Driving in the US by Region

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Driving in the US by Region

In June, 2008, a German rider who might come to the US for the Iron Butt Rally in 2009 asked about riding in the US. He asked people to answer a series of questions state by state, but I wrote this "regional" article instead.

For a motorcyclist, the US divides more naturally into regions than into states. The Northeast, for example, is one "region" with lots of states. In the West, some single states like California comprise several "regions" when it comes to terrain, weather, and other conditions.

US Regions

Here is a rough list of regions:

  • Northeast: everything north and east of Philadelphia.
  • Southeast: everything south and east of Kentucky.
  • Midwest: everything east of the Mississippi that isn't in the above.
  • Great Plains: the central section between the Rocky Mountains and the Mississippi.
  • The Mountain West: Colorado west of Denver, much of Utah, western Wyoming and western Montana.
  • Desert Southwest: West Texas, all of New Mexico and Arizona, southern Utah, Nevada, and southeast California.
  • Northwest: Oregon, Washington, Idaho.

California is its own region, because here we've got everything: deserts, mountains, plains, forests, coastline, the works. Also, my "Southeast" includes the "Mid-Atlantic" area (Virginia, North Carolina) which many would not put in that region.

From a cultural and geographic perspective, West Virginia is a region unto itself: very mountainous and hardly any population, unlike the Northeast and Southeast.

These regions define areas that have a lot in common like geography, population, and weather. Most of the people and most of the roads are in the East. The West is virtually empty by comparison until you get to the Pacific Coast.

You'll hear some people refer to "The South" and they mean the area I'm calling the Southeast. Despite what you see on a map, nobody means Texas, New Mexico, or Arizona when they talk about "The American South." Historically, before the US spread westward, this really was the South.

Similarly, the "Midwest" used to be the middle-west part of the country, but then the country expanded westward and made this name more quaint than practical.

In the Northeast and Southeast, you can expect rain during the IBR season (September). You might get storms from Atlantic and Gulf tropical storms and hurricanes. In the Southeast you can find hot and humid weather: 90 degrees F and 90% relative humidity. The Northeast and Southeast are where the population is most dense, so it's also dense with towns and roads. There are hills and mountain ranges that run roughly parallel to the Atlantic coast, and more roads run at that angle than run due east/west or north/south.

The Midwest and Great Plains are almost all flat farmland: straight roads with no hills or curves. Rain and thunderstorms possible any time of year, but you won't get tornadoes in September. There are minor roads crisscrossing this area in a grid pattern, so there are usually lots of ways to get from one place to another. Those roads won't be very fast - they'll have little towns and occasional right-angle turns as they jog to follow property lines. To the south (Oklahoma, north Texas) it gets hotter and drier; to the north it's cooler and wetter. The northern tier has lots of lakes, which means lots of insects, especially at dusk.

The Mountain West is just that: mountainous. You'll get lots of elevation changes and all kinds of weather. Approaching Denver from the east, you're on a flat tabletop (sloping up to the west) and then BOOM! you pass through Denver and start crossing 4000-meter passes. Keep going west and things settle down until you cross another range in central Utah, and after that things are pretty quiet until you get to the Sierra Nevada range, which runs (roughly) along the California/Nevada border.

In the Desert Southwest you'll get 95+ degrees during the day and virtually no humidity. Hotels and gas stations are farther apart. There are fewer minor roads - and fewer major ones, for that matter.

The Northwest is also called "the Pacific Northwet": the coastal areas are generously watered by the Pacific Ocean. Halfway east across Oregon and Washington, it's hot & dry again in the summer - this area is called "the High Desert." Southern Idaho is like most of Nevada - it could be called the Desert Northwest. The northern tier (closer to Canada) is cooler, wetter, and greener.

Types of roads in the U.S.

The Interstate Highways are the ones with a red and blue shield marker that are the most prominent on any map. Interstate 10 is abbreviated I-10 or I10. The Interstates are all "freeways" (also called "limited access highways") which means they have entrances and exits, no stoplights or cross traffic, and always two lanes or more in each direction. The speed limits go from 55 MPH to 65 to 70 and even 75 - the higher limits are away from towns and mostly in the Plains and in the West.

The next lower class of roads is the US Highways. Some of these are also "freeways" (limited access) but most are not - they can have stoplights and cross traffic. All US highways are first-class roads that really go places. They can be abbreviated "US395" for example. The symbol for a US highway on a map is a white shield icon - you'll see what I mean if you look.

The next category is the state highways. Interstate highways and US highways are Federally funded and are built to high standards for interstate trucking, while state highways run a very wide spectrum from freeways to minor through roads connecting little towns and serving farms and ranches. State highways often go right through towns and have cross traffic and stoplights. Outside of cities, you can expect just one lane of traffic in each direction for a state highway, unless it's marked on your map as being more major than that. Most numbered state highways are also suitable for short-haul trucking, but not always. Very occasionally you will get a state highway that has a one-lane section (over a little-traveled mountain pass, for instance). I think they never have a permanently unpaved section. (My information is mostly about California; other states might use different standards.) State highways are often abbreviated with the two-letter state designation and a number, like CA25 or UT12. On a map they are usually just a number in a circle, or a number in some kind of shape chosen by the state: California uses a poppy flower petal, Utah uses a beehive, and many states use their own outline.

Anything below the level of a numbered state highway - a numbered county road, farm road, forest road, or just a named street - will be slower. The really dinky ones serving farms and ranches can be unpaved. You will use them to get to bonus locations, but they are generally not suitable for making IBR-style miles. This is a broad generalization, of course. Some roads in this category are BETTER suited to making miles, if they're long and straight and don't have much cross traffic or police presence. But without knowing in advance it's hard to tell. These roads can also be quite twisty, sweepy, or scenic, but you're not in the IBR for the view.

Freeways, toll roads, National Parks, border checks

The word "freeway" does not mean "free" as in "free beer," something you don't pay for when you use it. Almost all freeways are indeed free, but some are toll roads: they have toll booths or other methods for collecting money from you as you travel on them. On a map, they are often marked in a different color or have the word "Toll" printed near them.

In the US, toll roads are (by far) more common in the Northeast than any other region. Besides the Northeast, I-80 is a toll road west across Pennsylvania, Ohio, and Indiana, and there are some toll roads reaching west from Chicago. Add in a few in Florida and that's just about all of them. Sometimes toll roads are called "Turnpikes," and "The Massachusetts Turnpike" or "Mass Pike" is a famous one.

Toll roads can be slower because you have to stop and pay the toll once in a while, or else you get a printed paper slip when you get on the road and stop to pay a toll when you get off.

One thing to watch out for: on some toll roads, they record your entrance time and later they see your exit time and the miles you drove. They will charge you the toll, but if you covered the distance in too little time, they can also hit you with a speeding ticket. Sometimes toll roads are less crowded than others, and the temptation and opportunity to speed is greater. I don't know which roads do this or if you can fight it, but watch the speeds of people around you. (Sometimes you see people stopped at the last service area before the exit, just to soak up time before they leave the road.)

Even in places where toll roads are not common, toll bridges can be: you stop to pay when you cross the bridge, sometimes just in one direction and sometimes in both. All five bridges across the San Francisco Bay are toll bridges, but there are no other toll roads in this area.

In areas with lots of toll roads there is sometimes a device you can attach to your vehicle that will identify you as you drive through a special lane without stopping. The computer knows who you are and bills your account. These are sometimes called "FastPass" or "FastTrak." Different regions use different systems. To get info on setting this up in advance, ask somebody who lives in the areas where you plan to travel.

You might have to pay to use the roads that go through National Parks, or certain other types of parks. This isn't exactly a toll road; you're paying a park entrance fee. Some parks have a booth at each entrance where you stop and pay. Yellowstone (Wyoming) and Yosemite (California) work this way, for example. In some other parks, like Death Valley (California), you can just drive right through without paying. You're expected to pay if you stop instead of passing through, but it's mostly on the honor system. If you park for a long time, somebody might come by and check for your receipt for the park entrance fee. If you're going to pass into or through a lot of parks, it can be cheaper to buy the annual pass at the first park you enter. At parks with a booth, you still have to stop and show the pass, but you don't have to pay more if you bought the pass.

There are no "border checks" when crossing from state to state. Sometimes you get what feels like the same effect, though. Crossing into California on US50 from Nevada, there is an Agriculture Inspection Station, where they might stop you and ask if you have fresh fruit or vegetables. These can carry pests from other states into California, something we're trying to avoid. I haven't seen that station open in a long time, though. Another kind of stopping point similar to a tollbooth is the check for immigration violations and drugs along the southern border: at StoryTellers III, I had a very hot and unpleasant wait in line at a place on I-8 (or was it I-15?) near San Diego.

Highway numbering and exit numbering

There is a system for the numbering of the Interstate Highway System, but you don't really need to learn it. Here is an outline:

Even-numbered Interstates run (mostly) east-west. The numbers get bigger as you go north: I-10 runs across the southern border of the US, while I-90 runs across the northern border. Odd-numbered Interstates run (mostly) north-south, and the numbers get bigger from west to east: I5 runs up the Pacific Coast while I95 runs up the Atlantic.

The main Interstate highways have one or two digits (like I5 or I70). Interstates with three-digit numbers represent "loops" and "spurs" coming off one of those. A "loop" circles around something and takes you back to the same road you started on; a "spur" splits off the main road, goes somewhere, and stops. An even first digit identifies a loop: for example, I65 goes through Indianapolis, Indiana and I465 forms a loop around that city. An odd first digit in a three-digit Interstate number identifies a "spur": I80 goes through Iowa City, and I380 is a "spur" that runs north to Cedar Falls.

The system of US Highways uses a different numbering system. The evens run east-west and the odds run north-south, but the numbers count up from north to south (US2 runs across the north, US90 runs across the south) and from east (US1) to west (US101). The three-digit numbers mean something else, too. I'm not sure what.

These numbering systems aren't followed perfectly, so take them as guidelines (or don't bother to learn them at all). State highways don't necessarily have system at all: in California, at least, you can't use the number to tell what direction a state highway runs in or where it is.

Beware of exit numbers. You might think you have the system figured out, and then it changes when you cross a state line. All states are supposed to use exit numbers on the signs for Interstate Highways. California only recently started doing so, and you won't see exit numbers on all signs yet. In some states, exits are numbered based on the mile marker: you can bet that exit 44 will be two miles past exit 42. Others just number them sequentially: exit 44 is the second one after exit 42 but the numbers don't tell you how far apart they are.

About gas availability

The big miles of the IBR tend to be on Interstate Highways and other major roads, where fuel and hotels won't be a problem even for somebody with a small gas tank. But in the West you have to be a little bit careful, even on "major roads" like US Highways.

Let's look at a hypothetical route segment from Provo, Utah to Ely, Nevada - mostly on US6. You leave Provo headed south on I15, then west on US6. You pass Delta, UT after 90 miles. "I don't need fuel yet," you think to yourself... But there is no fuel on US6 until the Nevada state line, another 90 miles later. Did you leave Provo with 180 miles in your tank? If it's night or that tiny little hotel/casino/gas station on the state line is closed, the next gas is not until Ely - a total of 245 miles from Provo. My FJR would be deep into reserve and I'd be worrying the whole time. Unless you have aux fuel, you should have gotten gas in Delta.

And that's a US highway! State highways can be worse. Go south from San Jose, California to Coalinga by way of CA25 and CA198, and you'll see Hollister after just 56 miles. What you don't know is, it's another 100 miles, all the way to Coalinga, before you'll see gas again. (I exaggerate: there's gas at Tres Pinos, if it's daytime. But that's so close to Hollister you'd probably blow right by it.)

The Interstate highways are utterly reliable for 24-hour gas and services, at most about 40 miles apart, except in rare cases. Other highways, especially in the West, can have longer distances between services, and 24-hour availability isn't as certain.

 


This page was last edited June 30, 2008.