Heading West 2006

We picked up the Hertz rental, a 2007 Toyota Camry, in Hyannis at 4:00 on Friday December 26, 2006. Molly's travel cage fit nicely into the back seat and our bags and everything else went into the rear cargo area. We also included 2 milk jugs full of tap water for Molly and us to drink along the way. At 7:15 Saturday morning we were off, about 2 hours behind schedule. My plan to have us up and out by 5:00 AM just didn't happen. However we made good time by not having to deal with rush hour traffic, which is why I chose to leave on a Saturday.

Two hours later we stopped in Mystic for a large Bickford's breakfast of cakes & eggs (me) & fruit (her). We bought a bag of dog food, the one 'we' had forgotten to pack, at the local market and were on our way by 11:00. We stopped for our first tank of gas at the western edge of NJ crossing the border around 4:00 PM. I don't really begin to relax until I know that the worst of the road rage and potential congestion are behind me. In my mind, that tends to be the stretch between New Haven, CN and Allentown, PA - the NYC sphere of influence.

Of course that stretch turned out to be a breeze and the worst congestion that I think I have ever encountered was beyond Allentown approaching Harrisburg - Saturday afternoon; go figure. That is when I recalled having experienced heavy congestion in the same place a year before.

Having said that I decided to break off and study the situation. Now I'm back the next morning to tell you what I found out. First a Google search shows that the Harrisburg congestion is well known. In fact it shows over a decade of city, state & federal studies that have come to the conclusion that there is congestion in and around Harrisburg. One local sports event is providing directions, not just on how to get there, but also how to get around the congestion.

Google Maps - nice
While I was at it I mapped out a couple of potential routes that we can take this fall, specifically a route that will bypass Harrisburg. There are no sensible Interstate alternatives. They either go way out of the way or they cut through places Philadelphia and Washington, which I don't even want to think about - and those include the NJ Turnpike which is an expensive toll road.

Instead Google Maps helped me work out an alternative route of state & local roads that loop down below Harrisburg through Lancaster, York and Gettysburg to reconnect at the decisive intersection of I-81 & I-70 at Hagerstown, MD. It is decisive because that is where we either head west on I-70 through Ohio & Kentucky, or south on I-81 through Virginia and Tennessee, our traditional route. Both routes eventually reconnect at Oklahoma City on I-40.

The stretch through Harrisburg is 155 miles, 2 1/2 hours in normal traffic. The alternate is 158 miles at 3 1/2 hours, a difference of one hour. I know we spent more then one hour sitting still bumper to bumper last year and the year before, but it's still a crap shoot. We can decide at the time. One interesting new feature in Google Maps is that it shows where the congestion is at that moment. If you turn the feature on, it shows the roads as red, yellow or green. Obviously you avoid the red roads. Wow!

Hotspots & Wireless Nirvana

You can get similar traffic warnings on your GPS unit and on some cell phones, but you pay extra. Of course, to use the Google Maps feature in real time, you have to have your wireless ready notebook with you and you would have to find a 'hot spot' where you could pull over and connect. By planning ahead and stopping there for dinner or such, it could be workable. Planning ahead means doing a search for such as 'Allentown, PA hot spots'. This brings you to a map of the Allentown area with the free hot spots flagged in red, including the public libraries, Cafe 29, Damon's Grill, Lacey's Restaurant, the International Airport, Moravian Book Shop, etc, along with directions and end-user comments such as "yes it is free. ...all you do is connect. Most airports don't offer that.".

I have parked outside of various hotels around Tempe, AZ and connected to the internet to handle business and to download email. Likewise outside of and inside of The Water Canyon Coffee Company in Yucca Valley, who brew some of the best coffee I have ever tasted, and outside of The KCDZ FM Radio Station in Joshua Tree. I was so grateful to discover the latter right in town that I went inside and thanked them for making it available.

Keep in mind that it is absolutely critical to my business that I be able to connect at least once daily. For example, I set up an online presence for Grafstick Tape & Label, a company in Stoughton, MA. I developed their web site which includes a PayPal shopping cart, set them up on Amazon and established a store on eBay. They receive orders for tapes from all three outlets which come directly to me. I verify that the orders are complete and then I forward them on to Grafstick's shop in one consistent format for them to process. When Grafstick replies with the tracking number, I notify the customer that the order has been shipped. This also requires monitoring the PayPal, Amazon and eBay order histories online to verify that no orders got lost in the ether, which occasionally happens. People expect their orders to be shipped almost immediately, and 'Feedback' is king; bad feedback will kill potential sales. Hence, it is my job to process those orders immediately - and to harass Grafstick by email or phone if they are taking too long to reply. I also established accounts with the Google, MSN and Yahoo and various other search engines so that when people search for certain kinds of tape, they will find Grafstick. These too have to be monitored so that what Grafstick is willing to bid per click will be enough to keep them near the top of the 'sponsored' search engine results.

The trips into town for that purpose stopped when I discovered a very powerful high speed wireless signal passing right through my house trailer. I came upon the signal by accident and it nearly blew me away - a wireless signal out here in the boondocks where there is no cable and no DSL? I did not even know where it was coming from though eventually I deduced that it was from my neighbor, Chris, when I noticed a strange white box projecting from his roof. Now I could stop loosing a significant part of the day driving into town looking for a 'hotspot' and spend more time on other projects that needed doing, such as repairing leaky roofs, repairing a deck and building a road, before heading back east. I made a point of completing my online endeavors before he went to work on his machine at 9:00 AM, primarily to insure that I did not affect his bandwidth though it is unlikely that I could have any noticeable affect at that distance, if at all.

Of course I could only go so long before the battery in my machine gave out anyhow. I could sit in the van with the computer plugged into the DC-AC inverter that I had installed for running and charging these things, but sitting in my house trailer was more conducive to thinking clearly about what I needed to do and it put me closer to the wireless signal. This worked well until Chris moved out and discontinued his wireless service. Then I was back in town once or twice a day for about a week until I too departed on May 9th.

For awhile there I was very concerned about seeing the end of this neighborly wireless nirvana. Fortunately the owners, Tom & Katherine, moved in shortly after my departure and reconnected the same wireless service. I still do not yet know if it will actually work for me. So many things can affect that signal, especially the type of router, but also its position and any objects that may be between their router and my computer. The distance is kind of stretching the usual limits, but their signal was and hopefully still is strong. Anyhow, we worked out a trade which will be clarified on page 3 of this Journal.

I tried to find out how this works but the information available online is either spotty or way too technical for the common man. It appears to be provided by FlashByte Digital, LLC in Joshua Tree (not Flashbyte Internet Services in the UK) and Flashbyte appears to be owned and operated by one very intelligent and technically oriented individual, Mike McKinsey, whom apparently subcontracts installations out to other technical professionals. Flashbyte's web site does not appear to offer any information as to how it is done but I was able to pick up bits and pieces elsewhere. Still, I am guessing. Chances are that Flashbyte leases a T1 Carrier line from the telephone company. A T1 line is incredibly fast and it is expensive. Then I would have to guess that Flashbyte makes this line available to its customers wirelessly by sending the signal to that white box that projects from the customer's roof. Not only that but I'm getting the hint that somehow all signals travel through all boxes, with each box serving as a relay station that bounces the signal on to the next box, and so on, until it reaches its intended recipient.

Copyright © 2007, Van Blakeman