Saturday, April 14, 2007
“God bless you, Dwight D. Eisenhower / As I stand next to the truck stop shower”
More library inspired rambling.
Turns out 2006 marked the 50th anniversary of the US Insterstate Highway System. While doing recovery at Borders, I noticed a couple of books on the subject. Being the American History nerd that I am, and having spent many hours in recent years driving from coast to coast on these weirdly anonymous roads, I was intrigued. And, personal interest aside, the interstate IS a big deal. I mean, anyone who has read “On the Road” can tell you it’s less a lesson in beat philosophy than in how drastically the experience of long-distance travel has changed in those last 50 years. For better or worse. (Even Bill Bryson’s “The Lost Continent” (1989) seemed awfully dated to me – for all his lamentation about the decline of “small town America” and the Route 66 era of travel, it still feels like an innocent time compared with today's homogeneity. I spent a good chunk of my recent travels on the backroads, and even off the interstate the only real variety was provided by landscape and the shifts in reigning supermarket chain.)
So, long story short, I was curious about the actual history of the interstate. I put the books on my “to read eventually for free from a public library” list. I’d sort of forgotten that until today, when I was looking for non-food related reading material, and did manage to find both books at the trusty local library. The occasion of which I am celebrating in this post. If you’re not bored yet, descriptions are below.
The Roads that Built America: The Incredible Story of the U.S. Interstate System
Created by Dwight D. Eisenhower, whose WW II experiences taught him the necessity of a superhighway for military transport and evacuation in wartime, today's Interstate System is what connects our coasts and our borders, our cities and small towns. It's made possible our suburban lifestyle and caused the vast proliferation of businesses from HoJos to Holiday Inns. And if you order something online, most likely it's a truck barreling along an interstate that gets the product to your door. Written by bestselling author Dan McNichol, The Roads that Built America is the fascinating story of the largest engineering project the world has ever known.
Divided Highways: Building the Interstate Highways, Transforming American Life
Picture a field of dirt, piled knee high, that covers an area the size of Connecticut, or imagine a concrete sidewalk extending a million miles into space. You will have envisioned, Tom Lewis tells us, the amount of earth moved and the amount of concrete poured to make America's interstate highway system, a network of roads planned far back in the 19th century but completed only a few years ago. The public's view of the interstate system, Lewis writes, has been colored in recent decades by the grim realities of gridlock, smog, and road rage. In their early years, however, these highways seemed to promise the freedom of the open road, a gateway to faraway coasts.
Lewis... usefully notes that the system did not result merely from a conspiracy of unions, auto associations, and builders, but also expressed Americans' deepest yearnings for “speed, and space, and privacy."
Photo: a 1959 shot of 290, or the Eisenhower Expressway, which runs 2 blocks from the house I grew up in, and takes you straight to downtown Chicago, neatly avoiding the mean streets of the west side. Courtesy of this site, celebrating 50 years of interstate in IL - If you think I'm talking it up, check out what they have to say. Seriously, go look. How can you resist a site that starts out: "Dear Interstate Anniversary Website Visitor"??