Archive for Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Beal: For local flavor on trips it’s best to use backroads

April 14, 2010

The interstate highways are efficient enough, I admit. They’re also safer than two-lane roads and more comfortable, too. If only they weren’t so boring.

With one long road trip (to Virginia and back) just behind us and another (to Colorado) in the offing for the day after I write this, I’ve had occasion recently to reflect on the pluses and minuses of highway travel.

What we need in this country is a safe, efficient high-speed rail system. If we had high-speed trains of the sort they take for granted in Europe, we could have sped off to Virginia last week to see our daughter and her family in eight hours or so, instead of a posterior-numbing two days on the road. The trip we’re setting off on tomorrow to Colorado could be accomplished in three hours or so. Dream on.

Actually, the way we’re prone to ignore our infrastructure in this country, I guess I should be thankful that Dwight Eisenhower had the foresight to set the wheels in motion to build the interstate system. In calling for what some have called the biggest public-works project in history, Eisenhower had the benefit of two experiences. At the conclusion of World War II he saw how easy it was to move troops and equipment about on the autobahns in Germany. He could contrast this with another memory: that of taking part in a cross-country Army convoy after the close of World War I that took 62 days to slog across the country on two-lane roads, many of them unpaved. The result: the Federal-Aid Highway Act of 1956, and the Dwight D. Eisenhower National System of interstate and Defense Highways we have today.

I admit that I’m ambivalent about the interstate system. I know the interstate highways are faster, safer, more convenient and all of that. But driving on them can be boring. To build a highway to these standards, the ground must be cleared of all vegetation in a swath several hundred feet wide. Then you have the uniform signs along the way.

In many parts of the country, of course, you can look out past this cleared swath to get a sense of the sort of country that you’re driving through, but the local flavor is decidedly lacking. It’s not the same on the older routes, where buildings and everything else, including the local flora, is closer to the roadway. You definitely get a better sense of the country on these old two-lane roads.

And you may not find much local flavor, either, if you get off the interstate to get a bite to eat or to spend the night. The homogenization of America has occurred in two places: in our shopping malls and along our interstate highways. Just as you can go to a shopping mall in Albany, N.Y., and find it indistinguishable from one in Salt Lake City, Utah, with the same national chains of stores and restaurants, it’s more or less the same along the interstate, with the same fast-food joints and restaurant and motel chains all the way.

To find the local flavor, if it exists anywhere at all, you have to get away from the interstate. For this reason, a lot of the time when we travel I try to spend at least part of each day on one of the two-lane roads that traipse along in the interstate’s shadow.

I did so on our recent trip back from Virginia, poking along on U.S. Highway 40 and some state highways in southwestern Pennsylvania, where we diverged from the superhighway to go visit Falling Water, Frank Lloyd Wright’s masterpiece that sets atop a waterfall in the Laurel Hills of the Keystone State.

I might do the same on our upcoming trip to Colorado, if I have the time. There’s a lot to see out there.

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