The Untold Story of the Engineers, Visionaries and Trailblazers Who Created the American Superhighways


The Big Roads I was overdue for a road trip. It had been years since I'd last embraced that most cherished of American freedoms: to slide behind the wheel of a car equipped with a good stereo and comfortable seats, and head out into the country, beholden to no particular route, no timetable; to grow inured to the road, the thrum of the tires, the warbling silence and thuds of a big truck's slipstream, the whistle of hot summer past the windows. To live off the contents of a cooler on the floorboards and whatever sustenance the road happened to offer. It had to be a long trip, as it might be years before I got another, so I decided to go west, all the way west, through a thousand towns and across the great sweep of farm and forest and desert and windblown high plain that waited between home and the Pacific. We'd take back roads, I told my daughter, the two-laners of generations past. We'd drive with the windows down so that we could smell the tar of mid-July blacktop, hear the corn's rustle, holler at grazing cows. We'd drive for just a few hours a day, and slow enough to study the sights, immerse ourselves in wherever we were and remember it afterward. We'd make few plans; we'd stop when we were hungry, when we tired, and wherever caught our fancy. We'd make a circle of the Lower Forty-eight, first on the old Lincoln Highway, America's Main Street, a ribbon of pavement twisting through twelve states, New York at one end, San Francisco at the other, few big cities between. Then we'd hug the California coast to Los Angeles and turn back east through the desert. "It'll be great," I told her. "A month on the road, seeing the entire country. Just you and me." Saylor greeted this uncertainly. "Well, I guess," she finally replied. "Can I bring a friend?" So we were three: a single father of forty-seven and two sixth-grade girls in a rented Chrysler minivan, its hatch crammed with tents, sleeping bags, a dozen stuffed animals, and enough T-shirts and shorts for the ladies to execute four wardrobe changes before each day's lunch. We joined the Lincoln in southern Pennsylvania. Soon after, we came upon a silent gathering of bikers next to the field where a United Airlines jet went down on 9/11, and after paying our respects stumbled into a blinding thunderstorm out of Buckstown. That evening we caught an Independence Day concert in the heart of Ligonier. We stuck to the old road into Pittsburgh, crawling from one stoplight to the next amid auto-parts stores and no-tell motels and car washes and timeworn bowling alleys, the air dark with diesel smoke. We passed crumbling factories, crossed into Ohio, stayed true to the Lincoln's original path on narrow lanes through Bucyrus and Upper Sandusky, Ada and Delphos. In Indiana the highway bent northward to shadow the Michigan line; along the way, it cut through South Bend and came within genuflecting range of Touchdown Jesus and the shuttered Studebaker works. It grazed Chicago, close enough to capture traffic but little else of the city. We entered a cornfield near the Mississippi and didn't leave it until Omaha. The girls passed the hours begging me to stop the minivan to buy them clothes, or candy, or more stuffed animals, and writing notes to each other when I refused. They adopted mock Swedish personas and spoke in what they imagined to be Swedish accents across entire states. They complained that they were bored. Out in the great plains of western Nebraska, I mired the minivan in soft sand and we spent two hours vainly trying to dig it out before a kindhearted local offered a tow. A couple of hours later, stopping for ice cream, we encountered a stranger so odd and menacing that I kept an eye on the rearview for an hour after. We explored Buffalo Bill's ranch in North Platte. Communed with wild horses on a windswept and dusty government preserve. Wandered a Boot Hill studded with the graves of the overly bold. It was a short way west of there, a week into the drive, a point at which I could recite the lyrics of every song in the Backstreet Boys' repertoire, that I decided we'd no longer stick to the original highway. The Lincoln coincided with U.S. 30 except where a grain elevator or water tower marked a town's approach; there, it usually veered onto narrow blacktop-often as not named "Lincoln Way," straddled by ditches, and the province of sagging pickups and rusted Detroit iron-to dogleg through the settlement's gut. Ages before, the main highway had been shifted to bypass these prairie burgs, and their reliable sameness (Main Street of post office, hardware store, small grocery, consignment shop, long-closed bank) came to seem a forgettable delay next to Route 30's straight-ahead ease and speed. So we took up the newer Lincoln, the straightened and wider Lincoln, and pressed up the slow-rising prairie toward the Continental Divide. The towns slid by a half mile beyond the shoulder, behind smatterings of low-roofed stores and diners that had moved off Main Street to lure the bypass's passersby. In places, we could see that we traveled the middle of three parallel highways. The old Lincoln wriggled off to our right, narrow and slow; we drove its bigger and less cluttered offspring; and away to the left, across miles of rolling pastureland, ran U.S. 30's own successor, Interstate 80, four lanes of smooth concrete, its speeding semitrailers unfettered by cross traffic or slowpoke tractors, by blind driveways or train tracks. It materialized only briefly before the terrain would rise to block our view, but those glimpses made plain that its pilgrims, windshields and chrome flashing in the sunshine, were moving with a speed and purpose that made our own seem puny. On the old Lincoln, we'd tooled along. On U.S. 30, we toured. On I-80, folks were hauling ass. In Wyoming, 30 and the old Lincoln peeled away from the interstate and struck north as one, trundling across ridges of dinosaur bone and petrified forest into Medicine Bow. The town was a fossil itself, littered with tumbledown filling stations and abandoned motels, their doors agape, roofs staved, parking lots colonized by waist-high weeds-signals, fast fading, that this once was an important wayside on an important way. We curved with the blacktop back to the south and outside Rawlins found that the Lincoln and 30 fused with the interstate, that the newer road's concrete had been laid right overtop its forebears. For the first time since leaving home, I steered the minivan up an interstate ramp. The following few hours were downright relaxing. Cruise control set at seventy- five. A couple of fingers on the wheel. Pavement hard and even. Lanes a dozen feet wide, crisply marked and flanked by broad shoulders. Forward visibility of a half mile, minimum, and on most stretches many times that. No grades that required the minivan to downshift. No intersections, no roaming cattle, no oncoming cars; after two thousand miles on lesser roads, I-80 seemed well ordered, safe, and so, so easy. We spent six days in California before turning for home, and it was on interstates-15, 40, 81, and 64-that we covered most of the distance. Had we pushed it, and not very hard, we could have gone ocean to ocean in five days. Back home, I made a surprising discovery as I pored through the digital pictures I'd taken during our month away: I'd snapped hundreds, but only a handful on days we'd traveled by interstate. Wyoming was a blank west of Rawlins, as was Arizona aside from the Grand Canyon. New Mexico? Two pictures of our campsite near Grants. Arkansas was unchronicled; the same went for Tennessee, North Carolina, and Virginia. What's more, I found that while I could conjure up scores of mental snapshots of miniscule towns and interesting sights from my hours behind the wheel, I'd logged almost all of them while driving back roads. I could recall Franklin Grove, Illinois, and the bridge over the Mississippi in Clinton, Iowa, and the quiltwork of farms east of Lima, Ohio, in great detail. Remembered Nevada, Iowa (which a sign at the city limits proclaimed the "26th best small town in America"), and Cozad, Nebraska (where the Lincoln was spanned by a banner marking the hundredth meridian), and cresting a steep mountain pass at the edge of Austin, Nevada, in the silver-blue early morning, on an empty stretch of U.S. 50 that Life magazine nicknamed the "Loneliest Road in America." I could especially reconstruct our passage over the Great Salt Lake Desert on two hundred miles of narrow gravel-a traverse on which we saw three vehicles coming the other way in two whole days and passed hour on hour surrounded by sagebrush, shimmering salt crystal, bounding antelope, and an eerie silence broken only by the girls' worries that we'd be eaten by mountain lions. Pennsylvania Dutch barnyards, misty Allegheny hollows, the endless green of corn on the rise-all that came back to me with sharp-edged clarity. But the thousands of miles we'd made on the interstates were a blur of far vaguer impressions. I could not call to mind any specific image of New Mexico, or of west Texas, or of the steamy Mississippi bottomlands. Had we really driven through Little Rock and Nashville? We had, we must have, but I couldn't say much about either. The minivan's windshield became a proscenium through which we watched the countryside pass without actually experiencing it; we were in it, but not of it. Mind you, that's not a complaint. I knew what we'd get when I turned up the ramp, and the interstates delivered. They carried us without incident, without drama. They offered up food and lodging with minimal fuss. They carved the shortest path all the way home. And we made very good time.