Off-the-wall-POSTReady when it really counts

BY BOB SPIWAK

Maybe I should have been a statistician. I have always counted things, and these genes have been passed along to my son. I was aware of his proclivity when driving to the East Coast when he was 11 or so and counted VWs as we went east and motorcycles coming back. For myself it has been counting firewood pieces as I split them and again when stacking. So it’s no surprise that while watching the cars go by one holiday Sunday, I found myself counting them.

It occurred to me that of the 34 people I knew who read my columns, at least one might be interested in the tabulation of vehicles passing midway to and from Mazama on the Winthrop Freeway – “The 20,” as it might be called by a Californian. Thus was born the “Great West Boesel Car Count.”

The huge midday outflux of cars led me to choose a non-peak earlier time to count. For convenience, we’ll call most vehicles “cars.”

The time chosen, based on seat-of-pants observation, was from 10 to 11 a.m. on the last day of a holiday, which became Memorial Day and Labor Day.

At first, a writing tablet was employed and as the cars went by they were recorded with hash marks. I sat on a lawn chair next to the road with the pad on my knee. Some people stared as they went by.

One year Craig Bunney offered to assist and that helped – one doing eastbound traffic, the other westbound. However, one day a red pickup truck pulled up between us and the traffic – it was an old friend from Everett who wanted to chat. This obscured our vision of the passing parade and he yakked away for minutes as I tried to explain I was “working.” He finally went on his way, no doubt offended. I could not venture as to the accuracy of that count. I did add him.

I experimented with locations and equipment. The official observation place is now screened from the road with gaps that allow viewing the cars eastbound and westbound. And there is an aural component as well – I can hear when no cars are coming and have time to swill some coffee or light a Pall Mall, or stretch after sitting in a large Adirondack chair with wide armrest, which is great for holding the condiments, equipment and elbows.

The equipment consists of a fake military wristwatch, two analog thumb-activated counters, a beach umbrella, pencil and pad. I got the first counter as I moved into the 21st century technology, and then clicked with one hand for westbound and hash marked those going to Winthrop.

One magic day, Ken Westman gave me an even more computer-era counter in that the re-set wheel was black and knurled. What a blessing. Cars could now be recorded with a push of the thumb for each direction. However, I found to my discomfort that professional car counters develop symptoms like carpal tunnel syndrome from over-clicking. Medically, it is called Thumping Thumb Adversity. The only cure is to retire from the profession.

The counts are accurate – if it has wheels it’s counted, even bicycles. One day a Washington State Patrol vehicle was going east and somewhere down the road he turned about and was then counted westbound. Soon he was eastbound again and earned another click.

We strive to be accurate in that hour. The Washington State Department of Transportation (WSDOT) relies on our count for its throwaway data base. You the reader deserve accuracy, which is why we have real Japanese quartz timing to the second and our clickers have regular maintenance checks.

The tally is based on the following components, arbitrarily assigned by Commissioner of Car Counts, which are definitely conservative: Number of vehicles; miles driven round-trip (400); miles per gallon (20); cost of fuel per gallon (varies, always more each year).  From this an inaccurately conservative list, an accurate compendium can be made of the traffic to and from Winthrop.

I have enjoyed doing this for many years, but my thumbs are lacking the instant responsiveness of the old days.  Someday soon I will have to hand over the clickers, lawn chair, umbrella and Pall Malls to a younger, more-agile person.

An insider at WSDOT has hinted that I may be eligible for the coveted Golden Gas Cap award by the agency. If so I will treasure the memories it would bring. If not, I’ll always have chip-seal and the music of deep treads to remind me of the passing parade.

 

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