Unfolding the Map
We travel with William Least Heat-Moon (LHM) onto the Natchez Trace at Ofahoma, and once again lament America's obsession with getting there fast on the interstate. To see where we pick up the Trace, click on the thumbnail of the map at right. Leave a comment if you have been on the Trace. I haven't, and want to drive it someday.
"Now new road, opening the woods again, went in among redbuds and white blossoms of dogwood, curving about under a cool evergreen cover. For miles no powerlines or billboards. Just tree, rock, water, bush and road. The new Trace, like a river, followed natural contours and gave focus to the land; it so brought out the beauty that every road commissioner in the nation should drive the Trace to see that highway does not have to outrage landscape."
Blue Highways: Part 3, Chapter 6
One of the reasons I really enjoy Blue Highways is because of William Least Heat-Moon's identification of the two-lane road as an underappreciated treasure on the American landscape. I grew up having to traverse two-lane highways to get out of my hometown to anywhere of consequence, and while there were, and still remain, some difficulties with two-laners that one does not have to worry about with interstate highways, overall I love taking the back roads when I get a chance.
What were some of the problems, you may ask? Well, for one, I grew up in a remote area of the Northern California coast. The only way to get anywhere was to take State Route 20 east 35 miles until we hit the higher speed "freeway" of U.S. 101. One could also take State Route 1 to State Route 128, but that was 75 miles of two lane roads. State Route 20 was over twisty roads through the Coast Range, and as a child I was subject to car sickness. It took me awhile to get over that.
Another drawback to living in a place only accessible by two lane roads was that when weather struck in the winter, the roads were susceptible to flooding and to landslides, and being narrower, that could strand everyone in town until the flooding subsided or the road was cleared.
But positives of two lane roads, our Blue Highways, surely outweighed the negatives. Traveling on two lane roads meant that we could stop wherever we wanted. If we spied something that we wanted to explore, we could simply pull off onto the side of the road and explore to our hearts' content. Travel was slower, by necessity, and therefore encouraged that kind of exploration.
William Least Heat-Moon, later in this chapter, takes advantage of this aspect of two lane roads:
"Northeast of Tougaloo, I stopped to hike a trail into a black-water swamp of tupelo and bald cypress. The sun couldn't cut through the canopy of buds and branches, and the slow water moved darkly. In the muck pollywogs were starting to squirm. It was spring here, and juices were getting up in the stalks; leaves, terribly folded in husks, had begun to let loose and open to the light; stuff was stirring in the rot, water bubbled with the froth of sperm and ova, and the whole bog lay rank and eggy, vaporous and thick with the scent of procreation. Things once squeezed close, pinched shut, things waiting to become something else, something greater, were about ready."
This kind of exploration would not be possible on an interstate, and I loved this about our two lane roads at home. Of course, with my dad driving, we didn't explore as much as I would have liked since he usually wanted to get where he was going as fast as possible, but as an adult, I remember my childhood wishes to stop and see things and I indulge that wish now.
The other great thing about two-lane non-interstate roads is that they don't bypass towns, they unashamedly and without fear head right through them. The cost is in time, because you often have to stop at stoplights. The advantage is seeing towns as they are meant to be seen, their good and bad sides, and being forced to slow down and look. I believe that with the growth of interstates, Americans have truly lost touch with America. We bypass towns on the interstates with nary a glance. But when you take a two lane highway, you have to notice them and they must register on your conscience in some way. In doing so, the uniqueness of places throughout America becomes more noticeable - the small cafes and stores, the feel of the town and the people within it, and the unique natural attractions in the area.
I've lamented the growth of interstates before, simply because you can't do these things. If you see a sight along the side of the road, you can't necessarily stop on an interstate and indulge your curiosity. Interstates are about speed and getting where you are going in the fastest time possible. There is a shoulder on an interstate, but with cars going by at 50-85 miles per hour, it is not necessarily a safe place to be. Exits on the interstate are few and far between, so if you pass a sight that you want to see, it might be a couple of miles before you can get off the interstate and make your way back to it, and by that time you might give up on your quest altogether. On a two lane road, you make your own exits and you stop where you want.
Americans like to talk about freedom. But we are remarkably hypocritical about freedom in our practice. We allow a small group of corporations to shape our consuming habits, which certainly limits our freedom. And in our need for speed, to get to the next destination as fast as possible, we limit our experiences and ultimately that freedom which we claim to love so much. That is why, like William Least Heat-Moon, we should indulge our freedom on Blue Highways.
If you want to know more about Ofahoma
Sorry, Ofahoma is just a small place on the map, with little on the web. But it is an entrance to the Natchez Trace, and the Trace is an important landmark that unfortunately, I have never been on. Here's some information on that, and hopefully you'll go:
Explore the Natchez Trace
National Scenic Byways Program: Natchez Trace
National Park Service: Natchez Trace Parkway
National Park Service: Natchez Trace Scenic Trail
Natchez Trace State Park (Tennessee)
Wikipedia: Natchez Trace
Next up: Jackson, Mississippi