This week I had the unenviable work-related obligation of traveling for nearly four hours each day for four consecutive days along the same stretch of three interstate highways. The firat part of Day One I listened to practically the entire Book of Romans on CD, a mental feat given the long run-on sentences of the Apostle Paul. That required some concentration which, frankly, I lacked, given what has happened and was happening outside my window. Thus, I shifted to an assortment of music --- Matthew Sweet, The Beach Boys, America, and Yes --- as a soundtrack for what I saw.
I both love and hate interstate highways, and I guess I love and hate cars. (More accurately, I love cars but hate what the car has done to the landscape of life.) Enough has probably been written on the effect of the car on society, much of which I read in undergraduate school in sociology and in graduate school in urban planning. But I guess what I can describe here is the inevitable sense of loss I experienced as I rode these marvelous (for speed, that is) interstate highways and enjoyed the speed and feel of the car under me.
Riding by farmland, some of which is now fallow, I know that the highways were preceded by eminent domain, that necessary evil of the modern state. Land, even land in your family for generations, can be confiscated by the government for any public purpose. It is unlikely that society could function without that power, and yet the loss is deeply felt. I remember well presiding over a condemnation action for the government, taking a 100 acre patch of scrub forest, pineland, and swamp for an expanding military installation, and watching a 70-year old man weep on the witness stand as he talked about his land, remembering hunting with his father on the land, picnics, and visiting the now delapidated homeplace on the land. We can shake our heads and say change is inevitable, but all such change comes with loss. And that's the loss I feel today, knowing that farms have been taken, bisected, and inevitably altered by the highway I now glide along. Even communities were separated by the limited access highways. And then the highways lured the next generation to cities and the promise of better jobs and a more exciting life than was offered in rural America. Progress, yes, and an end to a way of life as well.
Turning onto 1-95, southbound, I see the first of what must be hundreds of billboards for the tourist trap called South of the Border. This rural anomaly might be called a "classic" but for its blighted feel. I came here as a boy with my parents for fireworks, as they were illegal to sell in North Carolina. It later became, however, a place of outlet shopping and illegal lottery operations. It's ugly, and yet I know that it employed many rural poor and brought tax dollars into an otherwise poor county. But I wonder if they regret ever letting it in?
There are still scenic delights along the way, even on an interstate at great speed. Rivers hold some natural beauty, still, as in the Pee Dee River or the great Cape Fear. There are acres of pinelands in South Carolina and the blessed absence of billboards for a time. Nature impinges, but still it is like a movie rushing by. I roll down my window so I can feel and smell the air and try to grab some sensation of what kind of place this is. The highway is its own "place," and in one sense there is little to separate one interstate highway from another. I get off on an exit for gas. I pay for it, and the lady behind the counter is real, with a southern accent, someone from this place (which is Dillon, SC), and I know the movie has stopped for a moment and reality has cohered. It's a curious encounter for me, like most, in an unimportant in-between place, and yet it reminds me that most of life happens in these in-between places.
At times the highway parallels the remains of U.S. 301, the former north-south corridor, and the effects of the "superhighway" are on display. Just off the highway, the "Exit Motel" is but the last name for a motel property that in the Fifties and early Sixties was likely a quite comfortable stopover for families traveling south for vacation. Now, graffiti is scrawled across one large wall, the windows are vacant, and the parking lot crumbling and deserted. It's this way all along 301, limited access having ruined many a business that depended on a steady stream of traffic.
Inevitable change, right? It's "inevitability" makes it difficult to imagine alternative scenarios, and changes to the landscape make it difficult to remember how it was before. A kind of cultural forgetfulness sets in. Perhaps it truly is inevitable. Certainly it's not all bad. And yet loss pemeates the landscape.
How appropriate to be listening to The Beach Boys. That America is gone. How sad is that?