50 Years of Interstates

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As you’ve no doubt already heard from news stories this week, Thursday is the 50th anniversary of America’s interstate highway system. Like most things 50 years old it’s got its good points and its bad ones. But life without interstates is as unimaginable today as life without telephones.

At first, Congress balked at spending all that money, until someone came up with the nifty idea of repackaging the interstate system as a means of mass evacuation in case of nuclear attack. Now highways became a defense issue and Congress finally agreed to let the idea roll.

I remember as a kid, then later as a driver, poring over maps of the coast-to-coast system as it gradually came of age: solid lines for the sections that were finished, dotted lines for those “under construction,” fainter lines yet for sections that were still only “proposed.”

By the time I was a junior in college I finally had my own car – a ’67 VW beetle – and just enough time and money to make the first of what would be many cross-country treks on those gleaming lanes of asphalt.

That first one was a low-budget trip, to be sure. I remember waking up with a crick in my neck one morning in western Kansas, after spending the night in the backseat of the beetle in a rest area on Interstate 70. I was still headed west, and the last day’s drive had been a long one. I’d fallen into that semi-hypnotic trance that you get along interstate highways. After a while – especially in the plains – it’s as if the scenery is just a backdrop for the highway.

It was still very early in the morning, the sun was freshly risen in the east, the air was still cool. The early-season wheat gave the nearby fields a golden hue, and I reached excitedly in the back seat for my camera, then started up the beetle. I got off at the next exit, drove a mile or two into the countryside and pulled over next to a field to take a picture. This picture (click the attachment below):

Western Kansas sunrise off the interstate

When I put the camera down and stared out at those fields in that early morning light, it hit me suddenly that this was not a backdrop. This was the real Kansas. That highway – fast and smooth, efficient and safe, as comfortable as a cocoon – was really only a thin strip running through it. Until I hopped off the interstate and looked around, my sense of Kansas had really only been an illusion.

On the other hand, if that interstate highway hadn’t been there, if getting through Kansas had been a slow, pot-holed, inefficient slog, I might never have made it there in the first place.

And so I came to my double-edged appreciation of the interstate highway system. Sure, these trails of asphalt have brought us bad things as well as good. But so has Google, so has the telephone, so has every invention the human mind has yet brought to life. So we may as well celebrate this 50th anniversary and remember the good parts.

And here’s one I’d like to offer: With 50 years of hindsight, I’m glad the Democrats and Republicans in Congress in 1956 got together – whatever the pretext – and said “go” to the interstates.

Building things that are useful to everyone, that help connect us rather than pull us apart, is one of the finest things a representative body can achieve. It’s also one of the hardest. It requires a shared vision and a willingness to work together; to put the people first, ahead of partisan advantage. It also requires taking the long-range view. Democracy works best when our representatives are looking 50 years down the road, rather than only as far as the next election.

Come to think of it, our current Congress reminds me a lot of a driver that’s spent too many hours on the interstate – more focused on the truck in the left lane ahead, the sports car creeping up in the rear view mirror, the number of miles to the next rest stop – than they are on the countryside whizzing by.

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