The Interstate Highway System: A love story

Posted: Friday, July 27, 2007

Dwight D. Eisenhower may be my favorite American President. He was the father of the American Interstate Highway System.

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Interstate highways are among the few positive products of the cold war. Designed to move our armed forces across the country quickly and efficiently, these super highways have long been the routing of choice for commerce and for leisure travel.

I love interstates. I love to see those four lanes of concrete with the wide, grassy median down the middle. I love to hear the humming of the big trucks, to see the happy tourists on vacation, to smell the asphalt on a hot summer day.

I especially love interstates when I'm not on them.

The engineers who conceived the interstate highway system did not plan to use it themselves, or at least they did not have small children. Otherwise, they would have known that children need to stop in every park and playground in every county in every state to compensate for being strapped into a car seat for hours on end.

How many interstate rest stops have playgrounds? Consider the following:

There is a wave pool in Craig, Colorado that is shaded by tall trees and bordered with lush, green grass, perfect for that blazing summer day when the air conditioner in the car just can't keep up.

There is a county park on a ridge overlooking the Ohio River near Cincinnati where, for four dollars a carload, there is not only an outrageously fun water park, but a great children's playground as well.

There is a narrow limestone canyon in a park in Indiana where the air temperature can be more than twenty degrees cooler than on the ridge directly above during an otherwise sweltering summer day.

There are countless fascinating places and unique attractions all across America. People who stick to the interstates will never find most of these.

My wife and I love car travel but we're not very fond of tent camping, so a few years ago we bought a small travel trailer. Of the many thousands of miles we've driven with our trailer in tow, only a few hundred have been on interstate highways.

Early on in our travels we learned that there is little traffic on most state and county roads, and very few big trucks, and that a day of mostly empty highways is much more relaxing than a day on the interstate.

The routes we choose meander widely. In the past four years we've taken in the sights and visited with friends and family in 35 states and in every U.S. time zone.

And, traveling with small children, we need to stop a lot.

Stopping in small towns on a long road trip is a great way to meet people. Folks in the convenience stores along the interstate might grunt at you while taking your money, if they have to, but they won't (can't?) engage in conversation: They're too busy to talk.

People working in the shops and stores out away from the interstate will usually talk to you. In fact, they would be happy to talk to you: they would be happy to have anybody new to talk to.

Off the main transportation corridors, countless small towns are literally decaying shells, replete with the boarded-up, falling-down carcasses of what used to be the homes and businesses of thousands of once-thriving communities.

In some regions, the only towns that seem to be holding their own are the county seats. As for the rest, the sight of them often begs the question: when is a community no longer a community?

The back roads sometimes offer a bittersweet view of America.

President Eisenhower never imagined that the system of interstates he championed would have such a negative impact on the American heartland. It is also plausible that much of the exodus away from small town America was inevitable, as the soldiers of the twentieth century left the farm after discovering the excitement of city life.

For better and for worse, the interstates are here to stay, and most people prefer to drive on them. I prefer for most people to drive on them too, if only because I love an empty highway more than I love interstates.

• Michael Wittig is a stay-at-home parent and longterm Juneau resident.



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