The Geography Ninja

Miles and miles of Texas…

Driving through Texas can be a daunting task under the best of circumstances.  Texas…is a big place.  While I can reach Arkansas in just under 15 minutes from my home in the border city of Texarkana, Austin is almost 400 miles away.  And El Paso….yeah, try over 800 miles.  Still, modern interstate highways with 75 mile an hour speed limits makes traveling through Texas MUCH better than it used to be.  I can leave Texarkana when the boys leave for their respective schools, and be in Austin just after lunch.  Which is what I planned to do last Friday.  I had a meeting with some of my Geo friends in Austin on Saturday, but I wanted to get into town early enough to visit with my 100 year old grandmother before our dinner social on Friday night.  Apparently, the travel gods had other plans.  Practically EVERY town I drove through had road construction, which amongst other things seemed to have caused a whole slew of accidents.  I remember at least 3 serious accidents that slowed me down substantially before I ever reached Dallas.  From Waco to Salado was bumper to bumper going 35 miles an hour – it took FOREVER.  I reached Austin at 4:20 pm.  Anyone who is familiar with Austin traffic immediately realizes my predicament.  Fortunately, being a native, I was able to circumnavigate the worst of Austin traffic and arrive at my destination 15 minutes before 6pm.  (PS:  I left my house at 8am.)

But all of this PALES in comparison with my trip home.  In addition to the entire state highway system being under construction, the travel gods decided to unleash a torrential downpour across the entire state.  I had decided to visit my relatives near Houston and had planned to drive home on Monday – you know, the day the entire city of Houston closed due to rain.  People up north have snow days – people in Texas apparently need rain days.  I think I was the LAST person to successfully drive through the city of Houston, and it quickly became clear that I was crazy lucky to have done that.  All around me, I could see frontage roads and exits completely submerged, and traffic in the other direction was stopped all together.  Somehow, I made it through Houston, only to be stopped just outside of Cleveland, TX.  At that point, I decided to exit at the first opportunity (which turned out to be the ONLY open exit for miles in either direction) and borrow the wifi at a fast food place – or a coffee place – both turned out to be closed.  But, their wifi reached into the parking lot, and I was able to look up TxDot’s travel page.  If you have never used this resource, I recommend you start doing so.  Google maps did not register the road closures and would have driven me straight into the worst of the flooding.  Using TxDot’s page, I was able to find a back road which would take me away from submerged I-69/highway 59 towards I-45 and eventually home.  No small feat when you actually see the map….

TxDot Pic 1

The dark blue circles are road closures due to flooding. The light blue means water is on the road. The orange symbols mean construction – so basically the entire state was either under water or under construction. Maps from txdot.gov

TxDot Pic 2

What should have been a 6 hour trip, ended up taking me just over 12 hours, including the hour I waited to see if the water would go down once the rain stopped.  But, I made it home safe and sound…and with renewed respect for the vast distances I was able to travel in so short a period of time.  Over the course of a 4 day weekend, I tacked almost 1000 miles to the odometer of my rental car.  Even 50 years ago, a trip of that magnitude would have proven tremendously difficult – if not almost impossible without depriving yourself of meals, bathroom breaks or sleep.  100 years ago, it would have been almost unheard of.  At least – by car.  The advent of modern transportation technology has really changed the way we look at travel – and how we feel about travel delays.  My first reaction on Friday was to complain about all the traffic and delays, but on Monday – I was just grateful to be safe and be able to get home at all.  The fact that I was able to access up to the minute reports on highway closures from my phone via the cell signal and on my laptop due to free wifi made my trip home possible.  Without it, I might have easily been stranded.  It is actually pretty amazing how a mere few inches of water can still bring everything to a stand-still.  When I compare my journey with the one my great-grandmother made just over 100 years ago, moving her family from Maypearl to Kingsville, I cannot believe she even attempted it.  I’m not sure even I would have been brave enough for such a trip without even a free state travel map at my side, much less without Google maps.

Of course, all of this ties back into the importance – that absolute NECESSITY of geography and the skills we provide our kids.  People died on Monday.  People who didn’t realize the affect that topography and pavement would have on the water on the ground.  People who relied on their internal sense of navigation without referring to the resources they have at their disposal (I had watched the news before I left, which is why I went east, rather than north.  Even so, I was lucky to get through Houston when I did.).  Of course, I am referring to those who died on the road.  But as our cities continue to grow and expand, pavement and buildings will continue to alter our flood plains, and people need to be aware of how those things will affect them, so they can make smart decisions for the future of the places they call home.  At the very least, knowledge like this could help them avoid building their homes in an area which has become a flood plain – even if it didn’t used to be.  At most, it could actually save their lives. Which makes it hard to believe that there are still people out there who feel that what we do is not important enough to teach in school.

My thoughts and best wishes to everyone who was affected by the flooding.  Stay safe and dry, y’all.

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