Wednesday, August 5, 2009

Things That Chap My Ass About Driving in Alaska, Part 1

I’ve had to drive back and forth to Anchorage these last few days.

I live about 60 miles from the city and I normally enjoy the drive.

Now there’s only one way to get from where I live here in rural Alaska, outside of the little town of Palmer, to Anchorage, and that’s the Glenn Highway - well, to be completely honest you could swim down the Knik Arm or fly, I suppose. Driving wise however, it’s the Glenn or nothing.

Here in Alaska we have three seasons, not four like you people down south in the lower 48 or twenty-eleventeen metric seasons like they have in Canada and places where Soccer is the national sport.   First there’s Winter (note the capital “W”), followed by breakup which is the season of brown and mud and muck and glop and rain between the cold part of the year and the other part (this is also the season where we find all the bodies that pile up during the winter).  Then there’s construction – or what you people call summer.  Construction is sort of like summer, only louder and colder and with a lot more rain and time off for fishing.  We don’t have fall, one day it’s sunny and cool, the next day your driveway is three feet deep in fluffy solid water. That’s why our lawn mowers come equipped with four wheel drive, cup warmers, and plows.

We’re at the height of construction right now.

Now the last couple of years we haven’t had much in the way of construction – mostly the last couple of years we’ve just had one long Breakup, then Floop! Winter again.  Oh, sure, the snow went away and the leaves turned green and the mosquitoes came out and it sort of looked like construction – but it wasn’t.  See, for it to be construction – well, we would have had to have somebody at the helm who was actually, you know, running the state.  That person apparently had other, more important, shit to do.  So, for the last two years basically nothing has gotten done around here – especially the road work.

Alaska is notoriously hard on roads. 

In the winter the moisture in the ground freezes. No, pay attention, it freezes. Like 40 below (that’s like negative a billion for you Canadians). Water is unique in its chemistry.  Almost all other chemical compounds contract when they get cold. When they change state from liquid to solid they take up less volume. Not water. When water freezes it expands.  This means that when the water in the ground freezes it makes the ground get bigger.  Sometimes it gets so big it explodes with tremendous force. We refer to this quaint phenomenon as a frost heave.  When frost heaves happen under a road, well, they’re like magic speed bumps.  Suddenly a big chunk of the road just buckles up in front of you and blamo! you get to see how the towing rider on your insurance policy works.  I’ve seen fifty pound slabs (that’s like a million kilos for you Canucks) of asphalt thrown hood high.  Now, couple that with studded snow tires and tandem semi-trailer rigs and you get pot holes that would qualify as national monuments in other parts of the country (it also explains why no vehicle in Alaska has an unbroken windshield).  Even without the frost heaves, studded snow tires tear up the roads. For those of you from warmer climates, studded snow tires have little metal cleats embedded in the treads to increase traction on ice, most places they are illegal because they damage the roads so badly. But not here in Alaska, here studded snow tires are like polar fleece – we put them on in October and don’t take them off until we see the first mosquito of construction season. Those studs wear down the road surface pretty fast and the major thoroughfares and highways end up being like inside out railroad tracks.  By the time breakup rolls around, the roads look exactly like those grooves left in the stone by Conestoga wagon trains as they headed west to California:


Driving on this crap is a lot like driving one those kiddie racing cars at Disneyland, the ones that follow the metal track around and around.  You can twist the wheel any damned direction you like, but your tires fall into the grooves and in Alaska the road drives you, not the other way around – if you get my drift here. 

So, as I said, the road deteriorates pretty damned fast around here. Road maintenance during construction is an ongoing process. Slack off for a season, and things go to hell pretty damned fast indeed. Slack off for two seasons in a row and you have ruble that vaguely resembles the German Autobahn around the end of 1945 after three solid years of unrelenting Allied saturation bombing.

Nobody has done any maintenance on the Glenn Highway in going on three years.  It had gotten to the point where you could see dirt at the bottom of the studded tire grooves, there were days where I looked into the gapping canyons and expected to see Chinese people staring back from the other side of the planet.  We didn’t have a highway, we had lanes consisting of three disconnected parallel strips of buckled blacktop.  Driving on it was a white knuckled adventure in courage. Driving a motorcycle on it was bald faced insanity. 

Now, mix in a couple hundred thousand tourists in motor homes the size of the Queen Mary. Add ice, snow, whiteout conditions, large wildlife, some gomer in a rattletrap jalopy doing about 35 in the fast lane, horribly bad don’t give a shit Alaskan drivers on cell phones, snow plows, and a partridge in a pear tree (or in our case a bald eagle which the tourists have stopped in the middle of the highway to gawp at) – and, yeah, really you want to thoroughly empty your bowels before setting out for work in the morning.

People were understandable dismayed by this turn of events.

They complained loudly.

Only to be told that the state lacked the funds to fix the situation.

Accordingly, our Governor in a display of simply stunning intellectual brinkmanship and political posturing, turned down Federal stimulus money specifically designated to fix the fucking roads and, you know, employ people. Boy, screwing over the residents of your state, that sure taught President Obama a lessen, didn’t it? Stupid Liberals, take that! Watch me kick my constituents in the nuts again. That’ll learn ya, you pinko socialist, you.


Anyway. Seems we managed to dredge up a new governor (the previous one having an $11M book deal to attend to. Apparently she’s writing a book, about ducks or something) and some funds and construction is upon us with a vengeance.  Outsiders gauge the intensity of their summers by temperature, Alaskans don’t really notice temperature – we determine the intensity of our non-snow season by the number and density of orange cones along our roads. This year, it’s a bumper crop. It’s like we’re being invaded by armies of strange pointy aliens from the planet ADOT. It’s a sea of orange as far as the eye can resolve.  Somewhere in China the People’s Number Two Heroic Orange Rubber Safety Cone Factory is working three shifts of peasant labor to death cranking out cones to feed the insatiable demand from the (north) West.  We're changing our state symbol from the Big Dipper to a silhouette of a big burly woman with a mustache and a Marlboro holding a “Slow” sign.

It’s one hundred and twenty miles round trip to Anchorage and back (or about 5000 CanuckOmeters) and every single inch of it is under construction. 

You notice things.

- Construction Zone Speed Limits Are Optional:

There are GIANT ORANGE SIGNS that that say in GIANT BLACK LETTERS: “Fines doubled in construction zone.”  There are other dire warnings. There are signs telling you what will happen should you hit a construction worker (or Empowered Road Maintenance Engineer or whatever we’re calling them).  The speed limits are reduced. We are not kidding.

Only one problem – compliance is on the honor system.

Nobody complies with the speed limits. And nobody is worried about the double secret extra jumbo sized fines either.


Attention Alaska State Police: Here’s a clue, there isn’t any point whatsoever of having laws to protect workers in construction zones, or posting signs, or even of having a damned speed limit, if you’re not going to enforce them

I’m tooling along doing the posted 55MPH (I know, but I’m all out of Canuckistan jokes, sorry) construction zone speed limit and people are blazing past me at 70, 80, and 90 miles an hour.  Zig zagging through the cones.  Giant double tandem ALCAN haulers are barreling along at 80, inches from workers, swerving on the rugged road surface.

Any cops?

Nope, not a one.

Wait, I’m wrong – there’s a state trooper. 

Up there, on the overpass, the Old Glenn Highway overpass – you know, the only section of the entire goddamned highway not actually under construction and without double fines and speed restrictions.  I mean sure, of course, that’s where he’s parked.   Good job, Trooper, no really. If you look up from your cell phone conversation for a minute, you can probably hear me banging my head on the steering wheel.

- Gravel needs to be softened up:

Whatever gravel is where the construction is at, isn’t the right kind of gravel. The right kind of gravel comes from as far away from the construction site as it is possible to get and still be actually in the state.

Watch.  There is a constant stream of enormous tandem semi tractors hauling gravel from one end of the construction zone to the other.  If construction is on the south end of the work zone, then the Laws of Construction dictate that the gravel must come from as far north as possible.  If the work is proceeding in the North end of the zone, then the Immutable Rules of Road Work dictate that the gravel will come from as far south as possible.  The same rules hold true for east/west-west/east construction zones as well. The bottom line is that if the gravel pit is next to the construction zone, then the gravel in that pit is completely unsuitable and cannot be used under any circumstance for the adjacent project. However, the gravel in that pit can be used for other more distant roads.  See, apparently, to be useful, gravel must be driven around for a while in heavy traffic by men with huge gray beards and dirty hats who don’t know what a turn signal is.

Also, it is very important that the gravel be moved only during morning and evening rush hours.  It is absolutely imperative that the gravel trucks are on the road no later than 5:30AM – that way they can be at the construction zone early enough for the drivers to get a cup of coffee and stand around for five or six hours until work actually starts at noon.

- You can only pave one lane per week:

But first what you need to do is run this big damned dinosaur of a contraption down the road. This thing eats asphalt and grinds off the top six or so inches of the road surface, leaving behind a jagged and grooved surface similar to the bottom of a bomb crater.  You only do this in one lane, leaving a six inch drop between the lanes. The ragged surface and the razor sharp cliff edge between lanes is specifically designed to shred the rubber off your tires – because, really, fuck you.  If people wouldn’t drive on the road, we wouldn’t have to fix it all of the time.  Now once you’ve got fifteen or twenty miles of this, you, uh, take a break.  For about two weeks.  You just pack up all of the workers (sorry, but that’s what they call them, workers) and the trucks and the paving machines and those orange water coolers and you just go jerk the hell off in Cancun or something.  You don’t level the other side of the road and you sure as hell don’t pave it.  You let it sit for a while.  This period is designed to make commuters think, “Hey, maybe the old shitty road wasn’t too bad after all” and “I wonder where all the road workers went?”  This period also adds an exciting air of mystery to the project. After about two or three or maybe four weeks, you pave it, BUT then you mark it off with more cones so nobody can drive on it – well, except for the construction workers. After a week or so you move the cones so people can only drive on half of it.  See, it’s fun to drive with one side of your car on smooth new pavement, and the other set of tires directly on top of the shoulder rumble strips, after about twenty miles of that you can actually feel your internal organs liquefying.  Once you’ve got one lane done, you take another month long break, then you grind the hell out of the other side – then you go back to the state and demand the contract be renegotiated before you’ll finish the job, because hey screwing the state is what we do. 

See you next summer, suckers.

- Traffic Cones are Heavy, it takes about nine people to move one:

There sure seems to be a hell of a lot of people in orange vests just standing around getting paid to stick their thumbs up their asses.

The other day, on the Palmer-Wasilla highway, I passed a huge coned off construction zone where they are adding yet another stop light and turn lane, because really, you just can’t have too many stop lights, can you?  If one is good, fifteen or twenty in a ten mile stretch must be better, right? Yeah, Road Planner: because the civil engineers who graduated last in their class need jobs too.  Anyway, in the middle of this construction zone, sitting on the pavement was a girl in an orange safety vest, painting yellow lines on the tarmac with, yes, a little paintbrush.  You know, because if you’re going to create bullshit makework jobs to suck at the public tit, you might as well just be blatantly obvious about it. Seriously, why would you use the big expensive automatic road painting machine parked over there on the shoulder?  I mean, hell, you’d be done in five minutes and then what would The 2nd Assistant Line Painter Non-supervising Senior Journeyman Drone do for the rest of the shift?

When it comes to these types of operations, my dad says that it takes nine people: two to come and two to go, two to shit and two to mow - and the foreman. 

That sounds about right.


Now, if you’ll excuse me, I need to go make an appointment to have my studded snow tires put back on. Winter’s coming.


  1. pshaw.

    The section of I79 between Morgantown and Little Washington has been under constant construction since I was a junior in high school.

    That's twenty two YEARS. I have never, for as long as I have been driving, been on that road and not gone through a construction zone.

    Know what's even better? That section of road can't be more than 30 miles long.

    And before John gets his panties in a bunch about Senator Byrd and pork and wasteful spending, I'd like to point out that all but a couple of miles are in Pennsylvania.

  2. pshaw?

    Great, we're on par with West Virginian road construction - it's worse than I thought.

  3. Mercy, and here I thought all the stupid construction crap was here in Atlanta - land of the revolving cone zones - in the middle of downtown - freqently during rush hours - except on tax-free back to school shopping weekend, holidays and any other time less people are driving on the connector.

    I mean come on now, this is the city that hosted the 1996 Olympics and started a major two-year reramping and new lane project, oh, I think it was 4 weeks before opening ceremonies.

    No kidding, I was so thrilled when they completed the downtown Olympic Inner Ring road work. Then horrified a few weeks later when the GDOT started tearing up I-75 right at the Perimeter ramps. As I was an Olympic Volunteer in the DRIVER POOL for official VIP-type Transportation, this was insanely stupid. We had enough streets closed throughout the region to accommodate this massive event, they could have waited another month. Idiots.

    And Michelle, worst road award for continious construction? I-85 in South Carolina. Whole way between the Georgia & North Carolina state lines. In the 35 years I have lived in this region, I have NEVER been on that road that there was not at least one construction zone...with or without workers present.

    Including one brutal Tuesday afternoon before Thanksgiving in an freak ice storm and about 40 miles of cone zone through both Spartenburg and Greenville. Normal 5-ish hour drive from my house to my parents in NC took nearly 10 hours. And I only stopped for potty breaks!! Swore then I'd never drive home for the holidays again, and I haven't!


  4. Oh, and Jim...who is carter and why are you bombing him?

  5. I have no idea what you're talking about. You must have misread Bomb Crater.

    And unless you can access my editing logs, you can't prove any different.


  6. Ah, yes, but you just confessed...

    AND I'd made a note and written it down when I was reading it. It's right here on my little yellow Jr. Legal Pad. What, you can't see that??

    So, nyah! I have my own proof.

    ::sticks tongue out, ducks & heads to bed...::


  7. I guess I should be glad that the only thing I have to worry about is not hitting the roadside deer.

    As for decade(s)-long construction zones I've known ...

    Knoxville, TN. They had construction on the interchanges for five years, and every time I went through (once or twice per year) the routing was completely different. I got lost a lot.

    Jeffersonville, IN. I-65, right after you get off the bridge from Louisville (or right before, depending which way you're going). I was amazed when it finally ended, and we could use all three lanes at the same time, and they had shoulders, and it wasn't a white-knuckled experience trying to pass the semis anymore.

  8. (1) Jim, I thought you should know that -40 degrees does not require any conversion. Can't have it in Kelvin and Rankine, and it's -40 in Celsius/Centigrade.

    My high school Hi-IQ Bowl team, sort of College Bowl for central North Carolina high schools, blew away a team when I answered correctly the above on an interrupt of "At what temperature do the..." Even the moderator asked how I knew that.

    (2) Wendy might recall that I-79 around Zelienople was under construction forever during the early 60s -- including the time the highway disappeared. Turned out it was built on quicksand. Until the concrete disappeared, they just thought people were stealing the bulldozers...

    Dr. Phil

  9. -40 degrees does not require any conversion


    O.O <- Wide innocent eyes. Who me?

    But I love the story about the bulldozers.

  10. Hey now - we have just as much fun with this stuff in Canada you know. Yah think being metric 'n' all makes it easier? Where I am now it's not so bad: construction season can last a long long time. Back in Manitoba where there are only TWO seasons (Winter & July) it's a whole nuther ball game. Basically they just keep piling gravel on it and watch it freeze solid.

  11. 2 seasons?

    What's that in American?


  12. Water is an element? I didn't know you practiced Feng Sui. :p

    The elements that have higher density in liquid form than in solid are antimony, bismuth, gallium, germanium,and silicon. :p

  13. Michelle, the state of PA is notorious for gaming the federal system by asking for more funds than they have the manpower to use, and they'll start a project just to meet the deadline, but let in languish for years.

    When I was in grad school PA got voted worst highways in the US by the trucking association two years running. I still remember the cover of the magazine - it had one of the old dark blue PA plates sitting, mangled in a pothole, and all you could read of the plate was the "You've got a friend in PA".

    And Byrd has done you more harm than good with his pork. Sure, it looks like he's helping you, but he's slapping a band-aid on a sucking chest wound.

    He puts up government institutions, but never attracts any serious employers to the state. West Virginia is still sucking at the government teat after all these years. Why didn't Honda locate there instead of Kentucky? Byrd's shenanigans. To top it off he porkbarrels stuff like the Robert Byrd Center for public policy research at Shepherd.

    Who in their right mind is going to hire someone who studied government in West Virginia, let alone at a podunk college like Shepherd? :D

    Sarcasm aside, most of those kids come from out of state, and go right back out again when they graduate. The money would have been better spent on a technical school to teach auto mechanics and the like if you wanted to boost employment in the area.

  14. I Ohio we have three seasons, Winter, Mud, Orange Cone Blossom Festival, Mud (II), and back to Winter.

  15. Cup warmers? What a great idea! Next time I'm playing sports in a cold season and I have to wear a cup, I'm definitely getting one of those cup warmers. Only from Alaska would that idea come.

    And about highway construction? Two words. Big Dig.

    Nuff said.

  16. Ah, yes Brother o' mine, I do remember I-79 eating equipment. They'd park the stuff by the construction area one day and by the time they came back, it was gone. Burp.

    Seem to remember they wanted the FBI involved in the investigation, something about "construction companies" out of NJ that had been running stolen equipment rings at the time. Nobody believed them when they were saying...but we really didn't do it!

    And I only drove on PA roads a couple of times, but I do remember how bad the turnpike was from Pittsburgh going back to NYC after Grandpap's funeral. Swore I'd never drive in that state again, and I was all of 17 and hadn't even had my license a year yet!!


  17. An old joke in Boone, NC, where I got my undergraduate degree up in the Appalachian Mountains, was "Where else can you enjoy all four seasons--in one day?" Which isn't very funny, altho' it is true. You can have a freezing June or July morning followed by a balmy afternoon sporadically broken by several showers and one good thunderstorm, and it isn't a big deal at all, just wait fifteen minutes for the weather to change again.

    Guess the point is, makes your three seasons in a year look pretty piddling. Boone has season you've never heard of, like "Walltumn" and "Sumingter," and that might just be on a particular Tuesday.

    Love that town. Miss it terribly, but these days when I (rarely) go back, I'm reminded of how you can never go back--you see college students walking around who are young enough to be your kids, and then you take an old shortcut that turns out to be a new dead-end next to the parking lot of a shopping center that isn't supposed to be there. But I guess that's gone astray. More relevant is one thing that hasn't changed much since I graduated, which is that they're always working on 321, although it sort of makes sense up there since the terrain and climate conspire to make construction slow and destruction fast. I imagine if we're ever gone, the reversion to wilderness up there would erase us quickly, and turn whatever archaeological sites remained into weird little islands of piled rubble and buried artifacts separated by miles of thick forest.

  18. I can just see you in that little car on the tracks - whipping the wheel back and forth, cursing like only sailors can, crazed look in the eye - scaring all the 5 year olds in the other cars - the watching parents wondering...


  19. See, road construction is the universal binder. It's the one thing that brings us all together. Black, White, Yellow, Brown, Gay, Straight, Liberal, Conservatives, Religious, Not So Religious, Canadian - it doesn't matter.

    Bring up road construction - and every damned body will spend the next ten minutes trying to convince you why the Road Workers in their state/province are more stupid, lazy, incompetent, corrupt, and disorganized than anywhere else in the world.

    Road work, the Universal Unifier.

  20. Karl, unless you've got pictures that never happened (twice) and you can't prove it.

  21. hehheh - I'll never tell - out of print.

  22. I have absolutely no stories about NYC road crews. Nobody knows where the hell they are.

  23. Probably all sleeping in one DOT truck on some back road...

    The old 'joke' up here is:

    What's orange and sleeps 5?
    An ADOT pickup truck.

  24. What's orange, sleeps five, and can be found parked at Wal-Mart 16 out of every 24 hours surrounded by cigarette butts and Starbucks cups?


    "Please, God, let me get through Wasilla.

  25. Also, JTS, I fixed it.

    Happy now?

    Stupid Chemistry.

  26. Montana is good for the "every single season in one day" thing too. The mornings were chilly (40s and 50s), the afternoons were hot (90s), and sometimes it would hail for no reason.

    I've also heard that the UK doesn't have seasons at all, or a climate. They just have weather.

  27. BEN: Road Construction is what gives a Jedi his power. Highways are created by all living things. Road crews surround us and penetrate us. They binds the galaxy together.

    LUKE: Ohhhhh--you mean like gravity.

    BEN: No, not like gravity, you stupid jack--look, never mind. I was building up to something, but now you've ruined it. Forget it. Sweet jumping Jesus, what is it with you and your whole damn family--

    LUKE: My family! You were about to tell me something about my father!

    BEN: No I wasn't.

    LUKE: But... my feelings told me--

    BEN: No they didn't. It was gas. You shouldn't have eaten that Reuben at the spaceport. Hey, look, it's a dog and an Oscar statuette playing chess!

  28. I hate to be pedantic, but something was bothering me about your explanation of Frost Heave, to wit, the density of ice is 0.92 g/mL and water s 1.0 g/mL. An 8% density differential is not enough to blow a chunk of asphalt hood high. It is enough to crack a metal pipe or glass bottle, but "burst pipes" burst because the ice cracks the pipe and then the residual liquid water under pressure does the rest of the damage.

    The actual explosive force in a Frost Heave is caused by an Ice Lens (see here.

    When something freezes, contrary to the simplified lie your HS chemistry teacher told you, there is always a thin layer of liquid on the interface between the solid phase and the medium it's in, be that rock or air, or plastic, or whatever.

    In porous medial such as rock or gels (like a contact lens, which will explode if you freeze it right) that layer of water flows along a temperature gradient from the hot part to the cold part of the medium. Since the ground freezes from top to bottom, the liquid water in the unfrozen ground moves up to the frozen part, filling up all the holes in the frozen rock and dirt with more and more water - that's the ice lens. Keep adding more water and you run out of holes to put it in and BAM! Frost Heave.

    Which begs the question: why don't you see those explosions anywhere the ground freezes? I think it has to do with the steepness of the gradient - the greater the differential between the frozen topsoil and the ground below, the faster the water comes in, so there must be a temperature range at which explosive gradients form.

    We do see lesser-powered frost heaves down here - I joke that the principal crop of New England is rocks. They pop up every spring due to the same heaving phenomenon, and you can see it in concrete slab sidewalks where the paving slabs no longer line up due to the more gentle heaving in our milder climate.

    /pedantic scientist

  29. Right, exactly, I knew that. I just used the shorter and more succinct scientific phrasing:

    Ground gets bigger.

    Boy, John, I'll bet you're a whole lotta fun to watch a movie with. ;)

    But, thanks for explaining it to the Canadians.

  30. Boy, John, I'll bet you're a whole lotta fun to watch a movie with.

    Almost as fun as these guys. :D

  31. And you didn't ask me how I know that contact lenses will exhibit little bubble cracks like mini-frost heaves if you freeze them. The shit I did in the name of science... :p

  32. We all appreciate your sacrifice, John. ;)

  33. Oh, well, if you really want to get pedantic about it ... the other side of the planet would be somewhere in the Southern Ocean near Antarctica, and not China. I think you'd be more likely to see penguins in the road canyons. >.>

  34. What? Chinese people can't visit Antarctica?


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