Sunday, December 25, 2011

Hiking a suburban road without shoulders (Feb. 16, 2010)

Current mood: confident

In the last week and a half, metro Pittsburgh has received about 30 inches of snow. The plows have kept up with it, for the most part, but even on the well plowed suburban road near my house, there really is nowhere for the plows to put it. The shoulders are buried, and the pile has covered even a foot or so of the paved surface on both sides in many places.

Needless to say, being a pedestrian along this road is difficult.

Nevertheless, I have to walk this 0.8-mile-long road at least once a day, often twice, and one of those trips is in the dark. Let me describe for you how this is done.

*    There is no shoulder. You are walking in the driving lanes. Maybe the middle of the lane, maybe merely in line with someone’s headlights, but unavoidably right there in Runoverville.

*    Sight lines are not good. There are several elevation changes and curves, so you cannot expect to be seen more than a few seconds in advance of an oncoming vehicle, usually not more than 10, often much less. Occasionally zero.

*    The road is very narrow because of the snowbanks. Even if drivers could see you in time, it is frequently not possible for them to move to the center because of oncoming traffic, blind curves, and blind grades.

*    Expect a car one way or the other twice to three times a minute.

*    Of course, every step of the way is slippery, whether by packed snow, slush or ice.

Got all that? Now that we’ve established the ground rules, allow me to describe how one traverses this 0.8 miles of fun and games. In the dark. While it’s actively still snowing. With a near-zero wind chill.

The trick is getting good at crossing the street at the right time, ducking into driveways, and becoming aware of oncoming traffic long before they know you’re there.

As children, we learned to “walk on the left, facing traffic”. Nice plan, when it works for you. Often on this trip, walking on the left is an invitation to suicide. Even on a dry, sunny day in July, there are a couple of places on this road where you have to walk on the right if you value your life, as there simply is no left shoulder to begin with. Net effect, you expect to cross a couple of times anyway. In July, you can get away with jumping left to avoid oncoming traffic. But add hip-deep frozen slush to the roadside, and that option becomes null and void.

What you do is walk along on the left side until you detect oncoming traffic. Checking behind you to be sure nothing is coming the other way, you cross and walk along the “wrong” side until the oncoming traffic has passed, and then cross back, again taking care that nothing is coming from behind you.

It’s actually a little more involved than that. The detection part is key to making this trip successfully. At night, telephone wires, overhead branches and road signs reflect headlights well before you can see the cars or rather their headlight beams. This applies equally to cars coming behind you. You have to walk looking behind you as much as you do looking forward. The closer you get to a blind spot, the more you need to know about what’s behind you.

The game goes on continuously. Do I have time to cross the street? Or do I bolt for that driveway up ahead? Or do I backtrack into that one I just passed? The one thing I do not want to happen is to be on the same side of the street as oncoming traffic from either direction, as there simply is noplace for them to go or for me to go.

I have also found it essential to estimate the arrival time of oncoming cars from either direction. Not infrequently cars approach from both directions at once. Just because you can see a car approaching does not mean its presence is imminent. The car coming up behind you might be much closer. Let that one get past you, then cross in front of the oncoming one. Just do it with enough time to avoid startling the driver.

The last three nights, I crossed the street 17, 13, and 11-1/2 times. The half a time was when I started to cross then realized the oncoming car was a lot closer than I thought, so aborted the crossing.

Dangerous? Pah. Rather, I'm aware of my surroundings and unafraid to take whatever actions are necessary. I'm also insensible to commonly accepted rules of “you have to do it this way”. Rules be damned. It’s my life on the line, so I will devise the rules. That decided, so long as I adhere to my own rules, there is no danger, just the irritation of wet sneakers.

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