Thursday, February 3, 2011
1 – 2.3.11 – Highways and Byways
As I hit the road, I find myself deeply grateful for roads.
The progressives amongst us (including me) have certainly, and for good reason, critiqued the dominance of road culture in the U.S. and the fact that most transportation funding is linked to roads and/or fuel to make the vehicles go on the roads. Car/road culture and funding tied to such leave precious little for other ways of transportation. America is a car county, through and through. We so desire to “see the USA, in our Chevrolet.”
If I were a better woman, I’d bike my way around the county, pulling my home behind me. I am not that woman.
In 2006, the U.S. celebrated the 50th anniversary of the interstate highway system. President Eisenhower signed the Federal-Aid Highway Act in June of 1956. An interstate system that connected the four corners of the country, allowed for greater mobility for citizens (and the development of a tourism industry), provided for safe means to move military equipment and aid in post-WWII recovery was originally the vision of President Franklin Delano Roosevelt. It took until the ex-general’s administration to come to fruition (read more here).
The interstate system was not the first national highway system—the United States Highway System, or simply "US" highways, existed before interstates and exist today as “blue” or tertiary highways (these are the highways upon which I plan to spend most of my time on this trip). As often is the case with poorly funded and unregulated mandates, US highways lacked the cross-state consistency and standards the interstate system brought.
Eisenhower’s desire to see the interstate system to fruition arose from an experience he had as a young officer in 1919. Two streams converged: World War I was the first large scale military engagement that used vehicles powered by internal combustion engines and created a new need to move this equipment. Also, the “Good Roads Movement,” which sought to improve roads in rural and undeveloped areas to increase standards of living and tourism, was a powerful lobby at that time.
Early in 1919, the Lincoln Highway Association leader, Harry Ostermann, persuaded the War Department to conduct a transcontinental motor convoy trip from the East Coast to San Francisco on the marked route of the Lincoln Highway (the first transcontinental highway in the U.S.). According to the State of Illinois Department of Transportation (http://www.dot.state.il.us/il50/1919convoy.html; accessed 2/2/2011):
Amid much hoopla, speeches and fanfare, a 76-vehicle combined “public-private” convoy, including 56 military vehicles, 209 officers and enlisted men, and dozens of private citizens took off from the White House on July 7, 1919…The convoy made it. Battered, but unbowed, the caravan arrived at the gates of Lincoln Park in San Francisco. However, it had taken until September 6, 1919 for it to reach its destination, a grueling sixty-two (62) days!
My US perimeter traveling road trip will take a bit more than 62 days, but the conditions will be undoubtedly better.
In preparing for this “epic” journey (as my undergrad students call it), or “Odyssey” (as the name of my RV and I say), I spent entertaining moments reading about roads and road trips. I’m reading the great traveler/writers of the U.S., including John Steinbeck, Edward Abbey, Alexis de Tocqueville, William Least Heat Moon, Jack Kerouac and others (more on these to come and, by the way, where are the women?).
I also watched a few films, including the documentary series “The Long Way Round” which depicts Ewan McGregor’s and Charley Boorman’s 20,000 mile motorcycle road-trip from London to New York (with an air jaunt between Russia and Alaska). Along the way, they crossed through Kazakhstan, Mongolia and Russia, including the infamous and almost impassable Russian Kolyma Highway or the “Road of Bones.” Built by inmates of labor camps and victims of gulags during Stalin's regime, workers on the Road of Bones were buried where they fell (and they fell for many reasons, including execution for not working hard enough). Tens of thousands are buried in the roughly 2,000 kilometer road.
McGregor and Boorman encountered all definitions of “road” on their trip and spent much of their journey in Kazakhstan, Mongolia and Russia lamenting road conditions and pining for asphalt. On the Road of Bones they were acutely aware of the sacrifices good roads require.
As I hit the road, I’m thinking about roads: what went (goes) into building them, how they are funded (or not), how they are the quintessential public good and what it is going to take to keep them in good shape. I’m also thinking about what it will take for us, in this vast continent, to habitually and consistently use other forms of transportation. And, I’m thinking about the citizen/government relationships needed to allow us to maintain the high standards of our roads and develop alternative forms of transportation.
I think this while in my large-carbon-footprint RV, nestled among the comforts of home with my two anxious dogs (who are beginning to adjust to about 18 feet of living space) taking up all the room on the couch (a great story on dogs and moving: Hyperbole and a Half)
I’m ready for the road. Next stop: Manzanita, OR