The Roads Most Traveled

Begun 50 years ago in Middle America, the interstate highway system has connected and homogenized us, prosaically unrolling across the miles, yet worthy of celebration.
Begun 50 years ago in Middle America, the interstate highway system has connected and homogenized us, prosaically unrolling across the miles, yet worthy of celebration. (
By Hank Stuever
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, June 29, 2006

Americans -- at once deeply in love with convenience and yet increasingly phobic about boredom -- have no ready notion about ways to celebrate the 50th anniversary today of the federal act that began the Dwight D. Eisenhower National System of Interstate and Defense Highways.

There's a convoy out there, scheduled to arrive in Washington this afternoon after two weeks of photo ops on the endless asphalt ribbon, with Ike's great-grandson and a few Department of Transportation officials along for the ride. The American Road and Transportation Builders Association issued a playlist saluting the anniversary of the 47,000-mile system -- "Life Is a Highway" by Tom Cochrane; "King of the Road" by Roger Miller; "Freeway of Love" by Aretha Franklin -- which gives you that awful feeling of being trapped in a car with someone who makes bad mix tapes.

For most -- but not all -- people, it's like celebrating the anniversary of that gray stuff in padded envelopes. Oh, Ike, what did your grand project do to us? Even with our complete dependence on interstates -- and the billions we've spent making and maintaining them; they are our pyramids and our lifelines -- we are remarkably unpoetic about them. Their uniformity and rigidity of width and function, among the general's points of pride in his system, discourage such nonsense.

Construction began on I-70 in Missouri in 1956 and that beginning was soon popularly and mythically told as an end to some dream America was having about itself. Interstates have never been assigned their proper grandeur; often they're seen as the enemy of national character. Culture keeps insisting on interstate amnesia: Forget any happy memories you have of spending time on them. "The mind goes clean," Joan Didion wrote of her Corvette summers on the outer-L.A. freeways more than three decades ago, and she meant it as the highest compliment. She picked up on the transcendence of wide, open highway; readers took it as disconnect, worry.

Forget the joy of that first hour or two you're on the interstate, the euphoria of embarking, of having set off, such as when I-66 segues to I-81 South, and think instead about the horrific banality of the 17th hour, I-40 now, between Memphis and Little Rock, still in the same, redundant world, same Hampton Inns, same Denny's, same Love's "country" store truck stops, same Waffle Houses, until you cross the unmarked Waffle House line on the U.S. map, another way of knowing the true West from the true South -- 376 of them in Georgia, 99 in Texas, two in New Mexico, etc. You are not allowed any joy here on the interstates, that's the official enlightened line. It's all supposed to be bad for you -- bad Cinnabons, bad truckers on meth, bad bladders, bad exits. The horizon is pretty; the mountains are pretty. The interstate is never called pretty.

Our writers and storytellers largely shun the interstates; our thinkers bemoan them for having dulled the national character. If Interstate 35, which runs from Laredo, Tex., on the Mexico border, up to Duluth, Minn., is our modern Mississippi, then where is the Huck Finn analogue, who is the Mark Twain? The argument might be that the interstates are so soulless that they don't inspire anything like art.

Our traffic reporters, in helicopters, bring us daily litanies of their outer-metropolitan woe. News footage of cars on interstates or cloverleaf interchanges have become cliche stock to illustrate the mass immolation of the environment and our sense of simplicity. Our movies about the road are always about how tedious the interstates are -- and so the plot hinges on taking the off-ramp far out into the prairie or hills, until you can't hear the interstate anymore and finally stop seeing signs pointing you toward it, so that our protagonist can get deliriously lost in "real" America.

"Cars," the current Pixar hit that gets almost everything right about our transportation system, preaches to our children about the big, bad interstate. In the film, I-40 is built away from curvy and true Route 66, leaving behind the desert town of Radiator Springs.

Lightning McQueen, a shiny red NASCAR punk who finds himself stranded in this podunk, finally gets it (about life, about character, about morals) when the hot little Carrera who owns the faded, quaint motel in town takes him up the mountain and shows him the cruel, ambivalent interstate busily rushing by in the distance. He's repulsed, heartsick.

And so he rhapsodizes: We're too self-absorbed to take time to see. He gets serious about helping Radiator Springs rediscover its mid-century neon kitsch glory. (Or something like that. Maybe it will become clearer next summer, when children are watching "Cars" over and over on DVD players in the back seats of minivans, too fidgety on interstate trips to simply stare out the window and look at stuff anymore.)

There's that whole Charles Kuralt thing. That NPR thing. That Jane and Michael Stern diet of undiscovered chili and pie. That is what America officially loves, while the interstates are what we officially loathe. It's that William Least Heat-Moon problem of the intellectual wayfarer: I won't really see America from the interstates, so I have to get off.

"This is the America that is calculatedly heartwarming, represented by people who are purported to symbolize America -- people who are Platonic ideas of Americans: a lobsterman from Maine, a logger from Oregon, a rancher from Texas," writes Robert Sullivan, in the introduction to his new, white-stripe-hypnotized travelogue on (and ruminative ode to) the interstates, "Cross Country." (His last book was about rats. Another book was about New Jersey's forsaken Meadowlands. Oh, we like him.)

In spite of all the millions of people currently doing it, Sullivan notes that crossing the country entirely via interstate "seems, to many Americans, like the wrong way to go." Backroad America offers "a kind of antique-shop America. It's an America that appears in magazines alongside recipes; it's the America where presidential candidates are televised."

* * *

What if the government had left Route 66 intact as it was, and people got bored with it anyhow, and the motels and curio shops closed all the same? Imagine the whining about the traffic light in Beatrice, Neb. Even before the highway act was signed we were already going suburban; we were already homogenizing, Woolworthizing, turning Texacoid, watching for the next orange roof of Howard Johnson's. The interstate didn't create us, it is us; it is something we built. However it may depress you to pull off at a building that is a gas station and a Taco Bell and a Pizza Hut and a KFC all in one, however dislocating it may be to sleep in a Sleep Inn one night and then sleep in the same exact Sleep Inn four states later the next night -- isn't all of that somehow swept away by that endless glorious panorama through the windshield?

Does tedium really destroy the mind, or does it, perhaps, enhance it? Although no one has figured out yet how to celebrate the hypnotic qualities of our interstates, there should be no shame in loving them. It's always a great day out there, somewhere. It's one amazing ketchup-delivery device, from farm to plant to packet to truck to McDonald's to French fry to mouth.

The interstate is one of the few places we can all feel good about having paid our taxes. Could anything this expensive, so fought over in Washington at budget time, ever feel so apart from pure politics, once you're out on it, once you're sailing along? The cleanly executed merge -- from ramp to northbound, from span to southbound -- imparts a feeling, a grace. To take enormous satisfaction in a smooth merge, you don't have to be a dancer or an athlete or a superhero, and yet the interstate makes you feel like you are.

Somewhere just before Amarillo, Tex., westbound on I-40, you start seeing the billboards for "Tucumcari Tonight!" It's a notion left over from Route 66. The people of Tucumcari, N.M., know you're making good time. There's this hope you'll stop anyhow. They've built those boxy chain motels next to the interstate. When I was a boy, on our endless journeys between the here and there, the "Tucumcari Tonight!" billboards reminded my dad to tell the bad joke about the Indian chief with the broken leg. (He yells at a couple of his tribe members: "Two! Come carry!")

On all the spans and interchanges, on all the flats, at all the rest stops, through the blazing heat and blinding snow and creepy fogs, really, all my life I've felt happiest and saddest while encapsulated, on a straight shot at 75 mph, mulling over a poem I can't finish called "Tucumcari Tonight." It's not about small roads and neon. It's no ballad. It's about interstates, and about my fractious family, and 44-ounce fountain drinks. It's about being American in the worst and best way. I just wind up staring at all that road and sky. I always get where I'm going, but I never get past the first line.

© 2006 The Washington Post Company