To the open road…

The Dwight D. Eisenhower National System of Interstate and Defense Highways turns 50 this year. My parents’ generation grew up as it was being built — my father did road construction for a bit, among many other things, and has many stories about it. When I grew up in Iowa, the interstates were always there, but most of our driving was on uncrowded two-lane roads. My grandparents — whose world after WWII was only about three counties big — didn’t like the big roads, and all of our family vacations seemed to consciously avoid the freeways. When we moved to Wyoming, the Interstates were like any other mostly empty road, just slightly wider. In the Bay State, the turnpike and multi-lane highways hold the commonwealth together and even decide which of towns people know.

I like the two-lane highways. Of course, we need the big roads for commerce and long-distance travel, but I would rather travel cross-country without them. Driving between Wyoming and Iowa in my school days, I grew tired of bland, easy I-80 and sought out other routes for nothing but novelty. Nebraska is one thing, but who has all that vacation time to spend on state and county roads?

On the first part of this trip we traveled mainly on Eisenhower’s war-time baby. I-90 and later I-94 took us from Massachusetts all the way to Minneapolis without any tough choices. I thought when we turned toward Iowa in Madison, Wisconsin, we would be seeing a lot more of the 2-lane highways I remembered. But Iowa seems to have recognized the potential of transportation to get new products to market and build a new service-oriented economy. (Nothing new for a state that used first rivers and later railroads to build a global agricultural empire.) Many of the US highway are being divided and widened in five- to ten-mile stretches. Speed limits are up. Driving is easy. But you won’t see the historic basilica in Dyersville or the spiral staircase in Traer or . . . well, the list goes on and on.

But many of our relatives live in “the middle of nowhere,” which is now partly defined as distant from an interstate if not other towns. And we want to get off the big roads. So we headed north on US-169 to Humboldt, Iowa, and found a nice little farm toy store. A quick detour off our drive west on US-56 across eastern Kansas brought us to the Tallgrass Prairie National Preserve. On US-71 (a schizophrenic highway) we passed small towns and a gorilla rising out of the corn. Before following I-35 south on our second pass at Kansas, we ventured down US-169 (same road, different state) to Ossawatomie’s John Brown Museum.

A new phase of our trip (less family more baseball) just began and will mix healthy amounts of quaint 2-lane roads together with booming 4-lane US highways and modern interstates. I’m excited!

P.S. – If you want to see Pixar/Disney’s view on the interstate highway (and class), see the very enjoyable new film Cars.

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