Tuesday, March 02, 2010

Travelogue: US-117

It's been a while since I've had a good road trip post.

Between the nice weather and the fact that I had nothing better to do, I figured Sunday was a good day for a pointless drive. So, I decided to head east and take U.S. Highway 117 from beginning to end. Of all the U.S. Routes I can theoretically take from end-to-end in one day, starting and ending at home, US-117 is one of the easiest.

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I didn't have high expectations for this drive going in. The southern half of US-117 parallels I-40, and rural drives don't seem as interesting when there's always an interstate right over there, at least in my opinion. You never really feel like you've "escaped". The northern half veers away from the interstate, but still...I didn't expect much scenery. If you like hills and mountains, Eastern North Carolina isn't the place to go. But if you like run-down small towns, rivers and swamps, and the occasional Piggly Wiggly, Eastern North Carolina is for you! Personally, I appreciate both kinds of "scenery". Since I moved here four years ago, I've actually had more memorable drives east of I-95 than I have in the mountains.

Unfortunately, since I was going solo and didn't feel like stopping every 15 minutes, I only have a couple of pictures.

A "Begin" sign? WOW! Many U.S. Routes have an "End" sign at one end or the other, but a "Begin" sign is quite rare. I was excited. US-117's southern end is at the Port of Wilmington, which apparently is rather deserted on Sundays, so I didn't mind stopping my car on the road for a few seconds and taking a picture of the sign.

There isn't a whole lot to US-117 - it's 113 miles long, and it only took me 2 hours, 19 minutes to drive the whole thing (detailed stats below) - but I do have some random observations. When you get off the interstate and take these alternate routes, it's almost like going back in time. It's kind of neat. You never know what you're going to find in these small towns.

For example, Rose Hill, NC (point "B" on the map above) claims to be home to the World's Largest Frying Pan. I didn't stop in town and try to find it - I figured we're close enough to home, I can always come back with Amber another time - but it did leave me wondering. Do you actually have to fry something in a so-called "frying pan" in order to officially call it a frying pan? Or, do you just have to build it and design it so that, theoretically, you could fry something in it if you wanted to? I hope they have actually used the "frying pan" for, you know, cooking.

Now I'm going to go all "road geek" on you. As I did with the US-50 trip, I did my research beforehand and printed out detailed directions on how to follow US-117 from end-to-end. Relying on signage alone doesn't always cut it, especially in a state like North Carolina where they change U.S. Highway alignment pretty much every other week, but do not always bother to update existing signs or add new signs. (Good luck following US-70 through downtown Raleigh!)

US-117 is not immune to the constant alignment changes. Once upon a time, there was only one two-lane road between Goldsboro and Wilson, and that road was US-117. Then, they built an interstate-grade freeway alongside of it. When the freeway opened, NCDOT decided to move the US-117 designation to the new freeway, while the old alignment was renamed US-117 Alternate or Business or something. Then, NCDOT (or somebody) decided, "Hey, this new freeway is up to interstate standards. Why not call it an interstate?" (Actually, there's more to it than that, but whatever.) And thus, Interstate 795 (which I drove two years ago) was born, at which point they decided to move the US-117 designation back to the old road (as shown on the official NCDOT state map). The current alignment has been in place since late 2007. But have they updated all of the signs since then? Nope!

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(Disclaimer: Google Street View isn't always current, but this sign - at least the US-117 portion of it - hasn't changed since the image was taken.)

If you follow that sign for "US-117 North", you'll actually end up on I-795, NOT US-117 (not anymore). Instead, I knew better, and took the exit for US-13 instead. This leads to the original two-lane US-117, and is the current official US-117 alignment. I think. Is that the official US-117 alignment? It's hard to really know what the deal is in this state. All I know is that the current iteration of US-117 definitely follows the old two-lane road from Goldsboro to Wilson, and along that stretch, US-117 signage was correct. In fact, I wouldn't be surprised if NCDOT never actually updated the signs along the original two-lane route to begin with when they briefly moved the US-117 designation to the freeway. Of course, none of this matters to common folk. It only matters to people like me who must insist on following the proper US-117 designation from beginning to end.

There's also the issue of where US-117's north end is. When US-117 was on the freeway, US-117 officially followed US-264 west a few extra miles and ended at I-95 (as indicated by the I-95 exit sign). But not anymore! Now, US-117 stays off the freeways altogether and ends at US-301 south of Wilson. Here's a picture of the north end:

Actually...I lied. That picture is back in Wilmington at the southern end again. There was no "End" sign at the northern end, and even if there was, I probably wouldn't have gotten a picture of it. But here are some pictures from the north end, along with the ever-changing history of where the north end of US-117 is, exactly.

And since I pay attention to this sort of thing: there are three Piggly Wigglys along US-117, in Wallace, Warsaw, and Faison. That doesn't count additional stores that aren't directly on US-117 but are in the towns that US-117 passes through (e.g. Burgaw, Goldsboro). I didn't stop at any of them, though. I guess the Piggly Wiggly brand cookies I got a few weeks ago must not have made much of an impression after all.

Statistical notes: in By the Numbers, I reported that I only drove 153 miles in February 2010, which was my lowest monthly mileage total EVER. "But Chris! This drive took place on February 28th, and this drive alone had to have been at least 153 miles long. How can that be?" Simple - my monthly mileage stats are for my car only, and I took Amber's car on this drive as part of our plan to even out our respective car mileages throughout the year. While my car was parked in the driveway most of the month, we added between 1,500 and 1,600 miles to Amber's car in February.

Finally, for those who care...detailed US-117 statistics by county! US-117 passes through five counties in North Carolina, and I timed how long it took me to drive through each one. (Side note: Google Maps' predictions of county times were surprisingly close, never more than two minutes off for any one county.)

#1: New Hanover County - 15.6 miles, 26 minutes, 36 mph average
#2: Pender County - 26.3 miles, 28 minutes, 56 mph average
#3: Duplin County - 34.3 miles, 41 minutes, 50 mph average
#4: Wayne County - 30.9 miles, 37 minutes, 50 mph average
#5: Wilson County - 6.9 miles, 7 minutes, 59 mph average
Total: 114.0 miles, 2 hours 19 minutes, 49 mph average

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