borders the iconic south lawn of the White House. This building and the privilege of occupying it are the nominal reason we are doing this series.

Past the White House and Washington Monument, US 50 meets US 1, and the two continue as Constitution Avenue alongside the eastern half of the Mall. This section of Mall houses the many museums of the Smithsonian Institution. As a child visiting Washington, DC, the “Smithsonian” was synonymous with the Air and Space Museum. It was of course exciting to connect with all things space. Years later, I visited the Air and Space Museum again with my family (and saw a Star Trek anniversary exhibit), but also was enticed by a welcoming sign to the interesting circular building that housed the neighboring museum. The Hirshhorn Museum is the center on the Mall for modern and contemporary art, and a place I try to visit when I have time alone in the capital. It’s a been a while, so I would like to visit again sometime soon. You can see the Hirshhorn in the image of the Mall shown above as the cylindrical building just left of the center. At the far eastern end of the Mall is the Capitol.

The huge building serves as model for many (though as we have seen, not all) state capitol buildings. Though it had a long history of designs and changes before acquiring its current design and the large iconic cast-iron dome we know today. You can read more about this history here. Of course, the institutions housed inside have served as models as well, sometimes in a less-than-ideal way.

The Capitol is surrounded by several blocks of grounds, including the Capitol Reflecting Pool. While wandering around these grounds on foot, one would probably not suspect that there was a major highway passing underneath. I-395 traverses the center of the city in the long Third Street Tunnel, connecting to US 50 (New York Avenue) in the northern sectors. The densely packed residential sections of the Capitol Hill neighborhood can be found to the east, and a lively urban neighborhood to the northwest around Logan Circle.


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

I would be remiss if I did not mention the Black Cat, and institution for independent music that also happens to have a great name.

South of the Third Street Tunnel, I-395 continues towards Virginia and a junction with the Beltway at the Springfield Interchange (aka, the Mixing Bowl). Before crossing the Potomac, it intersects with I-695, a short connector to the Anacosta Freeway in the southeast section of the city. It is signed as I-295 and also as DC 295. It is the only signed DC highway that currently exists, but it is another thing that gives the District of Columbia the trappings of a state, except of course that it isn’t a state and doesn’t have voting representatives in Congress. Hence another state-like item, the district’s license place, continues to bear the Revolutionary War slogan “Taxation without Representation”.

DC 295 continues northeast to the border with Maryland…


…where it continues as Maryland Route 295, the Baltimore-Washington Parkway. The parkway is partly maintained by the National Park Service. In this segment, it is a wide road through wooded surroundings, although industrial and suburban areas are never far away. Further north, it becomes an expressway through the suburbs south of Baltimore as it heads towards that city. The parkway ends at a I-95. Nearby, a larger and impressive junction over water takes the short I-395 (completely unrelated to the one we just left in Washington, DC.) until downtown Baltimore, passing by Camden Yards and just to the west of the Inner Harbor.


[By Fletcher6 (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0; or GFDL;], via Wikimedia Commons]

The Inner Harbor is considered an urban planning achievement, turning a moribund harbor in a major tourist and business destination. It look quite vibrant, with modern buildings and attractions like the National Aquarium.

Baltimore has quite a diversity of architecture and landscape. It is most well-known for its rowhouses. A particularly unique set is the colorful row in the Charles Village neigbhorhood:

Perhaps more typical are the long stretches of similar brick rowhouses. Sadly, many seem to be in disrepair, as along this street in a neighborhood west of the Inner Harbor.


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

One interesting view in the same neighborhood features this full overhead sign along an abandoned ramp that is used by pedestrians.


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

US 1 is in fact nearby, so the sign is accurate, but it could still be considered an example of a Thomasson, a maintained architectural feature that no longer serves its original function. It was part of the cancelled I-170 highway.

Baltimore is also home to Johns Hopkins University. It is of course a renowned research and medical university, but the division I know best is the Peabody Institute, as several musical friends and colleagues have studied there, particularly in their classical and music-technology programs.

We head south from Baltimore towards the Chesapeake Bay on I-97, where has the distinction of being the shorted two-digit interstate. It passes through hills and suburban towns to US 50 near Annapolis, the state capital. I remember visiting Annapolis in 1999 and 2000. The 1999 visit included walking around the historic district and into the statehouse, one of the oldest in the country with a distinctly colonial look about it, and watching July 4 fireworks on the bay. It was also during an intense heatwave, with some days over 100F. I didn’t mind the heat too much, and it made it great weather for swimming. The towns and cities along the bay, including Annapolis, seemed intimately connected to the water.

US 50 (with US 301) continues east on the Chesapeake Bay Bridge to Maryland’s eastern shore region. It then heads south, avoiding Delaware, before turning east again towards the Atlantic Ocean. It’s final terminus is in the resort town of Ocean City. The highway has a cerimonial terminus at MD 528, not far from the Ocean City beach and boardwalk, with a sign stating that is 3072 miles to its western end of Sacramento, California. I have seen the companion sign on the Sacramento side stating that is 3072 miles to Ocean City. Apparently that sign is stolen quite often.

Back in Baltimore, we return to the western neighborhoods, not far from the rowhouses we explored earlier, and head west on US 40. Just past Gwynns Falls / Leakin Park, we come to a parking lot that is the eastern terminus of Interstate 70. It was originally planned to go further through the city, but that extension was ultimately cancelled. In this case, we take I-70 westward out of the city.

This part of the state is quite sparse west of the Baltimore metropolitan area is quite rural and sparse, and in some ways would seem to be a separate state, more in common with West Virginia. I-70 and US 40 run together or nearby for much of the region. As I-70 heads northwest into Pennsylvania, I-68 continues with US 40 west through the Appalachian Mountains, including this cut through Sideling Hill.


[By Analogue Kid at en.wikipedia [CC-BY-2.5], from Wikimedia Commons]

This does seem a world away from Ocean City, and from Baltimore and Washington, DC., but in total Maryland is actually a fairly small state.

This concludes this edition of Primary Highways. We will next be visiting Wisconsin.

Fun with Highways: Colorado

Our “Primary Highways” series continues with a visit to Colorado. This edition is a bit different, in that I trace a family trip from a great many years ago, but insert more contemporary interests along the way.

We initially entered from the northeast on I-76. The road was relatively straight here amidst softly rolling hills of the High Plains. The landscape is dotted with farms amidst open grassland. The Rocky Mountains appear to rise from the plains quite suddenly, as does the city of Denver.


[By Hogs555 (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0], via Wikimedia Commons]

On that original family trip, we did not actually stop in Denver, but here we will do so. We turn south on I-25 along the edge of downtown Denver, passing through the interchange with I-70 known as “The Mousetrap.” We exit with US 6 which is surprisingly enough Sixth Avenue in Denver. Actually, it’s a freeway, the “Sixth Avenue Freeway.” Heading east in the freeway, it empties out onto city streets near the Santa Fe Arts District. A quick look at the websites for the galleries along the corridor suggests a relatively conservative selection, though I did see some interesting things from Sparks. Further north we find the Denver Art Museum.


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

This building, which is just part of the museum, is designed by Daniel Libeskind, who also designed the Contemporary Jewish Museum in San Francisco and the plan for the new World Trade Center complex in New York. The shape of the building is intended to reflect the peaks of the Rocky Mountains, although such angles appear quite often in Libeskind’s architecture. In front of the museum, we also find once again another sculpture by Mark di Suvero, who we have encountered before in this series. This one is called Lao Tzu. The museum currently has an exhibit of Garry Winograd photography that I wouldn’t mind seeing.

We leave Denver on I-70 and head into the mountains, on one of the most spectacular stretches of interstate highway in the country. At the Continental Divide, there are two options. One can stay on I-70 through the Eisenhower Tunnel, or take a detour on US 6 up through Loveland Pass. We opted for the latter on that original trip, with spectacular views of mountains in all directions, and a chance to walk on a patch of hardened snow and ice…in August. Not surprisingly, it was quite cold. I don’t have any pictures from that trip, but here is what the pass looks like today:

Further west, I-70 meets the mighty Colorado River and winds its way through Glenwood Canyon, which was my introduction to the southwest with its distinctive colors and rock formations. The difference from the eastern side of the Rocky Mountains and the peaks is dramatic. And while I loved the forested mountains, there is something personally compelling about the sheer red rocks. The highway itself is also quite a marvel, both in terms engineering and aesthetics as it attempts to be both functional and blend with the landscape.


[By Patrick Pelster [CC-BY-SA-3.0-de], via Wikimedia Commons]

Along I-70 in Glenwood Canyon, one passes a turn off for a place called No Name. The community of No Name supposedly did not receive its name (or lack thereof) until the coming of I-70, when it was assigned to the exit because the area lacked a formal name. There is also No Name Creek and No Name Canyon, and a No Name Tunnel on the highway.

I-70 and US 6 descend from the Rocky Mountains into the town of Grand Junction, where they meet US 50. One can exit the interstate here and travel on State Highway 340 through Grand Junction and Fruita to Colorado National Monument.


[I, Daniel Schwen [GFDL or CC-BY-SA-3.0], via Wikimedia Commons]

The formations in the monument have this distinctive bottle shape – not unique to this location, but I noticed more of them there. Another thing I noticed there was an upper layer of rock, more gray than red, then seemed to have been gone from the more well-known canyons and formations in Utah and Arizona. It was also my first chance to see the rocks up close and personal, touch them and observe the details.

From there, we took I-70/US 6/US 50 west into Utah. But, we later reentered Colorado from the Four Corners along US 160. The quiet and stark southwestern landscape particularly appealed to me then and still does now. We then headed north on what was then US 666 (the “Devil’s Highway”), but has since been renumbered as US 491. Honestly, I wish they kept the 666 designation. But it is what it is. The two highways separate in the town of Cortez, and one can continue on 160 east to Mesa Verde National Park.

[Andreas F. Borchert [GFDL or CC-BY-SA-3.0-2.5-2.0-1.0], via Wikimedia Commons]

The Cliff Palace was is largest of the cliff dwellings in the park. The geometric shapes and layout still present in the dwelling are quite interesting. There are distinctive towers, one square tower reaching almost to the ceiling of the cave, and the round tower; and also the sunken round spaces known as kivas. One can see the parallels in these ancient structures to contemporary southwest architecture as well.

I have not had much time to re-explore the southwest in recent years, except for a bit of Arizona, so I would very much like to return to Colorado sometime soon.

Fun with Highways: Nevada

When I still lived in New York, going to another state was not such a big deal. It just a short trip to Connecticut or New Jersey, and not too long to get to points beyond. But in California, it takes several hours and a couple hundred miles along I-80 just to get to our closest neighbor, Nevada. And with the Presidential primaries and caucuses next moving to Nevada, we thought we would pay our neighbors there a visit.

The trip along I-80 is one made by many of us in the Bay Area, particularly at the end of August as part of the pilgrimage to Burning Man. We take the interstate past Reno to the town of Fernley, and then head north on State Highway 447 towards the Black Rock Desert. Arriving at “Black Rock City” at night is an impressive sight, with the electrical glow of a small city visible from miles away. And indeed, at the hight of the festival each year, Black Rock City is one of the largest cities in the state. Here is one of my favorite photographs from a Burning Man trip too many years ago:

Traveling back on 447 from Burning Man during daylight hours, one gets to see more of the landscape, including Pyramid Lake. The highway actually ends at the edge of Fernley, and one takes several small roads through town to get back to I-80. I saw these cars along the way.

On the way back along I-80, one can stop in Reno, which has the odd but cute nickname “Biggest Little City in the World.”


[By Renjishino (Own work) [CC-BY-3.0 (www.creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons]

Its history and reputation as a center of the gaming industry, along with the glitzy lights and oversized casinos, predates the rise of Las Vegas. But it is also home to the Nevada Museum of Art, which bills itself as “the only accredited art museum in the state of Nevada.” The building itself is a work of art, and its design is meant to reflect the natural landscape including Black Rock Desert.


[By Rmart123 (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0], via Wikimedia Commons]

From Reno, one can travel south on US 395 towards Carson City, the state capital – one of only a few state capitals not connected to an interstate highway. From here we can either continue south on 395 back into California along the eastern Sierra, or turn onto US 50 into the interior of Nevada.

US 50 was the subject of our Nevada article last election cycle. It is nicknamed “The Loneliest Road in America.” Although the name was first used somewhat pejoratively, I find scenes like this with a straight line and stark natural landscape quite inspiring.

The road is not always this straight and empty. It crosses several mountain passes that break up the Great Basin and the Nevada desert, and passes by odd landmarks like this small castle-like structure, Stokes Castle.


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

I would love to travel US 50 through Nevada sometime, and of course do photography along the way. I am certainly not alone in this regard, which begs the question of how “lonely” the road really is. Another strong runner up for the title would be US 6, which intersects US 50 (and US 93) in the eastern town of Ely. Heading back west on US 6 from Ely, one travels a narrow two-lane road and does not encounter another town until Tonopah, 168 miles later. Tonopah is an old mining town, with old structures as seen is this photo:

It is hard to tell when this photo (which comes from the National Park Service) was taken.

US 6 is also the northern terminus of State Highway 375, otherwise known as the Extraterrestrial Highway. It derives its name from its proximity to Area 51 and popularly with UFO seekers, but it covers a much longer distance, parts of which are just as straight and empty as some of the others we have explored in this article:


[By Cooper, in Wiki Commons known as –Cooper.ch 22:17, 20 August 2006 (UTC) [GFDL, CC-BY-SA-3.0 or CC-BY-2.5], via Wikimedia Commons]

This photo is from 375 in Sand Spring Valley, which contains the tiny town of Rachel (population approximately 100). Although it is quite small, it does its best to capitalize on Area 51 and the Extraterrestrial Highway with Alien themed business. A mailbox further south along the highway is purportedly used by UFO seekers to share information.

Highway 375 ends at the ghost town of Crystal Springs. This sounds like it would be interesting if some of the original buildings are still there, though I cannot find any photos of this. Nearby, one can pick of US 93 and head south towards Las Vegas. Our quiet journey through the interior of Nevada comes to an end as US 93 merges with I-15 and form a major freeway heading into the sprawling Las Vegas metropolitan area. The highway cuts into the city itself, and parallels “The Strip”, aka South Las Vegas Boulevard.


[By Lasvegaslover (Own work) [CC-BY-3.0], via Wikimedia Commons]

I have to admit, my visit to The Strip in 2002 was not a particularly fun experience – although I did have a bit of fun with “fake New York.” It was a combination of factors that cannot be blamed on the city or its resort industry per se – though the expense of even basic items and services was an issue, and the fact that it felt more like a gigantic shopping mall with slot machines than an infamous den of vice and questionable entertainment was a disappointment. I would be willing to give it another chance sometime, particularly in the context of a larger travel and photography trip.

Turning onto I-215, one rejoins US 93 (and I-515). Heading south on US 93, the development thins out once more and the road continues to the Hoover Dam.


[By Tobi 87 (Own work) [GFDL or CC-BY-SA-3.0-2.5-2.0-1.0], via Wikimedia Commons]

This is literally the end of the state.

Fun with Highways: The Bay Bridge Turns 75

This past Saturday, November 12, marked the 75th anniversary of the opening of the San Francisco – Oakland Bay Bridge, known conventionally as “The Bay Bridge.” It is a regular part of life for many of us here, one of our main connections to the communities across the bay and a principal landmark during walks in my part of the city. It has been featured in many previous articles here on CatSynth.

The Bay Bridge is a workhorse, spanning over 4 miles and carrying an estimated 270,000 vehicles a day, making it second busiest in the U.S. after the George Washington Bridge in New York. But the western double-span is quite a beautiful structure, both as seen from the hills of San Francisco and from up close.


[Click to enlarge]

[Click to enlarge.]

Don’t let that last photograph fool you. Even though it may look like it was taken 75 years ago, it was actually taken yesterday using the iPhone Hipstamatic app during an early afternoon walk by the bridge.

It was quite an engineering feat when it was built, the longest bridge of its time and built in challenging geography of the bay.

[Image from Wikimedia Commons.]

This video (as seen on the official Bay Bridge info site) captures both the era and the engineering:

Much like the Brooklyn bridge when it was first built, the Bay Bridge towered over the surrounding architecture of the cities it connected. It is anchored in the middle to Yerba Buena island with tunnels connecting the two spans of the bridges. On the the San Francisco side, it is anchored to Rincon Hill, once an upscale neighborhood in the late 1800s that fell into rapid decline and largely destroyed in the 1906 quake. The eastern bridge was built resting on mud rather than bedrock. It was the most expensive bridge built to date.

The idea of a bridge crossing the bay has been around since the 1800s. Indeed, such a bridge was proposed by Emperor Norton in the 1870s (I think this even made it into Gino Robair’s opera I Norton). But unlike his other proclamations, this one seemed like a good idea. After that, there were many proposals, such as this one that in some ways resembles the bridge that was actually built.

The bridge proposed in this drawing connected to Telegraph Hill rather than Rincon Hill, and has suspension bridges on both sides of Yerba Buena island.  The spires also make it look like some of the older suspension bridges on the East River in New York.

When bridge first opened, it carried US Highways 40 and 50 as well as the trains from the Key System in the East Bay. The upper deck had longer ramps leading to Harrison and Bryant Streets at 5th, roughly the same as the rather long ramps at those streets today. On the Oakland side, the bridge had viaducts from Cypress Street (Highway 17) as well as San Pablo Avenue and the Eastshore Highway (US 40). The bridge now carries Interstate 80 across the bay. The railway is long gone. Gone also are the connections to the old Transbay Terminal and Embarcadero Freeway, both of which have been demolished. The area under the bridge on the San Francisco side, once a gritty industrial waterfront, is now a picturesque boulevard that is great for walking. Through all of the changes, the bridge itself has not changed very much at all…

[Bay Bridge approach, 1940s]

[Bay Bridge and Embarcadero, 1970s and 1980s. Photos from Wikimedia Commons.]

[Present day, Bay Bridge and southern Embarcadero. Photo by CatSynth]

…until now. The eastern truss span, which was badly damaged in the 1989 earthquake, is now being replaced with a new more graceful cable-stayed span. The construction has progressed to the point where the tower is in place and the cables are being hung. It is indeed a bit distracting when traveling the bridge. But I am looking forward to seeing it completed, probably around the 77th anniversary in 2013.

Fun with Highways: Sacramento edition

This is a major interchange in Sacramento, California, where I spent most of yesterday. Running north-south along the river is I-5, while east-west is the Capitol City Freeway (Business 80 and US 50).

To the southeast of the interchange, along X street, is the neighborhood that includes Beatnik Studios, where I performed with Reconnaissance Fly at the In The Flow Festival. See our previous article for a link to a liveblog of the festival.

The nearby entrance from 16th street to the Capitol City Freeway is marked only as Business 80, and does not mention US 50.

One can follow 16th street north under the freeway to the downtown and midtown section of the city. This includes our rather dysfunctional state capital, and a scattering of fun local businesses north of N street, including Luna Cafe, which was hosting events related to the festival on other evenings. We were not there at right time to see the festival events, but we did stop in for some handmade juices and enjoyed sitting out on the sidewalk in the early evening. For those of us who live in San Francisco, a warm evening is a rare treat.

More "Primary" Highways: Chesapeake Bay and Washington, DC

Well, things were not exactly “decided” after last weeks elections. And they haven't been exactly “decided” by tonight's results, either. So our series traveling the highways of primary states continues.

We ended last week crossing the Bay Bridge into San Francisco. There is of course another “Bay Bridge”, back east across the Chesapeake Bay.

The Chesapeake Bay Bridge carries US highway 50 (and US 301) across the bay between Maryland's eastern and western shore regions. On the west side is Annapolis, the capital of Maryland, and an area I remember fondly from visits in 1999 and 2000. The 1999 visit was during a rather intense heat wave, which made it a great time for swimming, as I can't stand cold water. And the towns along the Chesapeake, including Annapolis, are definitely water-centric. At the same time, however, the bay has been the site of intense environmental degradation and its restoration is still very much a work in progress. Indeed, the friend who I was visiting worked on wetland restoration, both in the area and nationally. Sadly, we fell out of touch several years ago. I fear I must have done or said something offensive, but I don't know what, and I would love to reconnect.

On the eastern side of the bridge, US 50 connects to several tourist towns on the shore, including Ocean City. Ocean City is the eastern terminus of US 50, and listed as the final destination on this sign at the western terminus in Sacramento:

Apparently that sign has been stolen several times.

We have already visited highway 50 in the series as it heads east from California through Nevada. Like I-80, US 50 crosses the country and thus shows up again and again in these contests. It also crosses Washington, DC as Constitution Avenue, passing by the most prominent monuments and buildings of our capital city:


[Click to enlarge]

And in the great interconnectedness of things, highway 50 crosses I-95 on the eastern side of Washington, DC., connecting south to Miami, or north to New York across the George Washington Bridge, where one can again switch to I-80 and head west back to California.

Washington, DC has a great motto on its license plates: “Taxation without Representation,” a reference to one of the great slogans of the American Revolution. We all learn about it in our history classes here in the US. Its presence on the license plate has to do with the fact that our capital district is actually governed like a colony with no representation in the US Congress, but totally under its control and whim. So it has neither representation, nor full self-determination, things we usually associate with democracy. Making DC a state would easily solve this problem.

But the district does get to vote for president and for party candidates, and tonight it looks like they went for Barack Obama, as did Maryland and Virginia. The race is nearly even. Things are of course very exciting, but I do worry that whoever wins the nomination will be weakened by the intense contest, and not necessarily able to win when it really counts. But the race goes on, and so will our series. We'll be traveling someplace else next week.

Highway 50, Nevada

We at CatSynth continue our highway series following the US presidential campaign, and so we turn our attention to the neighboring state of Nevada.

It was great to see Nevada included so early this time around, it is such a different place from the traditional early states. There is of course Las Vegas and all that comes with it – and to be honest, that is a refreshing change from the folksy small-town character of the early compaign. But there is also the more desolate Nevada, the authentic high desert and Great Basin.

It is the latter that we consider today. US highway 50, which runs through the center of Nevada, has been dubbed “the loneliest road in America” and many of the small towns along this route received a fair amount of attention this past week. And several travelogues, such as as “US 50 Coast to Coast” document the character and sites, including small mining towns like Eureka and Great Basin National Park. For me, one of the attractions is simply the emptiness of the highway itself, as illustrated in the photo to the right (click to enlarge).

I have never actually driven highway 50 east past South Lake Tahoe. But the quiet, the emptiness and straight-line nature of this stretch of highway are all very appealing at the moment. I tend to gravitate towards the extremes, either quiet isolation of the desert, or the intensity of a big city. And now we're moving to the city, right into the downtown. So as things calm down and the weather warms up, a trip east along highway 50, or perhaps to the desert southwest, may be just the best thing to do.

Interestingly, highway 50 joins with US 6 in the town of Ely in eastern Nevada. US 6 is also a cross-country highway, which we also saw in Des Moines, Iowa. Similarly, I-80, which we also encountered in Iowa, crosses through Nevada westward towards our home in the Bay Area, and meets highway 50 at its western terminus in Sacramento. All things are connected.

Probably the next chance we will have at CatSynth to look in on the campaign is when it comes here to California in just a couple of weeks…