Thursday, August 03, 2017

Never the twain shall meet.

I was driving northbound on I-85 in North Carolina a couple of months ago, on my way to a business school class reunion from someplace in South Carolina.  I pulled into the right lane, and took the exit to a rest area, in large part to stretch out my hamstring (which was shrieking in pain and about to start spasming, not what you especially want to have happen to the leg that controls the brake pedal).  There are signs indicating that this rest area is the location of the North Carolina Vietnam Veterans Memorial, and other signs indicating that there is a "Blue Star Highway" memorial here as well.

The Blue Star Highway memorial is circular, twelve feet across, made of different-colored bricks, and looks to have been designed by high school students (names and school listed on a nearby plaque, together with the names of the contractors who donated the bricks).  As such, it looked fine.

And the sign over there indicates that the NC Vietnam Veterans Memorial was down this paved path ("Authorized Vehicles Only!") to the right, about 900 feet.  Fine, I can stroll down to it.  As I'm wandering down the path, it occurs to me to wonder why the memorial is pretty much in the middle of nowhere, accessible only via an Interstate.  

The memorial itself is fine, I guess.  A little large for my tastes, and at the same time surprisingly reserved. Nestled into a hillside, it's a circle that's probably 125 feet in diameter, and most of the center is a flat, green, well-kept and recently-mowed lawn.  Some of one side of the field has a brick wall on it, with bronze plaques listing the 1600 North Carolinians who died or went missing during the war. (The memorial is also to honor the 260,000 North Carolinians who survived Vietnam.)  There's a ten-foot berm surrounding the field, which makes the top of the berm level with the natural ground height on the uphill side and twenty-five feet above the ground level on the downhill side. The hillside was planted with appropriate-looking shrubs and trees.  All in all, it looks like a proportionally-sized stadium for a 40-yard long football field.

I continued along the path on the other side of the memorial, back up the hill to the rest area, on a path that's about 150 feet long.  Okay, I'm a little turned around, as I'd have expected the rest area buildings to be off to my right, but they're over there on the left.  I guess the paths to and around the memorial were a little more twisty than I realized.

As I approach the rest area buildings, I don't see my car.  I know where I parked it relative to those buildings, and it's not there.  Well, this is becoming a substantially less fun trip by the minute.  I get closer to the rest area buildings, and yes, there's the sign pointing to the Blue Star Highway memorial - but it's pointing in a different direction from the buildings than it just was.  And as I get to the memorial, I see that it's now a ten-by-fifteen foot rectangle, again made out of different-colored bricks, and designed by high school students.

Wait, what?  Why are there seemingly two different rest areas, both on the east side of the northbound lanes of this Interstate? This makes no sense to me. I can see the traffic out on the highway, zooming by from left to right as you'd expect. What's going on here? Why did they do this? What can the layout of the memorial and the highway and the rest areas possibly be that allows this? And where's my car? (And why do I hear the Twilight Zone music?)

Okay.  I finally decide that for some reason, there really are two rest areas here, and I need to retrace my steps back down the hill and around the memorial to get back to the rest area where my car is.  I do so, and as I trudge back up the long hill to the parking lot, I spot my car, exactly where I left it.  So that's a good result.

Fine.  There are two different rest areas on the right side of this Interstate. I don't understand it.  But thanks to my handy cell phone, I can pull up the map and take a look.

And, well, hmm.  There's the answer, and it raises more questions.  On this stretch of highway, the northbound lanes are west of the southbound lanes.  Which means that the memorial, and both rest areas - one for the northbound lanes and one for the southbound lanes - are actually in the median between the north- and southbound lanes.

Zooming out on the map, you can see that the northbound lanes cross under the southbound lanes about a mile south of the memorial, and cross back over them about a half-mile north of it.  

Hmm. Well, surely they couldn't have built the Interstate like this with the weird crossover first, and then decide it would be a grand place to put the memorial, so the idea of the memorial must have come first.  But why not build the exit ramps as they do where I've seen rest area plazas in the median in other states (Maryland and Delaware come to mind), with the exit ramps on the left side of the traffic lanes?  Or even have the exit ramp on the right side of traffic, and have a flyover lane to take the rest area traffic to the median (also Maryland, or maybe New Jersey)?

It gives me something to ponder for the next hour and a half of my drive, and I finally decided that what must have happened was this: there was an existing highway - either US or NC - that eventually became the southbound lanes of I-85.  While it was just that highway, they decided to build the memorial. That explains why the access to the memorial from the southbound lanes is easier than from the northbound lanes - a 150-foot walk instead of 900 feet, and a paved road leading to parking spaces by the memorial, instead of a road for authorized vehicles only.  Once they decided to make the highway into I-85, it was reasonable to place the memorial into the median, and to do that, they had to have the crossover to make the northbound lanes be on the other side and for the exit lane from the northbound lanes to the rest area be on the right, as for all other rest areas in the state..

I've been over this stretch of I-85 at least six, and possibly ten, times in the past half-dozen years.  I've never noticed anything unusual about this stretch of road, and I'm sure I've stopped at this rest area before.  The bridge where the northbound lanes cross over the southbound lanes north of the rest area is marked (with an admittedly small sign) as "I-85" and I imagine the other crossover is marked as well. But those are small signs, easily missed, and you could easily stop at the rest area without seeing either the memorial or the other rest area, or even suspecting that they were there.

And, for what it's worth, for the forty-five minutes that I was wandering around this memorial area, early afternoon on a Friday in the spring, there was no one else anywhere near the memorial.