Note: First published on Blogger on June 17, 2006
Unfolding the Map
This post will be a reflection on the US highways. As always, click the image to see the updated map of Sal's journey.
"Here the big trucks roared, wham, and inside two minutes one of them cranked to a stop for me....And what a driver - a great big tough truckdriver with popping eyes and a hoarse raspy voice who just slammed and kicked at everything and got his rig under way and paid hardly any attention to me...And he balled that thing clear to Iowa City....Just as we rolled into Iowa City he saw another truck coming behind us, and because he had to turn off at Iowa City he blinked his tail lights at the other guy and slowed down for me to jump out...."
On the Road: Chapter 3
Iowa City, Iowa
Sal doesn't really stop in Iowa City. The truck slows down, he gets off, gets on another truck, and heads toward Des Moines. It's too bad he didn't stop, because he would have seen a quiet, pleasant university town. My wife's parents, her father just returned from duty in the Navy during World War II, would have been moving into a basement apartment near the downtown. A lot of returning GIs would have been wandering around, taking classes at the university on the GI bill.
But Sal moves on, heading down Route 6 west. Route 6, which he mentions earlier in the book when he's first planning this adventure, at one time was the longest federally funded highway in the U.S. It was even longer than the famed Route 66, which as the song says "...winds from Chicago to L.A." It was shortened slightly later, so that instead of going from the Atlantic to the Pacific, it now stops short of the Pacific at Bishop, California, but it still is the longest continuous highway in the U.S.
Today, many of us have grown up in the era of interstates. The interstate system came about in the 1950s in a wave of highway building meant originally as a strategic and efficient way to move supplies and troops around the U.S. in case we ever faced an attack on our own soil. By bypassing the downtowns, it also made commerce and pleasure travel more efficient as well.
However, had Sal Paradise been making his trip in 2006 rather than in 1947, he would have found travel much different. Sal is often dropped off in downtowns. Every route he takes takes him through the hearts of towns and cities. And because very few business chains existed at the time, each town is a unique experience, with its own culture, shops, and cuisine on display. This stands in stark contrast to today, when we can simply zip past each town on the highway, and stop for the same McDonald's Big Mac, fries and a Coke regardless of whether we are in Pennsylvania or Utah.
I have always been somewhat fascinated with the US highways. I remember when I lived in Milwaukee and US 41 ran a few blocks away from my home on its way up into northern Wisconsin and Michigan's Upper Peninsula. I was fascinated when I found out that the same US 41 ends up Miami. I wondered about what kinds of things one would see on US 41 traveling from it's top to its bottom. At one point, I thought that a good basis for a book would be traveling the US highways and documenting what I saw along the way. Later, after reading William Least Heat Moon's Blue Highways, where he intentionally travels along highways that are marked "blue" in his map and are thus anything but interstates, and documents his experiences in small towns of America, I began to take such highways whenever I felt I had the chance and the time to get off the interstate.
To find the America that Jack and Sal experienced, one must get off the interstates and back onto the US highway system -- the system that existed before the interstates were built. These US highways still, for the most part, penetrate the cities which in turn reveal their dirty laundry -- their ghettos, their backyards, their seedy motels and their less flattering sides -- as much as they reveal the states of their downtowns, whether they be brand new and gleaming or in a state of disrepair. I find that the trip is much more interesting when you come upon a unique town square, or find a restaurant that looks interesting and different. Sometimes, if you're lucky, you might chance on a civic celebration. If you take a US highway, rather than an interstate, you may take longer to get where you are going, but you will still see some semblance of the America as it existed when Jack and Sal were on the road.
If you want to learn more about Iowa City or the U.S. highway system
Next up: Des Moines, IA