At a conference several years ago, we were given crayons and sheets of white paper and asked to draw our visions of utopia. This was in the West, so of course a great many rustic cabins in meadows far removed from civilization were sketched onto these sheets.
Not mine. Yes, of course, I
had hills and dales and aspen trees, crowding mountains that
swelled into piercing peaks. But I also had a highway in my vision
Gosh-darn, I love highways. I love them just
about as much as I hate them. Especially interstate highways.
Driving these broad, smooth roads is like lounging in an Imax
theater. This isn’t work; it’s entertainment. It is the
Great Western Road Trip.
I’m old enough to remember
a few family vacations in the time before interstate highways. I
remember going to Moab as a kid, to visit Arches National Monument.
Ed Abbey may have seen me, the kid with the Butch Wax crew cut,
with my head poked out the window of a Chevrolet Biscayne, the fins
as big as a whale’s. We were a long way from home then: From
our hometown of Fort Morgan, Colo., it was a three-day drive on
winding, narrow roads.
Another adventure took us to
Yellowstone National Park. During that two-week trip, we fed the
bears, although my dad didn’t much like the idea, and it
turns out he was right. And I recall seeing another pair of
Colorado “UW” license plates. We treated the owners of
the car like long-lost cousins.
But I came of age in the
West with interstate highways. When not yet a teenager, I saw the
giant yellow road-building machines churning the hot summer sand on
the outskirts of Fort Morgan. That was six years after President
Dwight Eisenhower signed into law the Federal Aid Highway Act of
1956, authorizing and funding a spider’s web of four-lane,
limited-access highways across the nation.
always known as ramblers, but these big, burly ribbons of asphalt
and concrete have encouraged our instincts to drive, drive, drive.
On long weekends, we sprawl onto the continent. People in Provo,
Utah, head up to Lava Hot Springs in Idaho, for some R&R.;
Casperites descend on Denver to shop, hit the museums and watch
sports. From Wallace, Idaho, it’s just a push to Seattle and
the salt water. From Billings, it’s not out of the question
to take in some high culture in Missoula. We drift across the
landscapes for hours, just to spend a little time in a place that
is different than where we were before. The highways have made us
The interstate highways shrank
the West by spanning the region north to south, east to west.
Interstate 90 wove across the Northern Rockies. Down in the land of
armadillos was I-10, while I-40 stretched from Texas west through
the saguaro, on to the promised land, next to the ocean of peace.
Bustling businesslike from Omaha across the Red Desert, the Salt
Flats, the Great Basin and to San Francisco Bay, was I-80.
I-70 was to be different. Starting out at Baltimore, it was
supposed to end at Denver. Beyond, facing the great wall of the
Rockies, the highway-makers saw geography that was altogether too
difficult, the gains too meager to justify the great
Aspen? Not much there back then. Vail? It
hadn’t even been conceived. Breckenridge was decaying in the
wilderness. This was flyover country. The closest thing to an
excuse for a major highway was the uranium in southern
Still, the congressmen from Colorado and Utah
lobbied and argued. They understood that transportation begat
economic development, and, in 1957, they got their way. Congress
agreed to extend I-70 from Denver to Cove Fort, Utah, a distance of
547 miles. The final rationale was that it would reduce the highway
distance from Denver to L.A. by 128 miles.
(and, for the record, a few women) boldly plunged their
rock-chewing machines into the Continental Divide west of Denver.
The work began in 1968, and the first bore was ready for
automobiles in 1973. It was named after Dwight Eisenhower, the name
that sticks. A second tunnel for east-bound travelers, completed in
1978, was anointed Johnson, to honor a former governor and U.S.
senator called Big Ed, but in the public mind of Colorado, the two
are just one: The Tunnel.
I’ve driven through The
Tunnel hundreds of times, sometimes guilty about the hydrocarbons
I’m unleashing into the environment, but mostly exuberant
with the freedom. My favorite time is in late spring, when the snow
hangs on the mountains in raggedy patches, like last winter’s
hide on a mountain goat.
Beyond are the ski resorts of
Summit County — with more skiing than in all of Utah, the
locals like to point out — and then, farther on, Vail. Beyond
are the smelly, steamy baths of Glenwood Springs, after which the
landscape turns dun as the ribbons of asphalt descend into the
apple orchards around Grand Junction and then the maroon rocks of
Utah. From Denver to the slickrock canyons of Moab, all in a long
Of course, the interstates have
changed more than just the way we spend our weekends. During
winters in my childhood, we ate canned goods night after night.
Much of this my mother had canned, slaving over a hot stove in the
waning days of August. Now, shopping at my local grocery in
January, I can get fresh broccoli, cut only a day or two before in
the Imperial Valley, as well as fresh oranges, and even cantaloupes
and bananas. For this, I can thank interstate highways and the
packs of trucks that I sometimes growl at.
have also redefined our Main Streets. In the Fort Morgan of my
youth, with its Coast to Coast, Duckwalls, JC Penney’s and so
forth, all action centered on Main, as farm folks knocked off their
chores on Saturday afternoons to come into town. By the 1990s,
though, that street had quieted. Kids no longer dragged Main
Street. Whatever bustle existed had been transferred to stores
adjacent to I-76 or to shopping complexes in towns 50 to 75 miles
away — Sterling, Greeley and Denver. My old hometown had
nearly doubled in population, but it seemed smaller. These bigger,
broader highways had sapped it of vitality.
highways also have environmental costs. They are noisy. They foul
the air, pollute the streams, and scar the landscape. And they
create barriers for wildlife. At the Eisenhower Tunnel, there are
three lanes of traffic on each side of a Jersey barrier —
those concrete dividers laid end-to-end — and on average one
car or truck passes by every three seconds. This isolates wildlife
populations, creating among our vast public lands something that
conservation biologists call the island biogeography; as they
isolate habitat into into ever smaller reservoirs, our highways
discourage genetic and biological diversity. Think of the movie
Deliverance, and you’ve an idea of what I’m talking
Yet knowing all of this, as summer draws near, I
get itchy to hit the road. An airplane, even with a window seat, is
never better than second best. To see the West, I want to purr down
an interstate, in the front seat, please.
I’m hungry to see the green prairie of Wyoming as it sweeps
up toward the Bighorn Mountains at Buffalo. Down to the south on
that same road, I-25, I am curious to see for myself the New Mexico
town that long ago took a bribe and changed its name to Truth or
Consequences. I want to eat some Basque food in Elko, Nev., cruise
past potato fields in Idaho, imagine a January wind in Shelby,
Mont. I want to drop into Green River, Utah, on a hot, August
evening, and hear the cantaloupes grow.
Most of all, I
want to go someplace I don’t know about yet. That’s
what calls me. My gas-pedal foot is twitching.