Love and loathing on the interstate highways

  • Interstate 70 pushes across the San Rafael Swell in Utah

  • Allen Best


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 of paradise.

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.

Westerners were 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 peripatetic souls.

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 expense.

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 Utah.

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.

The highwaymen (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 afternoon.

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.

These highways 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.

Interstate 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 about.

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.

Even now, 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.

Allen Best writes from Colorado, where he has lived within a mile of I-70 for 18 years.

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