Monday, May 27, 2013

Mind the Gap

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X marks the spot of the most recent of several critical junctures to make news recently. The light-colored span is an overpass carrying Highway M over the intersection of two railroad lines. The span collapsed early Saturday morning, when one freight train struck another as it passed under the highway in southwestern Missouri. If one zooms out the map just a bit, it is apparent that this stretch of Highway M was recently rerouted, so that two at-grade crossings were replaced by a single overpass, facilitating the connection between nearby Scott City and Chaffee.

Google Maps has not yet updated the highway map to indicate the missing bridge, because the scale of this disaster, though locally quite important, is not disruptive on a regional or national scale. Just a few days earlier, a bridge collapse in Washington State received much more attention -- and will continue to do so -- because of the greater vulnerability of the entire transportation network to bridges on major interstates. I wrote about that bridge on our Project EarthView blog, as part of a more general discussion of Movement as a major theme in geography. The collapse of the Mt. Vernon, Washington bridge creates a critical gap that Google Maps has already indicated. Oversized trucks (such as the one that triggered the collapse of the vulnerable bridge) would now need to go through Montana to find the nearest Interstate bridge!

Map from Now I Know, which uses the
same clever title as I have.
I was pondering this as I heard the story this morning of the Darien Gap -- a missing piece of the Pan-American Highway that had escaped my notice. I had been told by a provost once that she had once traversed the entire Pan-American Highway; I should ask her what she did about southeastern Panama.

I have traversed just a few sections of it -- notably the Las Tunas region in Nicaragua, where the coffee crisis of 1999 came to a head.

I always envisioned it as a continuous road along the West Coast, a notion disputed by the this map of official and unofficial routes.

Sources agree, however, that the bit between Panama and Colombia (which were once a single country, until Teddy Roosevelt helped to divide them in return for access to the canal zone) is too complicated to traverse with a permanent road, and to risky for most people to attempt by other means.

I learned about the gap from Steve Curwood's recent interview with Jennie Erin Smith, who has also written about her adventures in the Darien Gap for The New Yorker. From the interview, I learned a bit more about the US-led effort to create the highway and the various reasons it has never been completed in this one stretch of high biodiversity.

The well-named blog Dark Roasted Blend described the gap in a wonderful photo essay entitled The Most Dangerous (Absence of a) Road.

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