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March 2012

Roads Well Taken: A Review of "The Big Roads," by Earl Swift

165516735One of the most delightful things about Earl Swift's history of the American interstate highway system, The Big Roads: The Untold Story of the Engineers, Visionaries, and Trailblazers Who Created the American Superhighways, is the deeply human story that courses beneath the miles of concrete and asphalt that makes up what is still the best highway system in the world.  Far from a dry account of how we got from dirt and mud to ribbon-smooth freeway, Swift's book is one about the fascinating people that dreamed it up, fought for and against it, and made it happen.  Never will I take the road for granted again.

He begins in dirt and mud, at the advent of the automobile, when driving literally meant taking your life in your hands.  He recounts the story of Carl Fisher, the man who built the Indianapolis Motor Speedway and led the push for better roads. He tells of Thomas McDonald, an engineer who actually conceived of the interstates years before Eisenhower gave thought to them.  I became reacquainted with Lewis Mumford, a critic of the highway system, familiar to some from sociology or urban planning studies.  Joe Wiles, an African-American neighborhood activist in Baltimore, figures in as well, as Swift recounts the over-decade long battle over siting and construction of an urban section of interstate highway in Baltimore.

But the story that I found most endearing was that of a bureaucrat, Frank Turner, a public works engineer who rose to the top of the Bureau of Public Works due to his dedication and hard work.  It is easy to caricature government employees as overpaid pencil-pushers.  Turner was neither.  He was truly a public servant, doing grunt work, rising through the ranks, all the while apparently humble, irenic, and though painfully shy growing in statecraft and respectability.  We owe our highways in large part to his dedicated work.

And yet as wonderful as a good road may be, this is also a story of the the problems which their building. Sprawl,  displacement of homes, and the sidelining and decline of small-town business districts are just some of the results.  A sameness permeates the experience.  And while the highways, bridges, and interchanges are a thing of beauty at times, much good was lost in their wake.  Swift quotes Steinbeck, from 1962's Travels with Charley: In Search of America: "When we get these thruways across the whole country, as we will and must, it will be possible to drive from New York to California without seeing a single thing."  Mumford picks up the critique, and Swift recounts it well, but the book is benevolent, acknowledging the benefits of the highways without overlooking the damage done.

Swift brings the story down to ground at times in a way that makes me want to be there.  He recounts visiting the remnants of the test rack built for the planned interstate highways near Ottawa, Illinois, and I too wanted to be there, to touch that history.  Or walk the streets of a vibrant Rosemont neighborhood in Baltimore, before a stop and start again highway planning process slowly nibbled away at the patience of homeowners and let to the decline of a once vibrant neighborhood.  Real people, real places.

As Swift concludes, the highways "turned out to be more than just fancy roads. . . [but], often in ways unanticipated by their creators, they had been agents of far-reaching change and had reordered the American landscape."  It's literally a 47,000 mile world of its own, where you can visit any one of numerous chain restaurants at interchanges in state after state and not meet locals but fellow travelers, much like airports.  A predictable yet stupefying sameness permeates the experience.  Drive a few miles off interstate, and you're in a different world.  That world goes unnoticed.

His concluding remarks offer a sobering assessment of the state of our highways and bridges.  They are aging.  Like homes, they must be maintained, and the funds to do so have diminished.  Over time, the cracks will show, tarnishing the luster of what was a jewel of a system.  It still retains that splendor (if that's the right word) over much of its passage, yet the fault-lines are there.  Its neglect may in fact be symptomatic of the cracks in our national fiber: it took wealth creation to enable this massive public works program, and it will take an economic resurgence from a productive and far-sighted workforce --- one willing to sacrifice now for a legacy to come --- to fund the taxes that will maintain it.  That kind of concern for posterity takes a generational selflessness that we may no longer have.

Next time I accelerate on the on-ramp to I-40, I'll roll the windows down, feel the road, marvel at the speed and ease with which I drive. . . and thank Frank Turner and those who labored hard to give us what we have.  Perhaps Swift's recounting of that story will engender a gratefulness that bears the fruit of attention to its decline.

 


The Urge for Going

Congratulations!
Today is your day.
You're off to Great Places!
You're off and away!

(Oh, The Places You'll Go!, by Dr. Suess)

"Uncle Clarence, I think you missed a turn."

"Are you saying I'm lost?"

"No sir.  Back there, I just think you needed to turn on US 1 South.  There was a sign.  That's our road.  It says here on the map."

I was no more than seven.  I sat on the front bench seat between my uncle and aunt, a Rand McNally map open in front of me.  He pulled over.  He took the map and peered at it, as he took another drag on his cigarette.

"Where the heck are we?"

"Right here."  I pointed to the intersection of a black line and a slightly thicker red line.

"So you got us lost?"

"No sir.  Just go back to that road and take a right."

"You're the boss."  He handed the map back to me, swung the wheel around, and threw some gravel as he left the roadside turnout for the road.

I have always loved maps and roads.  Even now, over 45 years later, very little is as exciting to me as the sense of adventure prompted by a black line of asphalt unwinding in front of me, signs rolling by suggesting other adventures, roads not taken, every farmstead or small town prompting inquiry:  Who lives here?  What is it like?  What do they do?

I'm not alone in this wanderlust.  In Earl Swift's historical survey of the development of our highway system, The Big Roads: The Untold Story of the Engineers, Visionaries, and Trailblazers Who Created the American Superhighways (take a breath), he tells how in the mid-Twenties Americans took to the roads, such as they were, striking out from the cities "in search of elbow room, fresh air, a closer acquaintance with nature."  He describes early tent camps for travelers, then "motor courts" (one room efficiency cottages), and then the ubiquitous mo-tels --- roadside strips of rooms where you could pull your car right up to the door of your room,  drag the luggage in, get a bucket of ice and a cold Coke, and plop on the bed and spread out the map and dream about the next day, and the next, and the next.

My parents slept.  I never could fathom how, after a great day behind the wheel, windows down, taking in the heat and wind, the humidity or dust, they could reach a motel, with all its invitation to explore its passageways, parking lots, playgrounds, and pool, and then just go horizonal and snooze.  What do these people do to get so tired?  What's wrong with them?  

Our car overheated once.  We pulled over, let it cool, popped the hood and pulled off the radiator hose (holy smoke it was hot!), removed the thermostat until we could get to the next filling station, put some water in from the jugs we carried with us, and pressed on.  We drank Dr. Peppers while a laconic sole filling station attendant named Chester or something like that helped us out betwixt running back and forth to the pump.  It must have been  a hundred and forty degrees as I sat on the bench in front of the station office, listening to the ding-ding when cars pulled in and Chester mumbling about the difficulty with Olds, their lack of dependability, watching sweat roll off my Daddy's face.  

Later, when we had air conditioning, it failed on us, right outside of Yuma, Arizona, a wickedly hot place unfit for human habitation.  We cruised I-8, where it was completed, that is, at a ferocius 65 mph, wndows down, like being inside a furnace with a fan.  Lovely.

But it was lovely. A "ribbon of highway," someone sang (Woody Guthrie, I think), a big sky, a flat expanse of cacti and brush and roadrunners, towns with foreign, imagination-inciting names like Gila Bend, Payson, Winslow ("I was standing on a corner in Winslow, Arizona, such a fine sight to see," said the Eagles, later, and I was, at a corner diner, filled with weathered, sun-caked people from somewhere else, only no "girl my lord on a flatbed Ford" that day, anyway), Joseph City (the biblical Joseph?),  and off across the Painted Desert.  Did I mention it was hot?  It was hellishly hot.  My mother's bouffant hairdo had fallen, and she wrapped her head in a scarf.  I rode shotgun, my peon siblings and friends sweltering in the backseat, fooling around, getting in trouble, until my Mom reaches back and starts smacking anything that moves that she can reach.  It was such fun, and I say that with no sense of irony.  My Mom.  My Dad.  A windshield on tomorrow.  And Rand McNally, the godfather of road navigation, of highwayneering, the certainty of his red and blue and black lines giving comfort to our wanderings.

I didn't realize until much later that there was no Rand McNally, no reconnoitering road man, cruising America, copiously noting all the roads, actually traveling all the roads, making neat and tidy and reducing to paper a jumble of dirt and gravel and concrete and asphalt that was not always so --- just William Rand, and then Andrew McNally, publishers is all.  In The Big Roads, Swift documents just what a mess our highways were --- rutted dirt roads, mired in mud when wet, a storm of dust when dry, going nowhere, and everywhere, disconnected, confusing, lacking signage, just one great adventure for the hardy and mechanically able wanderers.  That's America.  That's us.  Oh, how we wander.

I was an early adopter.  My aunt taught me to steer the car when I was five, drive the car when I was eight, and plow with a tractor shortly thereafter.  After I mowed down five rows of precious tobbacco when I could not locate the brake, my informal license was rescinded.  I am, after all, a city boy who merely visited the country.  Imagine the lives I saved by running over that tobacco.

Try this sometime: Forget signage, maps, and GPS.  Just let the car go where it will.  Navigate by compass.  Out West, this is easy.  In Tucson, Arizona, a place I count as my neighborhood once removed, familiar as home, I can see 50 miles from the back patio of the room in which we customarily stay, counting four mountain ranges --- Catalina, Santa Rita, Tucson, Rincon --- and streets like Oracle and Campbell that just go on and on and on, vanishing into the distance.   I set sight on where I want to go.  Compass it.  Steer by intuition.  Get lost, temporarily, because no man is permanently lost and never lost enough to ask directions.  Sooner or later, something familiar will register on the screen of consciousness and nay-sayers will be put to shame.  Lost?  That's a TV show, that's all, or a mere failure of faith.  I am a wanderer, a man lost with purpose.

But I digress, I wander. . . The wheat-fields of Kansas are absolutely gorgeous, the Flint Hills, the tall-grass, just miles and miles of flat to rolling swells of hills.  Well, for a while, at least.  Astounding points of interest like "The World's Largest Hand-Dug Well, says Rand and McNally, a town called "Zook," and counties so desolate as to have only two towns, no stoplights, and miles and miles between farms.  I'm not even sure there really are towns in these places but mere crossroads, the names plotted by Rand and McNally to dignify and give definition to what is merely a long continuous wheat-field punctuated by a tenuous telephone line, like thread between toothpicks.  What do these people do for fun, I think?  In Wichita we stay in a round hotel.  There was a thing about round hotels with pie-shaped rooms in the Sixties, I guess.  Disconcerting to be in a place with no 90 degree angles.  That and a bratty sister and her girlfriend, all stuffed in one motel room.

It's deeply satisfying to be back on the open road, behind the wheel, parents and siblings and friend sleeping, crossing the Mississippi at 1:00 AM.  Hello Memphis, Cuba (yes, Cuba), Atoka, Brighton, Covington, Ripley.  Believe it or not.  Believe it or not we are off-interstate, off the beaten path, wandering, and I am 17 and mighty behind the wheel, plowing through the night, a dark and mysterious river off to the West, ominous in the early morning hours.  I imagine Huck and Tom floating down the river with Jim, water lapping over the sides of their raft.  Flippin.  Curve.  Gates.  Who named these places?  What goes on here?  Oh, what sights a sleeping family miss!

But is there a point to this wandering?  I suspect so.  I know the urge to go is an echo of something deeper, something built into our frail human frame, a longing for something more, to see the other side, infecting me from the time I took my first steps until today when I drove tree-lined streets in an uncharted midwest city, navigating by intution, and not well.  

At our worst, we are a little like Lamech, "restless wanderer[s] on the earth" (Gen. 3:12b).  At our best, we have to see around the next curve, our curiosity eating at us until we give in (just one more mile, we say, our addiction to the "next thing" confirmed.)  And yet, whether I am seven, or 17, or even 53, when I get to my destination, or even when on the way, I am also like an Israelite in Babylon, standing by the river and mourning what I left behind, longing for Zion (Ps. 137:1) --- out here in a foreign land, wanting to be where I belong.  In the end, after all curves have been rounded, I close a dog-eared Rand McNally and look longingly in the rear view mirror.  I think about my room, my friends, the very particular place in all the world where I rest and play, that I know like no other.  It's the place that neither my little seven-year old mind nor my over-confident 17-year old mind realize is but a shadow of my real longings.  And yet at 53, I can say with T.S. Eliot, "We shall not cease from exploration, and the end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started and know the place for the first time."  And maybe, just maybe, we will know what we long for --- the Home beyond home --- even there. 

"Let's go home, Uncle Clarence."

"Yeah, no place like home, right?"

 Sure.  And yet somehow I know that when I get there, I'll feel the tug of somewhere new, the road, a red line out of here, numbered lines and odd-named towns that somehow speak of hope.