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US 395, Part 5: Inyo County (Independence to Bishop and US 6)

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One can be forgiven for not believing little Independence, all of 574 people [2000], is the county seat of Inyo county and not Bishop. As one would expect, there's not a whole lot to it other than the county court house, the administrative center, and a few amenities and county-operated services.

Bishop is considerably more congenial. It is Inyo's largest city, though only 3,575 [2000]. Despite this, it offers many services to the traveler and proudly functions as the gateway to Mammoth and points north along the Sierra, and if I may say, seems to be a darn nice place to live if you want to get the heck away from everything but don't want to live in a rickety shack teetering on a cliff. As a child, I always said that US 395 got a lot more interesting after getting to Bishop, and as an adult, I still find that true -- while I appreciate more of southern Inyo county the more I drive it, I still believe the really good stuff on US 395 doesn't start until you pass that blessed city limit sign.

Bishop was named for the Bishop creek, flowing down from the Sierra Nevada, itself named for Owens Valley settler Samuel Addison Bishop who established his ranch just west of where the modern city is today in 1861; the town followed a year later as other settlers came to the region. Like many of the towns in Inyo county we've seen and will see, it is connected to the Paiute Reservation and there are tribal lands north of the town with the inevitable gaming centre. It is also the modern terminus, similarly inauspiciously as Hesperia is for US 395, of the great transcontinental US 6, once the longest highway in the United States (and even today maintains a length second only to US 20, which we will reach in Part 19; it is still the country's longest continuous highway for reasons we will discuss later on). At its greatest extent, US 6 reached all the way down to the port of Los Angeles and San Pedro approximately along what is Interstate 110 today, then up along portions of I-5 and CA 14 (Sierra Highway including the CA 14U portion, and then CA 14 north of Lancaster) and, as mentioned in Part 2, up US 395 to this portion; it then stretches across the entire continental United States to end at the very tip of Cape Cod in Massachusetts. As a little surprise, we'll let US 6 itself tell us its total modern mileage along the way. There is one sign marking the formerly co-signed portion of US 395 as part of the Grand Army of the Republic Highway, US 6's official name, and we'll show it off while spending a little time on modern US 6 in Inyo county as well.

US 6 is another passion of mine -- you can find out much more about it and my trip across America entirely along it on the Summer of 6 adventure page.

There are several little realignments along this stretch in the same manner as the previous Part. We will look at a couple specifically, but I will try to annotate most of them as we pass by even if we don't have time to completely traverse them. Most of the present divided highway alignment appears to have been built in the 1960s, although some parts were not actually widened into two-lane-per-direction expressway until decades afterwards: portions south of Big Pine, for example, were not upgraded until 2002 and 2009, and as we have already mentioned, some are still under construction.


Entering Independence, county seat of Inyo, as Edwards Street. Independence was founded 4 July 1862 during the American Civil War as a base camp for Army cavalry regiments fighting the Paiutes. It then gradually expanded into a civilian town and respite for settlers in the Owens Valley. Although the area was virtually devoid of Paiutes after their forced deportation in 1864, the camp remained in operation until well into 1877.

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Much like its neighbour town to the south, Independence was leveled by the 1872 Lone Pine earthquake and much of the town had to be rebuilt. Several construction phases followed, the latest during the 1960s.

Caltrans is at work expanding Edwards St/US 395 in Independence from two lanes and the "suicide" centre lane to a full four lanes. Originally there were plans for a total bypass of Independence, but this was violently unpopular locally and US 395 will still cross through town as it always has after the upgrade.

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Despite its stately and old-fashioned appearance, this is actually the fourth county courthouse in Independence. Originally built in 1868, the first courthouse perished in the 1872 earthquake; it was quickly rebuilt the same year (and wisely insured) only to go down in a fire in 1886. A third courthouse opened for business early in 1887, but this time was torn down because it was too small and this fourth and current courthouse built in 1920.

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Even this final courthouse was too small, and so this ancillary services building was added on in 1965.

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US 395/N Edwards St on the northern outskirts.

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Distance signage leaving town. This segment between Independence and the current four-lane alignment north of Fort Independence is also being upgraded.

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North of town is Schabbel Lane, an old but discontinuous alignment of US 395 which does not appear to reconnect on the north end and was apparently originally bypassed sometime in the 1950s. This is also the left turnoff for the local fish hatchery, which has some of the largest stock fish I have ever seen. Don't put your hand in that tank. The Hot Creek Fish Hatchery was built as a milksop for the fish losses caused by LADWP damming several of the local creeks, and was established as part of the Hot Creek Agreement in 1940; Hot Creek is so named due to the local volcanic activity welling up in the form of fumaroles and heated springs.

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Old US 6/395 north of Independence on Schabbel Lane.

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Along Schabbel Lane are the ruins of Camp Independence. Little of this is left, as most of it was trashed after it was abandoned in 1877.

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Begin scenic route. And I'd agree, even though we are also upgrading to divided highway.

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Just to the right of the middle of this picture (taken at 1/1000" to eliminate sun bloom) is a faintly visible spire of rock, standing 80' above the Inyo mountain range. This monolith is Winnedumah, a mystical place to the Paiute and a source of many legends. Off US 395, one such legend is reported by the byway markers; it holds that the Paiute were long ago outnumbered by the rival Waucoba and forced to retreat into the mountain range. Of these, two Paiute brothers stayed to fight, but one was mortally wounded in the back by a Waucoba arrow and, falling, turned to stone and the wooden arrow in his rocky back became a tree once more. Grief-stricken, his brother called out, "Winnedumah!" (I will stay here forever!), and himself became the stone spire which watches his people below.

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A study in shadow and cloud in the shade of the Sierras.

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This bypass outside of the little resort town of Aberdeen we will travel, because the postmiles prove its heritage as old alignment nearly positively (so it must have occurred after 1964; in fact, documentation on the Black Rock project [below] fixes the bypass at 1965).

Until very recently this was where US 395 went back to one-lane-per-direction, one of the most congested segments of the highway with a Level of Service of D (A being best, F being worst); around a decade ago, Caltrans advanced a mitigation plan to construct new southbound lanes west of the present-day alignment to connect with the expressway north of Independence and south of Fish Springs and Big Pine using right-of-way acquired with the 1965 bypass. This project, referred to as the Black Rock Four-Lane project, is on the Caltrans District 9 books and affected US 395 between PM 77.3 and PM 91.6; the environmental study was completed and approved in 2004, and construction finished in summer 2009. For continuity, I am using my earlier photography for this section which does not include the construction work; it will be rephotographed on my next pass.

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Old alignment dribbling away towards Aberdeen. This is now dirt track, mostly, maintained only by utility trucks servicing the electrical lines. Modern US 395 travels on realigned miles to the east of it now.

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Turn-off for Aberdeen via Goodale Creek Rd along modern US 395.

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Aberdeen itself, named for the Scottish city. It is now mostly a small resort village for outdoor enthusiasts heading into the Sierras, having withered somewhat after being divorced from the mainline.

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The old alignment of US 395 seems to be signed as Tinnemaha Rd on the NAVTEQ plots and by signs. It is also at least partially referred to as Old US 395 (see Google Maps).

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Although mostly dirt, there is, impressively, a fair bit of asphalt and paved alignment left. There are no postmiles, however.

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The old US 395 alignment seems to terminate here. We turn right back to mainline US 395 along Taboose Creek Rd.

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Realigned postmile on US 395 parallel to the section of Tinemaha and Old Hwy we traveled.

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Charley's Butte, an interesting historical footnote along the way. A small black ridge to the southeast is named in honour of Charley Tyler, an African-American cowboy who died defending a settler party from attacking Indians in 1863. Coincidentally, it is also where the city of Los Angeles first filed for water diversion rights on 23 October 1905.

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However, what really caught my eye was a witness post giving away a "C" block. "C" blocks are rarely seen nowadays and were only placed for a 20-year period from 1914 to 1934 as a method of fixing survey lines and determining easements for right-of-way. (Nevada has an analogous historical marker called an "N" block.) These markers were to be placed on all angles and curves along the highways then in existence, and at fixed intervals along straightaways. Subsequent highway revisions have either obliterated them or rendered them obsolete (or marooned them on private property), so they are notable when they still remain along a present-day alignment.

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Joel Windmiller has a page dedicated to the "C" blocks, showing their structure and layout. In each block, there is a central band of copper wire, probably acting as an anchor or plumb line, which we can see on the top of this closer view of the block. Only a foot of the "concrete monument"'s (as the Highway Commission called them) three and a half feet shows above the ground.

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By the way, this is the Butte.

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As proof this is truly old alignment, as if the "C" block weren't enough, the other side of our realigned portion is here (with the "back" postmile painted on the road).

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End daylight headlight section as we prepare to return to divided highway and cross over this small hump into the Owens River Valley proper. This is the end of the new divided alignment as it merges with the older one; the new alignment loses this sign, which probably makes it confusing for people not familiar with the area.

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Turn off for S Fish Springs Road, a small nondescript old alignment of US 395. We'll skip it for this iteration of the photoessay; I'll get it next time. As the postmiles in this section are not realigned, this shift must have occurred prior to 1964.

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The river valley is rich in waterfowl and other wildlife, ...

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... and if any stand still long enough for me to capture with the camera, you'll be the first to know.

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NB US 395.

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N Fish Springs Rd, as our old alignment rejoins us.

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PM 96.0.

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Downgrade from divided highway as we enter Big Pine (but we remain four lanes).

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Reservation land.

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Big Pine, named (in similar fashion to Lone Pine) for the lone sequoia that stands where US 395 and CA 168 meet now at the north end of town. Unlike Lone Pine's namesake, Big Pine's tree is actually still in existence and we'll look at that in a moment.

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No town is particularly large here, but Big Pine seems the most insubstantial, probably because of its proximity to Bishop. We pass postmile 100 in the middle of town, for those who have been counting.

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The charming school house, built in 1921.

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Approaching the junction with CA 168. Lately Caltrans has started sticking "TO US 95" signs up on certain junctions for some unclear reason, as if the primarily two-lane US 95 were the great backbone of the western Great Basin. Considering that the nearest gas is over a hundred miles away, signing it as a through route seems treacherous for the locally naive driver.

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Signage for the Bristlecone Pines, down 14 miles of CA 168 and then a gaspingly harrowing 10 mile drive up into the White Mountains at over 10,000' elevation. The still-living Bristlecone pine trees, perched high in the Sierras, are the oldest living organisms on the planet at over 4,000 years old. Paradoxically, it is the inhospitable conditions they live in that permit their extraordinary longevity, producing small amounts of dense and resinous wood in response to the harsh conditions over decades that is exceptionally resistant to rot and disease. The eldest, the Methuselah Tree, is over 4,720 years old.

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CA 168 hitchhikes along US 395 north into Bishop, as shown on this (nonstandard) marker.

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And now, the Big Pine itself, at the CA 168 junction. The Big Pine is actually a giant sequoia, planted on 23 July 1913 to commemorate the opening of the Westgard Pass to the east to vehicular traffic and named the Roosevelt Tree in honour of President Theodore "Teddy" Roosevelt. Big Pine it is; it towers 80'.

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Wooden plaque at the base of the tree. The Westgard Pass (a/k/a Westgaard) is still traversed, today by CA 168, designated there when US 6 was signed over the old alignment of CA 168 in Bishop. It is an exceptionally harrowing one-lane drive through a deep gorge into the deserts of western Nevada and the middle of nowhere, hundreds of miles from the nearest artery (in this case, US 95). The Pass and the beautiful Bristlecone Pine forest will be the subjects of a photoessay currently in progress.

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Up until around the late 1950s, the US 395-CA 168 junction was a T, with CA 168 heading east to the Westgard Pass and US 395 proceeding due east to curve north and enter Bishop as a now-unmarked county road through Keough Hot Springs (looking down it from the CA 168-US 395 junction, which is now four-way). This road is partially discontinuous, so we will skip it; the alignment is prior to 1964.

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Distance signage, with both CA 168 and US 395 shields, leaving town.

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The local animal shelter (for Dad's benefit) as we upgrade back to divided highway.

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PM 103.

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In the distance to the east are several radio telescopes hidden in the foothills. This is part of Caltech's Owens Valley Radio Observatory millimeter-wave array; some of the scopes, however, have moved to higher ground near the Bristlecone pines at Cedar Flat with the Combined Array for Research in Millimeter-Wave Astronomy (CARMA). CARMA lives at 7,300', much more advantageous due to the drier and thinner air, but these lower-altitude 10-meter telescopes still remain an important source of study data and are actually mounted on tracks to enable advantageous positioning. They have been in service since 1960.

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Although the routes are cosigned, the highway is legislatively US 395 on the postmiles.

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The only Grand Army of the Republic signage along this old alignment of US 6 (now solely US 395) is this marker between Big Pine and Bishop. This name applies to anything that does or once did carry a US 6 shield and first came into existence in 1934, suggested by Army Maj. Wm. L. Anderson, Jr. and promulgated by the Sons of Union Veterans of the Civil War in honour of the Union army. Because US 6 is a transcontinental route and AASHTO presented the request for name change separately to each state it crossed, the process took over a decade and US 6 was not formally dedicated as such until 3 May 1953 in Long Beach, where a marker remains to this day on Ocean Avenue (see our CA 110 exhibit for what happened to US 6 in Los Angeles).

Before this, US 6 in California and Nevada was the Midland Trail (or Midland Roosevelt Trail, or Theodore Roosevelt Midland Trail, depending on how much you liked Teddy, I guess). This is a little confusing because portions of US 6 in Pennsylvania were routed along what was then called the Roosevelt Highway in 1925, and then that name got applied to the whole of US 6 later. Officially, the Midland Trail runs from Los Angeles, north to Lancaster, then to Mojave, north of Lancaster (where CA 14 intersects CA 58 today), along modern US 395 to Bishop and then east along US 6 to Tonopah, NV, and then from Tonopah to Ely, NV. This was by design because the boosters of the Midland Trail during its formation in the 1920s wanted a connection into the Lincoln Hwy from southern California, and to this day, US 6 will join US 50 to head east from Ely. The rest of the Midland Trail, in brief, goes through Salt Lake City, UT, then Denver, CO, then Topeka, KS, then St Louis, MO, Vincennes, IN, Lexington, KY, Charleston, WV and finally to Norfolk, VA. An alternate branch leaves Big Pine along US 395 to CA 120, and then through Yosemite, west to Ripon and into San Francisco. See this description.

This portion of the Midland Trail was not incorporated into US 6's routing until 1937; we talk about the Lincoln Highway in Part 11. I'll be talking more about US 6 on the Summer of 6 adventure in the future (including about its various names), but for now please read this essay on US 6's various components. Casey Cooper has a Midland Trail sign photograph from when signage was erected by the Automobile Club of Southern California.

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Curving around the expressway.

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I am ashamed to admit that my (so far) only speeding ticket was obtained near here, between Big Pine and Bishop, in an area that is apparently lousy with CHiPs due to the nearby substation. If you know what's good for you, don't speed in this section, because there are speed traps here that'll ding you but good.

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Downgrade from expressway.

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Between Warm Springs Rd on the southern end of Bishop and the Bishop city limits, US 395 is officially designated the Police Officer Richard Perkins Memorial Highway, named for Officer Richard Perkins of the Bishop Police Department who was killed in the line of duty in 2001 when a truck struck his patrol car as he turned to assist in a drunk driver pursuit. He was the first Bishop PD officer to die in the city's century-long history.

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Coming around the curve.

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More LADWP signage, this time on one of the local greenspaces.

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The local country club and golf course.

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Some of the businesses on the outskirts, and campgrounds for travelers.

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Bishop city limits.

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[Bishop 1950 postcard, 95K] Southern end entering the city, as Main St. Compare some of the views of Bishop we will pass through with this 1950 Burton Frasher postcard (click the thumbnail for the 95K full image). Just visible on the extreme left -- sadly no additional detail possible -- is an old distance sign; the letters are not easily distinguishable but probably say Mammoth Lake and Bridgeport pointing left, and Big Pine, Mojave (? -- logical, though, as this would still have been cosigned with US 6) and Los Angeles pointing right. Obviously, this is looking southbound.

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CA 168 leaves west here towards Lake Sabrina, a pretty resort area at the foot of the Sierras. It is one of the "split" California highways, intended to go straight through to Fresno (but divided by the Sierras and despite the legislative definition eschewing the "traversable road from Huntington Lake to Camp Sabrina" as part of the routing, there is no such road). This section of CA 168 ends right at the lake.

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Main St/US 395. There are persistent complaints from locals crying out for a US 395 bypass which are matched or exceeded in volume by business owners dependent on the tourist trade who like things they way they are. However, over the years one problem just about everyone agreed on was a serious issue with large truck transport as the heavy and constant semi presence impeded retail traffic and tore up the road. Part of this was improved by allowing thru trucks to use the left lane, but for many years local planners focused on a truck bypass that would get semis off Main St while still routing autos down the main drag to maintain the local economy. As late as 2006, boosters entertained a proposed eastern bypass that would discourage autos with its longer length and intentionally limited services, yet still offer truck access to the airport and US 6. However, such a bypass would clearly not pass the cynical muster of business owners unless it were made highly unattractive to auto and camper traffic, and in this era of the budget crunch the idea is likely to continue languishing in local controversy.

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Remember when this was considered expensive?

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And that sofa is sooooo gnarly, bro. I mean, ultra mega, like, you know? (Sadly, this humourous storefront is now gone.)

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One notable local landmark that is always busy is Erick Schat's Bakkerÿ [sic]. Their point of pride is their Sheepherder Bread, introduced to the Owens Valley during the original California gold rush by local Basque sheepherders, along with their other Dutch-style bakery products. Give it a try if you need a little extra fun in your picnic basket.

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North Bishop approaching the northern city limits.

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Detour: US 6 in Inyo County

And now we approach the western terminus of what is modern-day US 6, just outside the Bishop city limits proper. As promised, we will travel a little bit of it just for a taste of this truly majestic highway. If you want to see more (a lot more!), tune into our Summer of 6 site!

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Turn-off and distance to Tonopah, NV where it will meet US 95 from Las Vegas.

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They may not last long, but they sure are cheap! (At the turnoff.)

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PM 0.0.

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Distance signage leaving town, and ...

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... as promised, US 6 tells us its own modern length, today 3,205 miles to Provincetown, MA. For some reason, however, the Federal Highway Administration insists on its Longest Road page that US 6 is actually 3,249 miles based on AASHTO's 1989 reckoning. I'm sure US 6 would gladly take the extra miles under its belt.

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First shield, and strangely proportioned at that (on the other hand, this used to be a California state shield, so at least it's the right one even if it's the wrong size).

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Mono county line. We turn back for today. One day we'll go a little farther, say, the Atlantic Ocean, mayhaps?

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Junction US 395.

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The End(tm).

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Turning right onto US 395 to resume our trek northbound.

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From the south side of US 395, US 6's junction is even more inauspicious, although it does seem as if most traffic wouldn't be coming from that direction. There are only these signs marking "US 6 NORTH" and no distance signage at all.

Continue to Part 6 (purely coincidentally numbered)

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