Traveling Through America

September 18th, 2009

After enduring travel in an army convoy that rattled over rutted roads for two months navigating from coast to coast in 1919, Dwight Eisenhower’s dream was a national network of paved highways. As president, Ike signed an order in 1956 to build a system of superhighways. Little did he know how that would turn out.

A drive across the USA recently in interstate summer traffic drew intense longing for relief from multiple lanes of hard-charging motorists. One incredible highway scene after another loomed up and disappeared into the rearview mirror. Traffic slowed only for severe congestion, lanes closed for road repairs, and accidents. On a California freeway, the Sunday morning of Labor Day weekend, a beleaguered-looking military convoy crept along the breakdown lane, the helmet-clad troops warily watching a relentless, churning river of cars, vans, SUVs, motorcycles, campers, pickup trucks, utility trucks, garbage trucks, car carriers, rental trucks, 16-wheeler trailer-trucks whooshing past inches from their machinegun mounts.

Squeezed amid careening caravans of double-trailer, long-haul truckers and family campers towed by pickup trucks racing in packs lunging for lead position at 70 miles-per-hour-plus, I was drawn to old-fashioned roadside attractions to preserve some sanity. Lot of roadside crosses in Indiana, for instance. Either there’s a great revival of evangelical Christianity or a horrendous toll of traffic fatalities. But I was driving too fast to stay out of the path of a herd of trucks to figure it out.

It was intriguing to find out that Jesse James hid out in a cave in Missouri. Roadside signs touting that piece of history flashed past, as my speedometer and the trucks hammering on my back bumper topped 80 miles per hour. Didn’t catch the name of the cave. Signs for kayaking in the Ozarks similarly flashed past. Just so with the first sight of a cattle ranch in Oklahoma, an old oil well in Texas, the Petrified Forest in Arizona.

I barely remember New Mexico on the first pass. I drove across the entire state amid a stampede of trucks and campers tearing up the interstate at a breakneck clip, mileposts zipping past in the blink of an eye. Out of the corners of my frazzled eyes, picturesque mesas peeked up in the distance.

But a sight in Arizona made me slam on the brakes and grab the camera. Fortunately, there wasn’t a truck on my bumper, a rarer occurrence on the two-lane old road to the less-visited north side of the Grand Canyon. What caught my attention was a sign on the edge of a remote village. Next to a painted silhouette of soldiers were these words in red letters: “BRING THEM HOME.” Nearby was an older sign that set the scene: “Echo Cliffs Veterans Memorial Park, Cedar Ridge, Arizona.”

After that, I looked for every opportunity to get off the interstate and take an old road to where I was going for the day. And in traveling from coast to coast and back, I saw a lot more of America—golden meadows of mountain wildflowers, fascinating small town landmarks, kayakers in a Colorado River gorge—the further I got off the highway.

(This article was also posted at EarthAirWater.)

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3 Responses to “Traveling Through America”

  1. Tom |

    I share your sentiments. I’ve reached the point where I avoid interstate highways and other crowded major highways whenever I can, whether I’m driving in the U.S. or Europe. The only exceptions are when time is a major issue or in cases where there just aren’t any acceptable alternative routes.

    In the past when I drove east to west in the southern part of the country, rather than crossing the Mississippi on a major highway bridge in Baton Rouge, I’ve driven instead to St. Francisville, LA and crossed the Big Muddy on a ferry. I highly recommend it, but you better hurry because the St. Francisville ferry will be gone by 2010.

    On another backroad diversion in the same area, I accidentally discovered the plantation where the TV series “North and South” was filmed. You have to navigate a dirt road and a rickety bridge to finally get there, but it was worth it.

    I once drove, in a small convoy of three cars, from Budapest, Hungary through Romania and Bulgaria to Skopje, Macedonia and back again a month later. There were lots of backroads that were really main routes, especially in Romania. Beautiful country, lots of small villages, taking it easy around curves because you might come upon a farmer drying his grain on the highway, a detour for a couple of miles on a muddy dirt track through open fields….

  2. Brian |

    Tom, my mother grew up not 5 miles from that ferry, and my younger sister lives there today. St Francisville is OLD south – beautiful live oak trees everywhere, slow pace, small town – old south. I still deer hunt over there, about a mile from Thompson’s Creek.

    I didn’t know that they were closing the ferry. That’s too bad. The three closest bridges are the “Old” river bridge on Hwy 190 on the north side of Baton Rouge and the “New” river bridge on I-10. The “new” bridge has been there for 40 or 50 years now, but it is newer than the Hwy 190 bridge. In Mississippi, you’d have to go all the way to Natchez, I think, to cross Old Man River.

    If you’re ever back that way, swing by Asphodel off Hwy 61 headed towards Baton Rouge. It’s a pretty antebellum, and they used to have a pretty good restaurant. I imagine that they still do.

  3. Jan |

    I used to drive out my way to take ferries. Unfortunately, I was on a tight schedule for this trip. The problem with crossing the Mississippi on an interstate bridge is that you can’t see the water through the truck traffic! So I stopped in Memphis just to see the riverfront. Lot of history there.

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