Saturday, June 17, 2017

Tim Rowland: New Sympathy for Blue Ridge Road Flaggers

Blue Ridge RoadComing to the Adirondacks as a visitor for a week at a time, it felt as if I was always rushing to a trailhead or a boat launch or a fishing hole. I rigorously, almost militarily, mapped out my schedule to include hikes that must be completed and waterways that must be paddled, and heaven forbid that anything should get in the way of these forced, forested marches.

You miss a lot that way. For example, on each trip to the Upper Works for a crack at peaks like Marshall and Cliff, I would drive Blue Ridge Road from the Northway toward Newcomb without noticing its splendid array of creeks, waterfalls and feathery green tamaracks.

Adirondack author Bill McKibben once wrote that this byway was as lonely as a post office on a Sunday, and he was right. If Frontier Town is redeveloped according to state plans this could change, but for now Blue Ridge Road remains as a shortcut to nowhere.

But even a lonely highway has to get up pretty early in the morning to fool vehicular navigation systems, and oddly enough, this was the route I was directed to travel by my pickup (we used to tell cars what to do, now they tell us) on a recent trip from Plattsburgh to Blue Mountain Lake.

As a general thing, I’ll take the longest, most desolate route available, but this day I was in a hurry so I went with the straighter shot, which included the Blue Ridge Road, which, as luck would have it, was being repaved.

As with all highway construction projects, this included the ubiquitous flag crew, a band of brothers and sisters that are, as a rule, furiously jabbering into their walkie talkies and spinning their signs from Stop to Slow as they guide lines of traffic through the construction.

But here, on the Blue Ridge Road, directing traffic was no more work than counting the Democratic vote in an Oklahoma election. Because there wasn’t any traffic.

It’s not that traffic was light: traffic was nonexistent. So here they were, all decked out in their orange vests and flags, signs, two-way radios and a four-wheel-drive that advertised, “Pilot Car Follow Me.” And nobody to use it all on — until I showed up. When I came into view, I could see the crew snap alertly to action with a flurry of understated but meaningful activity as they prepared for the show. At long last, a car. This was opening night, baby, and all the rehearsals and attention to detail were about to pay off.

Words were spoken into the radio. The sign turned from Stop to Slow. The pilot car smoothly eased into action. So far so good.

Looking back, I think where they went wrong was with the overly cautious nature of the pilot car. To make it into a pilot car, they apparently remove seven of its eight spark plugs so it can attain a speed of no greater than 5 mph. I would stipulate that the P.C. was necessary, because the fresh strip of soft new pavement was in the (westbound) right-hand lane, which necessitated the pilot car’s guidance into the left lane. That is the way these things work.

But there was no excuse for the crawling pace at which we were proceeding. The actual work was being done maybe a mile ahead, so here we were on the longest, straightest, emptiest piece of macadam in the North Country, and we’re stalking along as if at any moment we were expecting to be ambushed by Darius and the Persians.

The slow pace made it possible for, who would have thought, a second vehicle to arrive at the flagger’s position from which we had embarked what seemed like hours ago, but was in fact still faintly visible in the rear-view. Thus, it became the flagger’s call as to whether to allow this car to proceed and catch up to us, or to hold him for the return trip of the pilot car. These, I suppose, are the decisions upon which a career in flagging is made or broken. And, because there was obviously no other waiting car at the far end of the construction zone, and because there seemed little harm in it, the flagger let the SUV go.

What the flagger failed to account for is the fact that people are idiots. Instead of steering into the left lane and closing the gap between us at a sane speed, this guy stayed on the fresh pavement to the right and put it to the floor. The fellow in the pilot car either saw this or caught the traffic on the radio, because you could actually see the steam accumulating on the glass of the truck. All the preparation, all the careful choreographing of the flagging crew now lay in ruins because of the diseased mind of a typical American motorist.

The pilot-car driver, face red with anger, stopped his truck, leaped from the cab and like the guy standing in front of the tank at Tiananmen Square, took a heroic position in the right hand lane, where he was almost hit before the driver of the SUV noodled through the situation. It ended well enough, but this is one that will be taught in flagging school for generations to come.

I gained new respect for North Country flagging crews that day. Or at least a degree of sympathy that I had previously lacked. It’s a tough job, even when there isn’t any traffic.

Photo: Blue Ridge Road, courtesy

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Tim Rowland is a humor columnist for Herald-Mail Media in Hagerstown, Md., and a New York Times bestselling author. His books include High Peaks; A History of Hiking the Adirondacks from Noah to Neoprene and Strange and Unusual Stories of New York City. He has climbed the 46 high peaks, is an avid bicyclist, and trout tremble with fear when they see his approaching shadow. He and his wife Beth are residents of Jay, N.Y.

6 Responses

  1. Terry says:

    Still laughing, Tim!
    Been there….done that!!
    So true!

  2. Boreasfisher says:

    Well, as a home owner along the glorious Blue Ridge Road..a subject also of Elizabeth Folwell’s Short Carries columns of Adirondack Life…I can attest to the fact that there is in fact traffic, thank you. Maybe not Fifth Avenue traffic in NYC, but traffic often driving way too fast and spewing coffee cups, beer cans, and lots of suburban trash right out of the Windows. I too appreciate these crews because they do important work for the community and slow down the people going from point A to point Z without any appreciation for the beauty and solitude that lies in between.

  3. Alan Jones says:

    Great article, Tim. Back in the 1960s I stumbled onto the Blue Ridge Road. I say “stumbled” because my Atlantic Gasoline Company (Remember them? They became ARCO many years later) road map showed the road to be gravel. Also, remember when you got free maps from gas companies? This was long before the Internet so it was a challenge to figure out how to contact Atlantic. I finally cut out the offending section of the map and attached a letter to the address on the map telling them that this was fine stretch of highway. I got a response — nine months later! They thanked me. They said they had no way to get road information from States for roads that did not have a highway number.

  4. Laurie Dirkx says:

    Nice write-up. Great to give credit as you have and for the subjects you referenced.

  5. Ann Breen Metcalfe says:

    So funny. I too recently followed the Pilot Car on the Blue Ridge Road (growing up in Schroon Lake we called it the Boreas Road), and it was a slow journey. It’s a beautiful road, and there is so much to see.

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