Part 7: the journey home

Part 1:   first leg to Hybridfest
Part 2:   local Wisconsin tourism and slightly beyond
Part 3:   South Dakota, Black Hills
Part 4:   bangin' around the Northwest
Part 5:   meandering east toward Denver
Part 6:   doing tech at Denvention (aka Worldcon)
Part 7:   the journey home

With Worldcon behind me, it was time to get the heck out of Denver. My area host kindly rescued me from the doorstep of the Sheraton and we retired back to his place to hang out for a little post-con recovery before I headed off for whatever the next little adventure would be.

It had been sprinkling a little bit that day and cleared up in the afternoon, and when I got back to the car I noticed that the black stripe on the hood exhibits very different water-retention characteristics than the base paint. Weird.

I packed up the next morning to head off, albeit not particularly far -- just back up to Boulder to meet up with another set of folks. They had actually been off at a conference over the same timeframe as Denvention, so we hadn't managed to connect yet, but now they were just returning home that day. I had a couple of hours to kill before they would arrive, though, and decided to just take a little driving tour of the area.

My sample of sagebrush had begun to dry out and disintegrate, so rather than try to preserve it all the way home I just threw it out. It smells like sage and there's way too much of it growing out there, 'nuff said.

I soon reached the Boulder area and noodled my way through it, and just at the western edge of town where the mountains begin to rise up I found Red Rocks Park, which must be only one of *hundreds* of so-named places since this isn't the park farther to the south with the big and much more famous Red Rocks amphitheatre. But this park is a nice little walkaround area with a narrow ridge of similar red sandstone upthrust in the middle -- so narrow that in the ten seconds I had to get out in front of the camera on the delay setting here, I wasn't entirely sure I could turn fully around without losing balance.

Boulder seems to be another progressive region in general. I saw lots of people running around on bicycles or in hybrids, and a number of clueful high-tech companies have sprung up there over time. But the whole area has an oddly contrived feel about it, like human civilization has forced its way in and built big malls and tracts of McCondos just to convince itself of having something like permanent infrastructure by louder marketing. Obviously when an area is initially settled something has to entice more people to move in and help expand it, but here it feels like everything has hidden cheeziness and any "permanence" is all a giant falsehood. In contrast to the surrounding mountains, that's certainly true of any human effort -- perhaps that was just standing out more to my mind now, after spending so many days seeing and thinking about my surroundings in timeframes spanning millions of years. Colorado also has a bit more proximity to Vegas, the epitome of fragile human habitation temporarily carved out of a merciless desert, and I'm sure some of the design and construction techniques and even materials-supply spill over.

No, I can't explain or express this feeling any better than that. Perhaps it was also because so much of what's there is relatively new construction. But just looking at the "civilization" around me I got a much stronger feeling of "this just doesn't belong here" than I do back in New England, where towns and features generally seem more, uh, integrated into their surroundings with more years of existence to back up the idea of belonging.

I headed a little farther up into the mountains along 119 but realized that it was getting near time to meet up with my next contacts, and headed back down. At this point the early afternoon thunderstorms were starting to roll over the plain, and I soon got totally nailed in one that was flinging down these *HUGE* drops for a while. That poor motorcyclist...

My next hosts had just come back from Def Con 16, and I got to hang out with them for the next day and a half and talk about network security, smartcards, RFID, and integrated device-management frameworks in between going through some of my pictures and trying to help debug their somewhat ailing satellite link. Lots of scary stuff comes out of the hacker community every year, with one of the major bottom lines being "stop increasing complexity at the expense of thinking it through carefully", but the industry keeps turning a deaf ear to that in favor of getting more crap out the door sooner. The human factor, the primary weakness, creeps in at almost every phase of product lifecycle -- developers who have no idea how to code securely in hostile environments, marketers with inflated claims of protection and robustness, implementors who insist on using the latest spiffy but sadly misguided featurization, and the end users who just buy into the resulting mess without applying any skepticism as to what the results might be. Not to mention the almost complete lack of regulatory standards that should hold PEOPLE accountable. So really, next time you realize your Windows box [or maybe the one in a remote data center serving your "cloud"?] got compromised by some Javascript exploit and sent all your financial details to a mysterious site in the Ukraine, don't come crying to me. That's my take on the computer security industry these days -- as hard as some of us tried to help make things better over the years, the unwavering complacency of the sheeple and purely reactive nature of anything that ever actually gets fixed has just soured the whole experience.

But there's still a lot of cool stuff happening, and some promising development efforts in secluded labs here and there that could help bring improvements down the road. It always seems to be a grassroots effort that has to work hard for any public attention, just like in the renewable energy industry. And as hopeless as it may or may not seem, it was good to spend a couple of days just soaking in thought about it all.

The folks here also happen to have one of those "horsehead" oil-pumping rigs in their backyard, so in the morning I walked out to it to *finally* get a closer look at one of these things.

It wasn't running, but it's pretty obvious how the drive mechanism works -- a typical electric motor, belted up to a gear-reduction unit. Evidently it's a bit of a redneck sport to get a bellyful of beer and then try and stand up on the walking beams of these things when they're moving.

The interface into the ground is possibly the most interesting part, and certainly sprouts a lot of complex plumbing.

Looking it over still didn't entirely explain how these things *work*, but I found a good graphic on the net that pretty much tells the whole story. [See the big pic for all of it.] I finally understand why they all have the big counterweights -- to help lift the oil all the way up the central pipe. I just wonder how far down that "down hole" pump really is, though...

The wellhead of this one evidently needed some maintenance, because there was a steady hiss of a foul-smelling gas emerging past the sealing gasket right here. I was actually trying to capture the interesting distortion in the sunlight passing through the different gas densities as they mixed into the air, but that's really a motion phenomenon and isn't visible here. What I *should* have done was shoot a short video, but I didn't think of it at the time.

I did, however, grab a moving clip of another pumpjack I found elsewhere that was near the road and actually pumping. So the file linked from this picture is an .AVI of it (11 Mb).

There really is something strangely hypnotic about the way these things move.

A few feet away from the pumpjack was another smaller rig, with a similar wellhead but without a pump rod, most likely for extracting natural gas instead. It appears to handle some fairly scary pressure levels.

The fencing is to keep cattle from banging into the works and breaking things -- I'm sure a sudden 300-PSI blast of sour gas from a broken pipe wouldn't be a recipe for bovine bliss.

I also finally understand prairie dogs, as this particular backyard was peppered with their holes. They're not canine at all, of course, and are closer to overgrown chipmunks with very similar behaviors. They sit out just barely visible and make a deep-throated chirp over and over, probably in claim of territory, but emit a slightly different "danger!" chirp and dive down the hole on the slightest hint of movement toward them.

They're also a huge problem because they not only wreck a lot of agriculture with extensive burrowing, there are many warnings posted that they carry rabies. Given how skittish they are I'm not sure how you could actually get one to bite a human, but I'm sure it's happened.

On the way back to the house I spotted this bit of cuteness, which was kind enough to hold still for a somewhat closer-in picture. That innocent look belies an ability to completely trash most attempts at a garden, I bet. Munch, much.

The end of that day yielded a fairly nice sunset over the ever-present mountains to the west. This is why just about anything having to do with Colorado or Denver includes some graphic of a mountain ridge on top -- it's just a permanent part of the scenery and the overall feel.

I told my hosts all about the Green Mountain fire the previous week, and one thing they told me is that smoke in the air from brush fires yields some of the best sunset colors. This wasn't one of those days, but was pretty nice in its own right.

The day had followed the typical pattern with some afternoon thunderstorms, and the last rays of the sun lit up the straggling cells very nicely. This was taken from the same spot, looking toward the south instead where Denver itself was probably still getting dumped on.

I spent one more overnight in the area but in a different place, in one of the much newer "McTownhouse" developments, which out here are more usually called "prairie mansions". The fact that these have sprung up all over the area with typical modern shoddy construction and hugely inflated values helps lend more of that feel of non-permanence to it.

It had been fun hanging out in the area and seeing snippets of how its residents live, but with another two-thirds of the country still ahead of me and at this point over three weeks on the road, it was feeling even *more* like high time to get my ass home.

I headed out the next morning figuring to take a "shortcut" down what looks like an eastern spur of I-70 past the airport, which turned out to be a huge mistake. It's not exactly an interstate stub -- it's called "state highway 470", a fairly new road, and forms a partial beltway around the eastern side of Denver. There's the nasty surprise: the project was recently begun to help facilitate airport access, and is another one of those way-overpriced privately-managed toll roads on which they nail you coming or going. In my case, since I jumped on from the north and wanted to go *past* the airport to get to I-70, they got me both coming *and* going and it cost 4 bucks to go all of ten miles. Once I was on the damn thing there wasn't really any way to bypass the rest, since there aren't any other roads [by design].

So here's a heartfelt   ..|.,   from my wallet to E-470 and their for-profit tolling structure designed to screw all the people who *aren't* headed for the airport, especially with few if any warning signs at the on-ramp entrances.

Even after all that, I finally reached I-70 and it was still with a slight pang of regret that I put the mountains in my rear-view and got down to the business of heading east. Those would be the last real mountains I'd see for quite a while, if not the whole rest of the trip.

This ol' rattletrap was about the only car I actually passed that morning -- it was unusual enough to come up behind someone in the right lane that I actually thought well in advance to take a picture. You just don't see many people in this kind of unhurried, relaxed cruisin'-along mode anymore.

For a while there was a nasty quartering headwind as I-70 turned southward, which in combination with the longitudinally grooved pavement was throwing the car around a bit. This type of grooving is pretty useless on the straight-and-flat, and only makes driving the stretch more hazardous.

Then the road turned back to the east, and I had a nice spankin' tailwind most of the way across the rest of Colorado that yielded an MPG segment close to 70 for a couple of hours.

Here was a new thing: instead of cornfields, huge *sunflower* farms.

Not that the cornfields weren't here, of course -- there were plenty of those too, but when I did see them I noticed something new there as well: the fuzzy yellow tufts on top. None of that had grown out yet on my way out west, but now the season was advanced far enough along that the corn had grown much taller.

Eep. That brought fresh meaning to "long roadtrip"...

The wind slowly swung around from westward to southward, gradually becoming a hindrance again rather than a help. So much for pushing 70 MPG! There's a rear-quartering transition region where side winds start reducing fuel economy even if they're still coming from slightly to the rear.

And it was pretty relentless. As I neared the Kansas border, the trees were giving that obvious sign that eastern Colorado desperately needs windmills.

And I don't mean like this, either..

I reached the Kansas line right around noon, showing 66.9 MPG -- from a combination of the mostly-tail wind and the fact that I had descended slowly from 5200 feet down to 3800 here.

A sign said there was free coffee at the welcome center -- I was of course all over that, so I pulled in, chatted briefly with a *very* cute woman with a black Prius in the lot, and wandered in to fill my mug. The desk folks gave me a little flyer showing all the points of interest I could go see across the 400-some miles of their proud state. Ironically, even though the "Monument Rocks" sounded somewhat interesting, I skipped that and the only *really* intriguing thing I would find in Kansas was not listed in the flyer at all.

One thing I found quite entertaining is that the rest-stops in Kansas have RV parking loops and dump stations. Really catering to the passin'-thru vacation crowd, I guess.

Hey, there's Dorothy's house!
Kansas isn't entirely table-flat, but rolls very gently. As I churned onward for the next several hours, I entertained myself with a little game of determining just how far ahead I could see. I would pick a recognizable feature at the extreme limit of visibility, such as a grain-storage elevator sticking up off the horizon, and note the trip-meter ... and then do the subtraction once I passed the object. The answer turned out to be about 5 miles out on average, and about 8 peak-to-peak when cresting one of the very gentle rises and seeing ahead toward something on another rise farther ahead.

As the elevation continued slowly dropping, it was nice to begin having *normal* warp-stealth capability back again as the target SOC crept back up to the standard six-blue-bars, instead of having to baby the battery current just under zero all the time to prevent ICE re-light on coasting. This was reassuring, confirming that nothing was actually wrong with the car's hybrid system.

As I proceeded through western Kansas, I began seeing many more of those nodding-donkey pumps off the roadside [where, in fact, the .AVI above was snagged]... with all that strong wind howling around them as they rocked ceaselessly back and forth, feeding a mere fraction of our crack-addict petrol thirst. Here I was coming back through the "wind belt", but the local infrastructure seemed convinced that it was the oil belt instead. Something felt very wrong with this picture.

After a while the density of oil wells dropped off fairly abruptly, with no significant change in the supporting landscape, making me sort of wonder what I'd find next.

It felt like the strength of the crosswind had diminished somewhat, too, so it was a complete surprise to come across *another* big windfarm less than 100 miles later. Thinking "okay, this is great except that they put it on the wrong end of the state", I dove right off the next offramp for a looksee. No mention at all of any windfarms in the "Kansas tourist spots" flyer.

Assuming the site engineers for this *had* actually made the right decisions about location after all, there was only one little remaining problem.

None of the turbines were *turning*, and if you look sharp here you can see that all the blades are furled to produce no torque on the hub no matter which way the wind comes past them. This is what windmills look like when they're shut down. It's odd that the narrow edge gets rotated *ahead* of the nacelle like this instead of the other way around, but maybe it's a more stable configuration when the wind comes past in any arbitrary direction since the tracking system likely isn't operating either. One or two of them were slowly drifting around in the breeze, but not with any real meaningful force.

As I stood there looking around another car pulled in behind me, driven by another guy who wanted a picture of the turbine array. We got to chatting and preaching to each others' choirs, and as we stood there a pickup truck turned in and went on by us, sporting a "Power Partners" logo with a windmill outline, and dust-plumed its way up the gravel road out of sight. Aha, I thought, that must be part of the workforce that will hopefully be bringing these puppies online soon! So when I got back in the car I also headed up the gravel road, following where I thought the pickup might have gone. I had a ton of questions I needed answered at this point, and maybe someone who actually lays hands on this gear would know some of the answers.

Y'know, like the little kids who pester the construction workers but actually ask the *good* questions might grow up and become architects someday.

It wasn't hard to find where the truck had gone, because it joined several others at a worksite right off the side of the road with several people milling around. This was an awesome find, I thought -- being able to see some of how some of this actually gets put together. Since the workers were obviously busy and had stuff spread out all over the ground near the tower I didn't try to poke in too closely, but one of the fellows was near another truck a short distance away who turned out to be one of the foremen and quite willing to field a few questions.

The units weren't turning because, as he put it, they weren't hot yet. Or completed, for that matter! Most of the mechanical construction was done but now they were in the process of finalizing the wiring. 1000 KCmil in aluminum, good for about 450 amps sustained in conduit. At 1.5 megawatts per turbine head, *headscratch* hmm, over 450 over 3 over sqrt(3) for 3-phase power calculation, that's on the order of 650 volts RMS across three phases from the generator, and he laid out the rest of the picture for me.

Generator output gets transformed up to about 34.5 kilovolts in the transformer near the base, and runs underground following the right-of-way paths bordering the neighboring fields [i.e. no trenching across any farmers' property in the process] to a switching station where outputs from several turbines get combined. That all gets stepped up to about 230 KV and fed into the grid at a substation a few miles away.

Very little of the electrical infrastructure is visible above ground, and it gets installed quite non-intrusively.

The workers were just pulling sets of output wires between the tower and the transformer, in fact. Once a pull rope was run through the conduit they simply used the forklift as a big powerful stick to lift the rope out of the box, dragging each wire through behind it. One by one, the wires that had been on the ground in front disappeared in through the hatch.

The field across from the worksite presented a nice juxtaposition of the old and the new. All I needed was a model T sitting across the road from me...

The more I looked into this stuff post-trip, the more rays of hope I found in terms of the number of renewable energy projects that are going out there in one form or another. While I didn't find out exactly who was behind this particular effort in Kansas, in the process of groping around I found some large and encouraging lists [PDF] of other projects either completed or in progress.

Here's a sad look at current affairs. With seeing $4+ gas prices through most of the trip I originally snagged this to be a "I found really low gas prices!" joke, with the fairly obvious reason revealed in the big picture, but then by the time this all finally got written up gas was down around $1.50 a gallon so the whole point was more or less lost. [That's what I get for being lame...] But with that kind of volatility who knows how funny this may or may not be in another few years ... really, we should just work like hell to get *away* from all the stupidity surrounding this market and push for alternatives with real tangible *value* unaffected by profit-driven political forces.

I found a more viable source of fuel a little farther down the road, and was totally tickled that they consider the nearby windfarms an attraction. In fact there's a small diner attached to this place, and the folks at the counter said that many of the windmill workers come into there for lunch.

This odd item hauled past me at some point. From Maryland, interestingly enough.. No idea what shows they might have been bringing this around to.

One for the Trek fans in the room...

At the east end of Kansas are the Flint Hills, with some slightly larger ups-n-downs and one or two "mini-Badlands" spots here and there. The layering, whether exposed by humans or natural process, is that typical "ancient seabed" giveaway.

Another "feature" of eastern Kansas is a 40-mile section of I-70 that isn't really I-70, rather it's the "Kansas Turnpike" and another privately-tolled section of roadway, again with no warning that it was coming. WTF. The lady at the tollbooth maintained how they were their own business and that the state of Kansas "couldn't afford to buy us". Sorry, 40 out of 400-odd miles does not warrant calling yourselves a state's "Turnpike" if it doesn't serve substantially more of the state. That is just pretentious bullshit.

Unfortunately it also appears to be a growing trend on the nation's highways.

On passing by Topeka, the elevation was down to 850 feet as I was nearing the rivers. I made it just past Kansas City [both of them, there are technically two] and across the Missouri River before planning to call it a night. At the next little "knot of civilization" where travel plazas cluster around a secondary highway interchange, I pulled in for a quick bite of food and as I mulled my overnighting options I noticed a woman a couple of parking spaces over crouched down and peering under her car in an odd way.

It was a small wagon, Subaru or something, with stuff piled high in the back. I offered a flashlight and she went into how she had been hearing a funny scraping noise, and sure enough some of her plastic fender-liner had become detached underneath the front of the car and was hanging loose and banging around. I saw where a couple of the little retaining pins had come out, dug around in my own supplies and came up with a little bundle of "telco wire" and band-aided up a quick fix for her so the plastic wouldn't wave around in the breeze, suggesting that she have a more official repair done next time she had the car into someplace. She was all over the place grateful for this, and insisted on giving me some of a tasty apple-based dessert she happened to have along with her! Turned out she was headed for Massachusetts too, in the process of moving to the Kripalu center to live for a while. Funky. An old housemate of mine was big into that place too, and may have eventually gone off to become part of their organization after I lost track of him; the place has obviously grown quite a bit in popularity since then. The Berkshires are certainly a lovely area to hang out in and much closer to home, even if none of the hills are much over 2000 feet.

Home. Right, that's where *I* was trying to get to. But no more tonight for me, as I'd already done over 12 hours that day.

The next morning's major goal was Indianapolis, not particularly far, possibly allowing a very little time for side trips if they appeared. The weather had closed in a bit with a strong threat of rain, and I went through a few small squalls as I got going again.

For a while I was behind an SUV tooling along at a refreshingly sub-60 MPH rate despite the posted 70 which most everyone was in goodly excess of. In the rare moments when I'm behind someone going *slower* than my own default, I wonder if they actually notice that I'm   a> there in the first place and   b> giving them plenty of space.

Ahead I could see that it was probably going to be wet really soon...

I was right. But despite the next couple of hours of fairly blasting rain, I managed to keep fuel usage reasonably in check.

After a while I managed to outrun the storm cell, scooting out eastward ahead of a total *wall* of water I'd just slogged through. I thought I'd be stuck under that bad boy all day.

To get past St. Louis I'd have to jump onto I-270 for a short way, and as it often does traffic began to pack up a bit as I approached the city area. The supposedly professional driver in the DHL van clamped onto my butt for a while, phone glued to head the whole time, and then blasted off to the left lane to do it to others, prompting collection of a picture for possible use as call-in data although I didn't bother pursuing it. [DHL has for a long time been the real-life instance of "Ding Bats Express" that one of the other overnight shippers was holding forth as the competition in their old TV ads, and with sound basis from what I've seen of DHL's competence over the years.]
But what's hilarious here is there happened to be a cop checking speeds from the bridge, and of course not bothering to do *anything* about all the other clearly-visible unsafe practice rushing underneath him. All they care about is *speed*, whereas *proximity* is where the real problem lies. You get one out-of-towner trying to find his way in that mess, and it could be a recipe for disaster. Nobody ever seems to consider that.

Not like any of it mattered today, because within another half-mile a big slow backup had formed and everyone was crawling, all the way down to and across the bridge over the Mississippi. Perhaps there was an identifiable explanation for it? [*Note: the other pictures at the "oops" site are well worth a look!] Anyway, I had plenty of time to nab another shot of the river and close that little logical loop in terms of trip milestones, however dull today's light on it was. Down to 600 feet ASL again. Traffic in the other direction was fine, moving right along and making the whole bridge bounce up and down in an amusing way as I sat there. I know at least one friend who's leery of bridges in general who would have been absolutely terrified by this.

Since I didn't actually go into St. Louis itself, I didn't go see the Gateway Arch. Next time through, maybe.

The rest of the run to Indy was relatively uneventful, albeit with improving weather through the remainder of the day and some lucky dodges around the lingering storm cells.

While this particular truck swung out to go around in a reasonably early timeframe, there was something amusing about this scene as it formed that I had the urge to get a picture. It again recalls that "Duel" feeling -- something about the angles and the lean, the "chicken truck" lights and doodads attached all over, the hill going away behind, the light, and the hint of framing from the rearview and the side of the fleeing car-about-to-be-prey just lends an overall "oh shit" feel to the shot that really tickles me.

Unfortunately it does rather express the attitude of many of the trucks passing through Indiana and Ohio, though, especially on the secondary highways like US20 where they're trying to bypass all the I-80 tolls and still make up time.

One ironic thing I've noticed about some tailgating trucks is that many of them are now sporting a proximity-warning device such as the VORAD units which warn of close vehicles to the right-hand side and/or the front of a truck where drivers can't see. The front sensor usually looks like a small black rectangle of plastic embedded in a hole through the front bumper. [I.e. this truck doesn't have it.] What I can't understand is when I do see one of those units, right up close and personal behind me -- the readout in the cab must be *screaming* at the driver at that point, and it doesn't seem to help. I'm sure their dispatchers would take a dim view if they found out that drivers were turning such warning devices off or ignoring them.

But even the trucking company managers aren't perfect, as they can find a few other creative ways to offend the general public. This has nothing to do with the business of shipping and logistics, and the back of a commercial trailer really isn't the place to express anyone's political opinions. Personal vehicles, sure, say whatever you want on a bumper sticker, but keep it separate from getting a for-profit job done.

Besides, they're wrong. So neener.

This was mildly scary, as the people responsible for this load seemed to feel that timely delivery was important. Every pass they did had to be a little work of lane control art, especially when rounding another truck during which both vehicles had to be half out of their lanes. Couldn't the prefab transporting folks have been content to stay with the right-lane flow, which was moving along just fine, rather than making their own lives more difficult by having to negotiate lots of passes? Maybe it's all just in a day's work for them.

I eventually arrived in Indianapolis and found my next host's building. She's a med-student and recently published author, and lives in a cozy little apartment right in the middle of downtown. This made parking slightly problematic, since everything is metered, but we decided that given the enforcement hours listed on the meters that I was okay in a spot in front of the building for the night and that if I took off early in the morning when she got up for class, I'd be fine. We wandered out past a few artsy little shops for a pleasant dinner and chat, took a quick tour around the local library, and went back to meet up with her brother who was also in town. The area is pretty nice, not looking particularly run-down or trashy as one might expect in the center of a major city. The three of us talked for a while and I gazed in wonderment at the quantity and size of her medical texts, and then we carved out our little spots to sleep and drifted off.

I bid my host farewell and escaped town long before the meter-minders would come along, continuing eastward into a fairly nice morning. Everything was fine until I got slightly screwed up around Columbus OH and managed to take the wrong offshoot from its little beltway, sending me eastward instead of the northeast I wanted to go. It was time to get fuel anyway, so I hopped onto a fairly obvious secondary highway to recover, tank up, and noodle my way northward between the two legs of interstate.

If you ever spot this asshole in the tan Camry around the towns of Newark, Utica, and Mount Vernon east of Columbus OH, expect the worst and give him a wide berth. I mean, just the way he's sitting in the car here screams "attitude". He couldn't *wait* to get past me through some 25-MPH in-town stretch through Newark, and started in with the highbeams and the finger business almost immediately. After eventually whooshing around me while frightening oncoming traffic he continued to do it to a whole chain of cars ahead, finally vanishing into the distance up Rt. 13. Clearly someone who should not have been on the road that day, if ever again.

Well, this one was egregious enough to warrant another 911 call with details captured in the picture, in the hope that they'd spot the clown doing his thing farther ahead, but they evidently missed him and I went past a patrol car staking out the road not long after that. But as I arrived in Mount Vernon a little later the road came up to a funny triangle intersection with a McDonalds in the middle, there was what looked like the same car parked in its lot. I cruised in slowly behind him to make sure it was the same one, ready to put foot to go-pedal and get the hell out of there if he made any stupid moves. Yup, same car. This -- lunch, evidently -- is what he was in such a hellin' hurry to get to, and then to sit around in a parking lot.

Right about then was when I realized he had his *kid* with him in the passenger seat, and they were both sitting there munching away.

597XTR, Ohio. And now right here on teh intarwebz in plain, spider-readable text. I can only hope this anus-hang will google his own plate someday and find his own rich tale of woe. Maybe his kid will rise above that kind of influence and become a better man than his father someday. It wouldn't take much, that's for sure.

What is one supposed to do? As I observed before, there are signs all over highways these days saying "report aggressive drivers", via *77 or 911 or whatever they suggest. I tried to do my little part, but it's always the same story -- if officers don't actually see the supposed violations, they can't do anything. And yet so much blatant highway behavior would be easy pickin's without any calls having to be made at all, which is why it's so mystifying that it's not a heavily exploited revenue resource.

Sort of a "polar opposites" shot, at least in the realm of intent, in a rest stop somewhere along I-80 in PA. The owner of this yellow performance-engineered zippy thing [who I never saw in the brief time I was here] is evidently a Philadelphia-area SCCA member, and probably takes this out autocrossing many weekends. I even found at least one picture of the same car from the PhillySCCA website.

It looks like it would be really easy to do a radiator-blocker on this one..

On the other side of the parking lot behind where I'd parked was this HUGE tank delicately balanced across a weird rig of three flatbed trailers. No idea what it's for, or if it's secured down in a sufficiently safe manner here...

I continued on through Pennsylvania until later in the evening, managing to avoid most of the axe-murderer Schneider drivers that seem to plague its roads in particular, and pulled into some random motel parking lot conveniently blanketed with a nice solid WiFi signal from inside. I posted a quick update to CleanMPG, reflecting the relative surreality of actually being within another day's striking distance of HOME and how nice it was to be clear of treeless prairies, and grabbed a bit of relatively undisturbed sleep.

I was up and rolling again at 7 the next morning. The rest of the trip would be a relative no-brainer: reverse the "standard west" route, hopping across the PA ridges through Scranton and onto I-84 up through CT and MA. The last push!

For some reason, possibly wind, the MPG was doing really well through this stretch and I wasn't really babying it, either. I-84 just tags the northern corner of NJ near Port Jervis, and I hopped off there briefly for coffee and food, showing this in the MFD. The number continued to semi-miraculously creep upward, even through the hills around the Hudson valley thereafter.

This is one of my visually favorite interchages in Connecticut: a multilevel chaos of bridges. Another Prius conveniently dove into the shot just before I reached the right point to fire; from this I could come up with some song-n-dance fiction about a CT weekend-warrior Prius 55-MPH-all-lanes vigilante gang or something, but that's completely not what was going on as said other Prius was screamin' right along and vanished into the distant melee' fairly soon.

Another rest-stop had a sign out for free coffee, so despite still having some left in the mug I pulled in out of curiosity and found more than coffee. Now, I knew there were some real apes out on I-84 through here, but this is kinda ridiculous!

Turned out that the guy eyeballing the hitch here had bought the prop for a Halloween project. It must have been made for a professional event or production at some point, because it was built around a structural steel cage with some nice jointing inside to let various parts move. It wasn't cheap, he said, but he had big plans for it.

But I really do mean it about I-84 through NY and CT, which I've made other observations on in the past. As one of the major conduits between rude New York me-first buttheadedness and Boston-style surgically directed malice, it can turn into a real traffic meatgrinder sometimes and I often seem to hit it at the more, uh, interesting times. I especially offer the part through western CT as a real brute-test for any serious Prius driver, who's already got a handful to pay attention to. It is definitely inhabited by numerous raging apes, it's bumpy, has several tight 50-MPH or less safe-speed-rated curves, lots of ups and downs, lots of on/off ramps and lanes that suddenly become exit-only with little warning, a few very short "slow vehicle" lanes uphill that aren't long enough to be worth using [not that you're able to tell enough in advance] but that some drivers tend to use for *passing*, and a generous helping of curves with a notably uneven turn radius. And a metric assload of traffic sometimes, spacing itself at a car length or less in many cases. The absolute *last* thing you want to add to this toxic mix is having to worry about instantly and radically responding to what the car ahead is doing, so the first thing to do is get that gap ahead opened up nice and wide and not worry about anyone using it to do their own routing -- if someone uses the space briefly to get where they need to be, you've helped them, and by extension yourself just a few seconds later.

Naturally, the assaults began as soon as I started mixing it up in this vehicular mosh-pit, and the first Porsche to violate my personal space responded to my indications of resistance by pointedly zooming up to the next car ahead of *him* in the left lane and tailgating it mercilessly until it moved over. Like that was some kind of retaliatory show against me, right? Brainless. For the remainder of this run I decided to simply wedge my "following distance" sign [see below] into the window slot next to me and leave it there, as sort of an experiment to see if its presence might help moderate the spacing in the conga-line going by me on the left. This was apparently a total failure, as it continued being as tight as ever over there.

If I had been relatively relaxed over most of the trip in general, this is where the highest muscle stress began to creep in, and my right knee began to feel "torqued" for the first time over all that driving. Why? Because maintaining smoothness and spacing through this stretch required tigher control than just about anywhere else, even those twisty mountain highways. That tends to build that particular type of muscles-fighting-muscles tension that's hard to notice creeping in, as one is occupied with fractional-inch pedal movements adapting to the rapidly changing energy-envelope needed to navigate the road. Perhaps I was just being more prone to it on this last stretch, not sure.

But one clear prevailing benefit of keeping the large gap ahead was that nobody cut *me* off, they all had plenty of room. Several of them suddenly dove for exits out of the middle lane, and I had already provided the hole through which they could. No loss to me, they were gone in another instant and didn't endanger anyone else in the process. When such maneuvers occurred farther ahead and I could see them, they were heralded by a little explosion of surrounding brake lights -- to celebrate the fact that someone couldn't plan ahead better, or something. Bah. Really, one should *never* have to use brakes on an open interstate unless there's a real problem or a huge hill.

The other clear benefit was the MPG just kept inexplicably climbing, even though I was scooting right along probably averaging about 55-60 klicks [and passing *no one*]. I later calculated my average between Danbury to Vernon at 55 MPH, which splits between a running speed of closer to 60 and handling on-ramps, where I've observed the usual merge speed to be about 50 - 52 miles per hour and often considerably slower.
This is another important point. It's no crap; it's real-life, and just that fact immediately destroys all those specious arguments about "needing" all that power to handle highway merges. It also implies an important bit of advice for us right-lane dwellers -- when you see a lineup coming on, drop to 52 and you'll be at the perfect speed to pick where your hole is going to be and blend in with it. When done right in a sufficiently predictive fashion, it can be handled in a glide without using any fuel or going for the brakes. I play this game constantly, and the only time it fails and requires more corrective action is when someone on the ramp pulls some abrupt speed change and throws off the timing, or nobody in the line will open a hole until they see me positioned exactly next to an insufficient inter-car gap, making it obvious what needs to happen. [Which part of "yield when entering" did we not understand, hmm?]

The rat-race continued through and well past Hartford and eventually began to thin out just a little, but still not what you'd call tranquil. I had been so intent on all the kinematics of this that I totally forgot about my free coffee sitting right there.

I think that's the infamous, always-seen-from-84 "Red-Art's Service" up ahead on the hill. As much of a New England roadside institution as Rein's Deli.

Somewhere in the northern Connecticut hills, I hove to briefly in a rest-stop for a quick leg-stretch. As I was starting to move again I wound up following a truck out of the lot, but hung back as I saw another situation developing right in front of me -- the guy kept accelerating into the merge as another truck came barreling down the hill behind us with nowhere else to go. There was a loud air-horn BLAAAAAT! and the one on the highway briefly locked his trailer brakes and managed to find a small half-gap to the left and swerve around. The entering truck would have had plenty of room by waiting another moment; instead, he almost bought it that day.

But no matter, I saw it coming and was nowhere near it. In another few miles I got a strongly surreal feeling while passing the big

sign. OMFG. Almost home.

The car turned 90,000 about 20 miles out, amusingly in right about the same place it had turned 50,000 and I had gotten a picture of that too. I wonder where 100,000 will happen?

At about 3pm that afternoon I came quietly drifting down the street I hadn't seen for a month and observed that the house was still standing. I pulled into the driveway, got out of the car and walked a short distance away, turned around, and waited.

And waited a little more.

But the "Bluesmobile" routine I was half-expecting, with the doors falling off and all four tires going flat at once and smoke leaking out from under the hood, didn't happen. This car, in fact, could be thought of as "just nicely broken-in" especially given its fuel-economy performance that day. 64.8 on arrival, according to the screen.

The rest of the afternoon was spent rebooting the homestead, unloading all the trip detritus, and doing the final data-transfer dance.

The entire route was 8103 miles, according to the GPS and cross-correlated with the car that I know reads about 1.1% high with the present tires. Later I figured out my effective total gallons pumped in at 141.8, coming up with a real-life trip MPG figure of 57.16. Slightly on the low side of the 60 @ 60 tradeoff, but not unexpectedly so. 16 or so tanks at about 8.86 gallons on average, ballpark fuel cost $560 [I didn't keep exact track].

That's including a lot of high-ish speed highway travel against winds, fooling around on gravel roads, sitting powered up while doing quick explorations and photo shoots, altitudes and mountain climbs, almost guaranteed E10 across the corn belt, one "mystery reset" of the MPG indicator after parking on a slant, and just telling it like it is. The 85 octane tanks didn't seem to be particularly different, MPG-wise, from the 87 ones. It would be interesting to try 85 at sea level to see if there's any more energy content.

A quick look at the running setup...
  •  1    Analog instrument panel
  •  2    GPS
  •  3    Scangauge
  •  4    Important message
  •  5    > > COFFEE !! < <
  •  6    Northwest-states paper map
  •  7    Notepaper, taped down to armrest
  •  8    Wet rag
  •  9    Where my butt goes
  • 10    Windshield sun-shade [tucked away]
  • 11    China-flat shoes [for going in stores]
  • 12    Fan controller
  • 13    Water bottle
  • 14    12V direct laptop power hookup
  • 15    Laptop, captain's-log-recorder
  • 16    Another message, in reply to this
  • 17    Drivetrain diagram, aka window-blocker
  • 18    Privacy curtain, 1 of 3
  • 19    Card table [for flyers]
  • 20    A hint of your humble narrator
  • 21    Bed, cozy nest, etc
  • 22    Luggage, clothes
  • 23    Tent and tarp, never actually used this trip
  • 24    Window mosquito-nets and holding magnets
Not shown, stashed in the back and elsewhere:
  • Small AC inverter with direct 12V hookup
  • Food cooler [under light-colored tonneau cover]
  • Camera, preset to "truckspotting" mode
  • Big smelly wad of dirty laundry

It was interesting to visit the various grocery chains that aren't in my home area. I already knew about Safeway and Albertson's, the latter being the poster child for privacy invasion; the other two I had never heard of before.

Next would come the massive picure-processing and storyline organization project. The author in Indianapolis opined that I should just write a book ... except that it wouldn't have quite the same flavor and clickable big-pictures that a set of webpages does. And really, how many rundowns of "what I did on my summer vacation" would you actually be willing to pay *money* for?

As mentioned before, there were quite a few odd coincidences throughout the trip, some visual and some otherwise, that were never captured in sufficient detail. Perhaps they should have been, or perhaps they were just completely trivial. I recall one particularly amusing juxtaposition in Missouri, of a "Jesus loves you" billboard and a large "Adult bookstore" sign seen from the highway. I almost went back for that one. Next time, or maybe someone else already has.

There were some other bits of followup as well. About a month later I had an interesting conversation with a logistics safety manager for Wal-Mart, because I was curious, which then got written up because it seemed so relevant. And later in the year, some of my hypermiling acquaintances launched a 48-state challenge trip around the country. After surviving this length of trip of my own with that many hours at the helm I could really understand what they were up against.

_H*   090128
[Yes, it took that long to finally finish this...]