They tell me that the last time they paved the Vashon Highway was twenty five years ago. What I remember about that event was that it was an oddly joyous time. It was kind of like getting a new, extra large bed spread, or taking your car to the shop to have all those parking lot door dings fixed, along with getting a new coat of paint to spruce up the old jalopy. I also remember something about a suggestion that there be an Island long block party of sorts, where everyone could walk, run, dance, skate, ride a bike on the new, smooth thoroughfare, and celebrate this new beginning. As with a lot of things on the Island back then, if that party ever happened I surely missed it. What I also remember is that within what seemed to be just a few short weeks of the application of the new road surface there was a crew that came along and dug up the new pavement along a section of the shoulder, and when they replaced the asphalt cover on their excavatory adventure there was a bump and a dip in what had just very recently been a surface as smooth as a cow pissing on a flat rock, as my old photo mentor Evon Streetman used to put it. I would suspect that more than a few people did not notice this superficial asphalt anomaly, mostly because it was on the shoulder where only the two-wheeled, non-motorized conveyances dared to tread. Pedestrians would have also taken notice, but they would not have been jostled and jolted in the same way that cyclists, as well as a few inline skaters from K2 of the day surely were.
At the time, even if I had missed out on the big tarmac shindig, I was having a party in my head every time I rode my bike anywhere up or down the highway, as the smoothness of the asphalt surface made it feel as though my aluminum framed bike had been transformed to carbon fiber, or had secretly been fitted with a miraculous suspension system, both of which I do not believe at that time were yet available to the common cyclist. I recall also, around that time, that I went out riding before the white lines had returned to the road. I recall riding north out of town, somewhere between the vet clinic and the library where the shoulder has always been extra wide. I remember watching out for the storm drain grills, whose openings run parallel to the flow of traffic and can play havoc with skinny road bike tires. Not long before the great repaving when the road striping still was visible, there was always plenty of room between the fog line and the drains for a cyclist to navigate the space between drain cover and the car traffic without being a challenge or an impediment to any car-bound traveler wanting to safely pass.
And so it was that I was pedaling along, enjoying the smooth of the new road and the slight downhill run out of town when I heard a car slowing down as it approached from behind. When one rides a bike more often than during the occasional all Island road paving party, one becomes acutely aware of the sound of vehicles approaching from behind, among other things. You have to- it is a part of basic cycling survival. I was expecting this car that I was tracking to continue to slow and turn behind me. Instead, the car matched my speed and in my peripheral vision I noticed an open window, from which came the words: “get the fuck over where you belong”. From riding this road any number of times, even without the road striping I knew where I belonged here. And if one were to refer to the revised code of Washington in regards to bicycles on the roadway, besides their suggestion that cyclists stay as far as they can to the right on any roadway they are allowed upon, there is the stipulation that the cyclist can ride where they feel safe. In truth, at that time it seemed liked there was no safe place to be there, but that feeling, and the offending car and driver, soon passed.
And lo, the many years did whiz by, and I was feeling like riding a bike on the Island was just about the best thing to do and the best place to do it. And then, almost six years ago from today, I received an email that began like this: “Some of you may have noticed that the County road department is digging safety grooves into the bike lane on the main hwy starting at the north end sylvan beach. Please call the road dept at number listed above to stop this.” It was a bit like hearing something along the lines of “the Russians are coming”, which actually was a concern to most Americans not so terribly long ago. Or perhaps one could say that in the cycling community this email could be compared to a warning about a zombie apocalypse, which maybe speaks volumes about where we have come to in these days of today. At any rate, it sparked outrage amongst people who ride bicycles on this Island, and the rumbling, safety grooving was stopped before it had spread the entire length of the Island. We thought we were done with the strips that cause rumbling and that whenever the highway was repaved in the perhaps not too distant future that we would thankfully be paved over and done with this annoyance that no one out here asked for. It appears that that might not necessarily be the case.
I remember my first encounter with rumble strips. It happened on a dark and lonely stretch of highway somewhere east of the mountains, back in the early eighties. I had been kidnapped by friends and spirited away in eastern Washington on a trip to visit other friends. It was late at night and I was passed out in the back of a VW Bug. As it turned out, my friend who was driving was passed out, too. But only very briefly, as the noise that rang out and the vibration that shook the car when it drifted to the right and the front wheels of her car hit the grooves carved along the shoulder, all rather abruptly and assuredly conspired to make her aware of her surroundings, and she corrected course, and perhaps, thanks to a fresh supply of adrenaline, remained awake for the rest of the trip. Let us be perfectly clear – I have no problems with rumble strips and their functionality. They are designed to combat and correct for the evils of what used to be called highway hypnosis- I have no idea what they call it these days. I can only surmise that because we have something out here called the Vashon Highway, that the people in the middle management places of the WSDOT chain of command somehow have visions of the 1950’s view of an extension of the Eisenhower highway system bisecting the Island with a high speed efficiency that does not exist in either reality, or that meets the minimum speed limit mandated for rumble strip installation. In watching with nothing short of horror as the steady dissolution of reason and common sense in what we used to call our national government and the rule of law seems to command the day, it comes as no real surprise that something as ridiculous as reinstalling rumble etchings on the main arterial on Vashon is seen as not only a good thing, but necessary.
Watching from these environs and elsewhere, the need to reestablish a rumble strip presence on this Island is misdirected at best. The word from the supposed street is that the rumble strips as they are have been effective- the data says it’s so. But what does this data mean? There were , as I recall, at least three ROTR (run off the road) accidents in the six months after the original rumble strip installation, which suggests that they were ineffective at best.