Monday, September 04, 2006

The interstate's choked with nomadic hordes

This summer marks the fiftieth anniversary of the U.S. Interstate System and I have a confession to make: I love interstates.

I recognize that there are many good reasons why the interstates are problematic, but I don't care--I still love them. To tell the complete truth, I am a total interstate geek. I am never happier in a car than when I am on the interstate. I collect interstate trivia. I read atlases and memorize the grid. I have driven through 41 US States-all on interstates. I consider the Interstate System to be the most awe-inspiring construction project in the history of civilization.

Yeah, I'm kinda weird about interstates.

Which is why I love this article in the San Jose Mercury News, which provides glimpses of the social history of California's interstates. And yes, I feel a kinship with Officer Izarras:

On a recent morning in Sacramento, the scene reflected in Felix Izarraras' sunglasses is a video clip of flannel-gray pavement and shiny guardrails. He's a California Highway Patrol officer and also an astute observer of the interstate network -"the most beautiful highway system in the world.''

"The interstates,'' he says, "represent America to me.''

All of which has led me to want to collect some thoughts about interstates:

1. My Interstate Achievements. There are two achivements that I am especially proud of:
  • Over the course of my lifetime, I have driven the entire length of I-80, from San Francisco to New York City. I-80, to me, is the East-West backbone of the country--as John McPhee has pointed out, it is an ancient migration route for both humans and animals. It also reveals a fascinating geological cross-section of the country.
  • I have driven almost all of I-95, from Daytona Beach to Portland (ME). All I am missing is the strip from Miami to Daytona and the section from Portland to Houlton, ME. I adore 95--it connects all of the power cities on the East Coast: Boston, New York, Baltimore, Washington, Miami. Even when I'm stuck in South Carolina on I-95, I can still feel the metropolitan excitement.
2. Interstate Phenomena. Without the interstate, we wouldn't have the totally-pointless billboard-driven tourist attractions/rest stops that are essential for hipsters to enjoy ironically. 3. Why I Feel Safer on the Interstate. I have a friend from Sweden who refuses to drive on American insterstates. He finds the homogeneity offensive and prefers to take routes by which he can sample the "local color." This is all well and good, assuming that one has time for the local color.

But, sometimes the best part of the interstate is the homogeneity. It turns out that large portions of the country are filled with people who are actively unfriendly to people like me and I don't really want to give these unfriendly people access to me. Or, to put it simply, I don't want to get beat up. Especially in unfriendly territory, the interstate is the safest place for a number of reasons:
  • State Police are less likely that local police (or sheriffs, yikes!) to be dangerously prejudiced.
  • There are usually lots of other motorists nearby.
  • Food and gasoline are usually readily available, without the possibility of getting lost.
  • The locals that you interact with (at gas stations or fast food places) are more likely to be used to interacting with out-of-towners.
  • You can drive really fast.
Do you really think I would have driven through rural Mississippi or Nevada without the interstate?

4. I-99 is evil and must be stopped. The numbering system is one of the things that I most admire about the interstates--it's so elegantly logical. But, then there is the abomination known as I-99. According to the system, such a road must be located to the east of I-95, and yet it is not. It's in Central Pennsylvania. This is unacceptable.

I know the explanation, but it still rankles.

5. The Best Song for Self-Conscious Driving on the Interstate. While there are many excellent songs for interstate driving, I'm going to recommend Bruce Springsteen's "Open All Night." Here's a representative verse:
Early north Jersey industrial skyline I'm a all-set cobra jet creepin' through the nighttime
Gotta find a gas station, gotta find a payphone this turnpike sure is spooky at night when you're all alone
Gotta hit the gas, baby. I'm running late, this New Jersey in the mornin' like a lunar landscape
Read the rest of the lyrics here.

6. The Problems with Interstates in Indiana. Regular readers know that I have little but contempt for the state of Indiana. Here are two good reasons why:
  • I was born and raised in Rust Belt, Michigan, a town close to the Indiana border. Ever since I can remember, people have been complaining about the unconscionably long commute between South Bend and Indianapolis. The distance between these two cities (the largest and fourth largest in the state) is 138 miles, yet the drive usually takes in excess of 3 hours on the non-limited-access US 31:
    Ask nearly anyone around Indiana about the drive on U.S. 31. Without hesitation, most will recount how they dread driving between Indianapolis and South Bend. They generally are puzzled that such a busy highway includes unexpected obstacles such as railroad crossings without overpasses, side roads with stop sign access and most of all, those endless stop lights!
    The US 31 Coalition (source of the above quote) wants to do something about this, but, due to an incredibly corrupt and petrified political establishment (and, perhaps, due to the fact that South Bend is one of the few borderline Democratic areas in a very red state), there has been little progress in the last 25 years. Unbelievable.

  • The Indiana portion of Interstate 80/90 aka the Indiana Toll Road has been sold to a private firm. Well, actually, it has been "leased"--but for 75 years (which makes the sold/leased distinction entirely irrelevant for those of us who plan to die sometime before then). This idea was the brainchild of Governor Mitzi Daniels (who is clearly that kid that everyone hated in high school--not because he was smart, but because he was super creepy). The private firm gets to collect (and raise!) tolls on the road for the next 75 years, and the State of Indiana gets 2.8 billion dollars up front.

    Now I'm no expert on public works financing, but does this seem like a ripoff to you? Was this really the only way for the Tiny Governor to raise 2.8 billion dollars? Don't states sell municipal bonds anymore?
7. Art and the Interstates.Are the interstates responsible for any really great art?

On the one hand, Lolita would be an entirely different (and definitely inferior) novel in the era of the interstate.

On the other hand, it would be hard to imagine the oeuvre of Bruce Springsteen without the influence of the interstate highway. In fact, as NPR has pointed out, rock and roll owes a great deal to the interstate.

But, on the one hand, the interstate must be held responsible for Sammy Hagar's "I Can't Drive 55."

Some other interstate-inspired artistic creations:
Any other thoughts, commenters?

8. The Future of the Interstate. What will interstates be like in the future? Well, for one thing, they'll be run by robots or something.

And when can you expect a new interstate to open near you? Find out here.

1 comment:

Peace said...

Officer Felix Izarraras married a Russian woman with two kids. One of the kids just happens to be in most of my classes. (:
We were very best friends for a while.
I slept over once and got to meet him.

If you'd like to know more e=mail me.