It's always been about what the driver doesn't see, doesn't hear, doesn't have to do. The engineers worked from a place of restraint, on the mandate that the less you saw of the New Jersey Turnpike, the better.

Imagine their resolve, their horn-rim glasses, their rolled-up shirt sleeves, their distraction in the morning while they stirred their coffee and pretended to listen to the wife. All the hidden mathematics going on. The spans and interchanges were deliberately designed and constructed under the road, not above it, so no one would ever be impressed by the architectural feats of the turnpike itself. The motorist would only be impressed by the speed, the convenience, the fantabulous '50s future. Imagine what Gov. Alfred E. Driscoll must have seen in his dreams. Imagine him in his PJs and bathrobe, flying like Superman over the Hackensack, freeing New Jersey from the tyranny of traffic jams.

The unremarkably remarkable road itself -- 118 miles between the Delaware Memorial Bridge and the George Washington Bridge near Fort Lee, plus another 30 miles hooking east between Jersey City and Bayonne to the Holland Tunnel -- adheres to the ancient, straight path across the fields and marshes, the same muddy route traveled by Native Americans and patriots, who at some point laid down planks and stones.

There are no interesting curves because nobody wanted any.

This story is about a straight line.

Small flourishes in the blueprints got revised, so in the end it would just look like a powerful act of asphalt, a fast karate kick in the battle of man against nature. From the time Driscoll anointed the Turnpike Authority with special bureaucracy-cutting powers, in 1949, to when the first sections of it opened 50 years ago this November, to the final stretches of the original road being completed in 1952, there was no time to infuse the Turnpike with identity.

It became what it became.

It ascends, it descends, and you barely notice.

Hurtling northbound on the New Jersey Turnpike, between Exit 12 and Exit 13. The mind turns to television snow. It's almost 3 in the afternoon. You are Tony Soprano, you are Bruce Springsteen, you are nobody at all.

You're starting to pass the refineries, the massive petroleum tanks, Exxon, Citgo, the power plants, the boxcars and storage trailers stacked 100 feet high. The power lines, the power lines, the power lines. The Orthodox church steeple or two, suggesting a higher power line still, and now past 13A in Elizabeth, and the giant Ikea store with its Death Star tractor beam trying to reel you in and turn you Swedish. The strange haze over it all. The low hum of it all. The chaos up close, and far off. The browns and grays. The waist-high reeds blowing back and forth. You have rocketed through the Flavor Corridor, where almost all of the nation's fast-food beefyjuicyspicy aromas are concocted for eventual injection into Tater Tots or BK Broilers or Slim Jims. At 13A, you are racing the jumbo jets on approach to Newark, and the jumbo jets are winning, the jumbo jets are always winning, screeching past you. Everything is happening. Manhattan is about to happen to the far right of your windshield.

Exit 14, Exit 15E, the Pulaski Skyway looming above us all, briefly, the old steel like an Erector set left by giants from another time, the anxiety burning off now, your grip loosening a bit on the wheel, the traffic slowing to a crawl past the Meadowlands and the sports arenas.

Notice how none of this is about the physical turnpike, but instead about everything around it.

The actual turnpike is asphalt.

But there is the metaturnpike going on in your brain. What you see through your windshield depends entirely on you. The world is happening, yes, and in certain moments on the New Jersey Turnpike, you make the unconscious decision (or perhaps conscious, depending on the meds) to happen right along with it.

The states of mind are many: You notice that a woman in the right lane seems to be weeping. Yes, she is wiping tears and now checking her eyes in her rearview mirror. The turnpike supplies its own narrative. She has just left him. No, she wants to leave him. No, it's not that at all. It's deeper. Someone has just told her something she didn't want to hear, and she's afraid. The New Jersey Turnpike is taking her away from that fear, or delivering her into the very center of it.

Or, alternately, perhaps: She's simply left work early because she hates her job.

For a long time, the Turnpike Authority took offense at people's negative associations with the road: Could they not see how safe it was, how modern it was, how clean it was?

No, they could not.

Instead it became a punch line to a joke everyone was sick of hearing, cutting to the tormented heart of what it meant to live in Jersey:

What exit?

Then something changed. Within the last decade, New Jersey learned to stop worrying and love the turnpike. It was as if Jersey worked through a self-esteem problem brought on by its physicality, a beauty distracted by its flaws. It thought of itself as ugly because people talked about it being ugly, and then, one day, it gave everyone the finger, it said dis is who I am, Tony, and I ain't leavin'.

This meant loving, and not questioning, the way the sun sets against a gauzy scrim of pollutant particulates. This meant learning to see the Meadowlands as some untamable wilderness preserve on the hind side of a Gotham beast. This meant growing fond of sooty, road-worn artifacts -- the toll gates, the old Vince Lombardi Service Area, the "eternal flame" of a refinery incinerator.

New Jersey -- which is to say the most populated part of it, which is bisected by the almost brutal competence of the turnpike -- at last begins to understand itself as a narrative in progress, vis-a-vis the pike. The road not only moves the plot of the story, it is the plot of the story.

The acceptance is by no means complete.

"Some people didn't want to see it, they weren't happy when they heard what we were planning," says Sally Yerkovich, the executive director of the New Jersey Historical Society, which in September will unveil "What Exit?: New Jersey and Its Turnpike," an exhibition at the society's Newark headquarters of artifacts, oral histories, sights and sounds culled from the road's 50-year history.

"There were some who turned their noses up at the proposal, because they think the turnpike is too closely associated with New Jersey . . . that it's trashy or dirty," Yerkovich says, sitting in her office, looking on parts of downtown Newark that are themselves undergoing an image makeover. "Our point is that the turnpike is closely associated with New Jersey. People who live here have been very excited about the project. To them it makes a lot of sense."

In its unflinching discipline as a road, the turnpike has so far not attained the mythic-Americana status easily awarded, say, Route 66 or the Pacific Coast Highway. Those roads, in addition to offering surprises and grander vistas, became cultural icons of possibility and adventure.

The New Jersey Turnpike is a harder case. Although it is the busiest toll road in the nation, its beauty is elusive at best. Regarded as a marvel when it opened (and still reverently examined by resourceful urban planners from as far away as Japan, who admire the sheer numbers it seems to move along so effortlessly), the turnpike has aged the way government buildings of the same era did. Its monstrosity has grayed and become visually irrelevant, unsexy, uninspiring.

The year the turnpike opened, exactly 787,195 vehicles traveled along it. In 1999, the most recent year for which an accurate count is available, there were, less exactly, 213.1 million vehicles on the turnpike, paying $369.5 million in tolls. (Tolls, along with concession revenue, support the Turnpike Authority, which is its own kind of government with its own employees. Tax dollars do not support the turnpike; contrary to the belief of some commuters, the road will never be "paid for" or the tollbooths taken down.)

To a modern anthropologist or pop culturist, the New Jersey Turnpike is a fascinating trove of what it was like to be alive in the 20th century. Born of a relentless postwar optimism, the turnpike eventually came to embody our dislocated fretting in the 1970s and '80s. In aiming for utopia, it took New Jersey toward more dystopic matters of economic scale, suburban sprawl, disposable lifestyles and environmental peril. It came to speak of American values.

Statistically, it is a safe road, with only -- only -- 1,570 fatalities in its 50 years. Still, to think of them when you're driving at night: the idea of those 1,570 ghosts, some of whom went out spectacularly, ironically, always terribly. Some haunting the fog, some haunting the embankments, some living on as folklore, stories we tell about twisted metal and tractor-trailer rigs ablaze. In the West, they leave white crosses where people died.

In New Jersey, nothing marks where people died.

In New Jersey, the road explains where people live.

You live off Exit 7, you are an entirely different kind of Jersey guy or Jersey girl than the Jersey guy or Jersey girl who lives off Exit 18. The 18W people of East Rutherford could not be more of your TV-character kind of Jersey, like the 15W people of Newark, not quite like the 14C people of Jersey City. The gradations become more recognizable the longer you stick around. And the lower the exit number, the more wild the card -- the more fierce and odd and endearing of Jersey people live there; any lower than Exit 3 and the goombahs seem to vanish, you hear more Delaware and Maryland (Merlind) in the accents. The road is shorthand for the matters of taste and lifestyle that define the species.

Certain branches of sentimental -- usually academically employed -- Jersey natives had loved the turnpike all along, and written weighty theses and articles about its various practical and metaphorical uses.

In the movies, the turnpike frequently represents a kind of beloved rear end of New York, as in "Being John Malkovich," in which characters traveled a dimensional portal into Malkovich's brain, only to be spit out onto an embankment near the Exit 14C tollbooth.

Artists painted it both bleakly and wildly. Songs, of course, have been written about it. People are always foisting Springsteen's "State Trooper," from the 1982 "Nebraska" album, upon the would-be turnpike deconstructionist: "New Jersey Turnpike, riding on a wet night / 'Neath the refinery's glow, out where the great black rivers flow . . ."

Or "Open All Night," from the same album: "This turnpike sure is spooky at night when you're all alone / Gotta hit the gas cause I'm running late / This New Jersey in the morning like a lunar landscape . . ."

Or Simon and Garfunkel: "Counting the cars on the New Jersey Turnpike / They've all come to look for America . . ."

Sometimes on the turnpike you see the remnants of a cassette tape, smashed, a thin ribbon of black tape tangling itself on weeds and the concrete barrier. (Soon to be picked up by the fanatically cleanfreaked Turnpike Authority.) You wonder if those aren't possibly Bruce Springsteen tapes, or Simon and Garfunkel tapes, hurled out by people who couldn't take it anymore, all that looking for America and not exactly finding what they were hoping for. The sacrilegious smashing of convention, all that serious plodding and weightiness of Being on the Turnpike.

When the Ramones would do just fine.

You wanna be sedated?

Get on.

Passover traffic on the turnpike.

Thanksgiving traffic on the turnpike.

Limp Bizkit show letting out at the Meadowlands, unleashing thousands of 19-year-old Jersey mooks onto the turnpike.

Five o'clock on the turnpike.

Twenty before the hour on the turnpike.

Dumping bodies out by the turnpike.

Swerving out of control on the turnpike.

Screaming at your kids on the turnpike.

Reaching over to the passenger seat and touching his leg and asking him if he's awake, are we having fun yet, on the turnpike.

Middle finger on the turnpike.

Being out there with all those thousands of cars and feeling completely, blissfully, alone.

Panic attacks on the turnpike.

Woman driving car bursting with plants and cardboard boxes, clothes hanging on a rod across her back seat, halogen floor lamp sticking out the window, fast as she can on the turnpike. Give her the thumbs-up, girlfriend knows a thing or two, but she's not paying attention, she's on her celly talking about whatevah-whatevah.

When the turnpike opened, people took Sunday drives on it. Pack up the kids and set about not exactly seeing New Jersey. They would go 40 or 50 miles, stop at one of the 13 service areas, have coffee at the Howard Johnson's. (There could be no greater honor Jersey can bestow than to name a service area after a noted soul: Walt Whitman, Woodrow Wilson, Joyce Kilmer, Vince Lombardi.)

People once bought souvenirs of the turnpike while on the turnpike, tchotchkes suffused with an awe about its magnificence. There were turnpike salt-and-pepper shakers, pennants, mugs. "One of the questions we asked people was why there was all this stuff, what about it made it seem worth [having as a souvenir]," says Ellen Snyder-Grenier, one of the curators who put together "What Exit?"

"People loved the turnpike, what it stood for," she says. "It's hard to think of now, but it was this era of tremendous goodwill. People didn't question authority. It's amazing to think, except for a few smaller protests, how easily people accepted the turnpike, how fast they built it through the center of the state."

Adds Yerkovich: "It was this feeling of nothing could stop us. It was a symbol of what America could do."

Within 20 years, though, the New Jersey Turnpike became less a symbol of what America could do and more of what America had done to itself. There are no souvenirs of the turnpike to be purchased these days, only generic Statues of Liberty and "New York" or "New Jersey" T-shirts that you can get anywhere.

There is no postcard of the turnpike.

There is no stopping allowed, except at the service areas, no pulling over, no scenic overlooks, no photo opportunities. If you stop, if you have a flat tire or things just conk out, the state police will be along soon, and not long after that, a lift. The turnpike doesn't even seem to want you.

The redemption of the turnpike, the embracing of it, is yet another stage in its life, and a tricky one at that. Examining the Jersey Turnpike salt-and-pepper shakers in a museum exhibit gives the road a mystique it deliberately tried not to have. The turnpike works against any sentimental grain, doesn't wish to be explained, doesn't want to mean anything.

And so it winds up meaning so much more.

It doesn't matter how many days or ways you drive it: The turnpike is still impervious to you. New Jersey has loved it anyhow. The turnpike taught Jersey a lot in 50 years about what a road can do and what it can't. At some point the state could draw no more lines, solve no more problems this way. Now it takes four years to approve a bridge widening on a state highway, another two years to build it.

The sun has gone down on a Thursday night in June. Twelve lanes across at one point, and you are deciding whether you should take the cars-only lane or the cars-trucks-buses lane, knowing that this decision more or less defines you -- paper or plastic, atheist or believer, Coke or Pepsi. It might save you crucial minutes, might be the key to some other of life's many choices that sooner or later you'll have to make.

Splitting again into the eastern and western spurs. The tires hit a patch of new asphalt that has been graded but not smoothed over, and suddenly you're gripping the wheel and driving across what looks like the scratchy flip side of your brother's copy of "Led Zeppelin IV."

As quickly, the roads smooths out again.

You pay the toll at Exit 18 and then it's Fort Lee, the George Washington Bridge, and that's it for the New Jersey Turnpike, no sign telling you that you've left it. It's an odd feeling, a cold feeling. It's a little like saying goodbye at a party, and then coming back two minutes later because you forgot your keys.

Loop around, do it again.

Big sans-serif letters at the toll booth, N E W J E R S E Y T U R N P I K E. Reduce Speed Get Ticket.

Now southbound, all of it in reverse: the Vince Lombardi service area, not so notorious anymore, having been demolished so that it can be remade into some glowing, enormous, pleasant, benign convenience mart for a zombie culture that wants only for some curly fries and personal pizzas and has let The Country's Best Yogurt supplant the Jersey-human's allegiance to Carvel soft-serve. That's the thing about the turnpike: You look for America and you get it, you get everybody, you get it.

"New Jersey and You -- Perfect Together."

That was a bumper sticker, but not very many people wanted it on their cars.

In the night, you scream south, into that dark green carpet toward Camden, and loop around, back on the northbound, doing it yet again.

It's a Friday morning in July, at the Turnpike Authority headquarters in New Brunswick, which is a tan specimen of bland, early '60s office jet-age architecture, with a round observation tower jutting out and looking over the pike.

Robert Dale, the director of operations, who has been with the Authority for 29 years, walks around and describes the various ways that traffic is measured, controlled, anticipated, directed. He is wearing a gray suit. Video and computer feeds in the observation room show various exits and mile markers in a state of steady flow. Dispatchers work in shifts, troubleshooting at computer terminals, waiting for any report of anybody stopped along the roadside. Any number of things can and do spill onto the turnpike: produce, furniture, a swarm of honeybees.

The banality of the beast is mesmerizing, in a strange way.

Dale is talking about the quiet duty of it all, the simple miracle of the Jersey Turnpike, the intricate computer systems, the weather tracking, the aerial views, the symbiosis of the turnpike with surrounding interstates, parkways, bridges and other, lesser pikes. You take down every word he's saying and wind up not hearing him. You are transfixed by the ghostly shadows on the TV screen, the world behind the wheel, the anonymous souls scrolling past, road signs currently programmed to blink a reassuring message that, for now, everything is okay ahead. The soft roar of it can be faintly heard.

"Sometimes we just stare at it, too," one of the dispatchers says.

What Exit?: New Jersey and Its Turnpike opens Sept. 26 at the New Jersey Historical Society, 52 Park Place, Newark, through Aug. 4, 2002. Call 973-596-8500 for information.

Late '50s vintage view of the turnpike, near Exit 7. It's the nation's busiest toll road, but its beauty is elusive at best, even at that quieter time.Above: "Mr. First," Omera C. Catan, pays the first toll -- 15 cents -- at Exit 2 on Nov. 5, 1951. Below: Earlier that day, the opening of the first 53-mile stretch.During the turnpike's construction, twin girders rise on a bridge over the Passaic River. The road has aged without grace."Turnapulls" burrow under two existing roadways in Middlesex County to make way for the low-profile turnpike, left; at right, a sign full of hope.