When I use something, I like to know about it. I’m interested in the history of things and how they came to be. I’ve used computers for decades, but only recently spent a month or so reading in earnest on the history of computing. I’ve used newspapers for nearly as long, and have always been fascinated by how they work. I’ve read book like Ben Bradlee’s A Good Life: Newspapering and Other Adventures, or books like Doris Kearn Goodwin’s The Bully Pulpit. Knowing about the things I use help me to see them in new and different lights, or simply better appreciate them for what they are.
Sometimes, however, the things we use are so ubiquitous that we don’t think about them in a conscious way. I’ve written, for instance, about the many road trips we’ve taken over the years, most recently to Niagara Falls. You can’t take a road trip with roads, and yet roads are so ingrained in our lives, that we almost don’t think about them. Or, as Earl Swift writes in his book The Big Roads: The Untold Story of the Engineers, Visionaries, and Trailblazers Who Created the American Superhighways,
They’ve grown so central to life in a country utterly beholden to the car that they’re almost invisible to most of us, one of those features of the landscape that we take for granted even when we’re on them.
I discovered Swift’s book in the best possible way: by accident. I was roaming our local library branch with the girls when I spotted it on a shelf and it caught my attention. Having just returned from a road trip, I was curious about how our highway system had come about. I knew little, other than that Eisenhower was involved somehow. Swift’s book turned out to be the perfect thing to feed my curiosity.
In an engaging story, Swift covers the history of roads in America from their beginnings. He reviews the birth and growth of the automobile, and then the expansion of a road network across the country to support those vehicles. He details the birth of the concept of a national highway system from its earliest days, decades before Eisenhower, and the eventual evolution of the modern interstate system we have today. Swift tells the story in the best possible way for a book this: through the people involved in its creation.
The story is about more than just the design and need for a system. It covers the politics of its development, how it was financed, the struggles along the way. And it touches on many things related to the roads, like the chain restaurants and hotels that grew alongside the interstates. There was even 3 pages on South of the Border, which we’ve driven past two dozen times, but at which we’ve never stopped. Those 3 pages convinced me that next time, we should.
Perhaps most interesting to me was an observation Swift made about the original vision for the highway system and what it has become today:
Thomas MacDonald and Herbert Fairbank [visionaries involved in the creation of the system] didn’t see it coming, but the system of interregional highways they envisioned is today a place unto itself, divorced from the territory through which it passes. With rare exception, a sense of place, of uniqueness, is undetectable from the off ramp. In place of a local barbecue joint, an exist in the Carolinas is likely to offer an Arby’s or a Chik-fil A. Southern greasy spoons are miles off the main line, shouldered aside by Waffle House and Cracker Barrel. The loathed hot dog stated of the thirties has been replaced by McDonalds.
This resonated with me. Driving long distances on the interstates, as we do when we drive up to Maine or down to Florida, there is a ubiquitousness that separates the stretch of road from the rest of the world. Without road signs, pulling off at an exit ramp in South Carolina looks the same as in Hartford, Connecticut. The feeling I sometimes get is that it is almost as if the interstate is another dimension, a kind of parallel world, a thin place, as Stephen King might say, one from which we can see our world, but at a distance, as if looking at it on a television screen. If you could peel the interstates and their hotel and restaurant-populated exits away from the earth, it could be its own world. I’ve often felt this below the surface, the separation between the the road and the land, but Swift hit the nail on the head with his description of it.
I think perhaps this is why I deliberately avoided the interstates on our most recent road trip, driving west across New York state on blue highways. What a difference it made. We could see the land, the beautiful scenery, and at times we could drive thirty minutes or more without spotting another car on the road.
The interstates were invented for speed and safety, and they get us to our destinations quickly. As the kids have gotten older, what used to be a 3-day drive down to southern Florida now takes two days. And we’ve driven from Orland back to the Washington, D.C. area in one full day. But there is a trade off for the speed and safety. You lose the character of the places you pass through. They are blurs, names on a GPS screen. You lose the taste of the local food, and laughs of the local people.
The interstates were constructed to get us quickly over long distances, but like flying over the country, there is a lot of miss when you are on them.
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